Fall from Grace

Seven days in May end with a front runner's implosion

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The seven dizzying days that began with Hart confronting the Miami reporters behind his town house and ended with his Friday surrender produced a + torrent of titillating stories. Rice, who met with reporters in her lawyer's office in Miami, insisted that she and the former Senator were "just pals" and volunteered that she was "more attracted to younger men." Lee Hart, who played the role of long-suffering political wife with delicacy and dignity, tried to defuse the damage by saying about her husband's conduct: "If it doesn't bother me, I don't think it ought to bother anyone else."

When Hart tried to confront the escalating crisis at a Wednesday press conference in New Hampshire, he winced visibly as reporters asked blunt questions about whether he had ever committed adultery. At one point Hart responded, "I don't have to answer that." Afterward, in the car heading toward a political dinner, Hart mused that maybe he should have said, "Adultery is not a crime. It's a sin. And that is between me and Lee, and me and God." Lee Hart added supportively, "That's exactly what I would have said."

The eagerness with which the nation embraced the scandal is simultaneously understandable and troubling. The quest for keyhole glimpses of presidential candidates can be seen as merely the final step in a celebrity process that reduces political discourse to the level of Entertainment Tonight. As the line between movie stars and political figures has become blurred, Americans now demand the same intimate knowledge about their leaders that once was reserved for the romantic entanglements of Clark Gable or Elizabeth Taylor. Rather than wrestling with the complexities of arms control and a troubled economy, the public tends to look for personalities they can trust, whose judgment and integrity make them feel comfortable.

Increasingly, the press has come to take on the role of moral custodian of the political process. "Candidates used to be picked in smoke-filled rooms by their peers, who knew everything about their character," explains Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. But this trial by cigar smoke died with the reforms of the 1960s, which exalted presidential primaries at the expense of party leaders. In this void, political reporters, with some justice, may come to see themselves as the voters' last line of defense between canned television images and the White House.

In his powerful and emotional valedictory, Hart charged that the press has taken this warts-and-all mandate too far. "We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders," he said, reading from notes he had scribbled in the predawn hours. It "reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted, that has reporters in bushes, false and inaccurate stories printed, photographers peeking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roof, and my very strong wife close to tears because she can't even get in her own house at night without being harassed. And then after all that, ponderous pundits wonder in mock seriousness why some of the best people in this country choose not to run for high office."

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