What 'The Front Runner' And Gary Hart Tell Us About Political Theater Today Matt Bai and Jay Carson wrote the screenplay of a new drama about the swift 1987 downfall of the Democratic presidential candidate — an event Bai says has a "direct throughline" to President Trump.
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What 'The Front Runner' And Gary Hart Tell Us About Political Theater Today

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What 'The Front Runner' And Gary Hart Tell Us About Political Theater Today

What 'The Front Runner' And Gary Hart Tell Us About Political Theater Today

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

By now there's a playbook for how to survive a political sex scandal.

JAY CARSON: In a campaign when something like this happens, you apologize, I say with air quotes because you're not - you're sorry that you got caught. You're not really sorry.

CORNISH: That's Jay Carson. He's a former Democratic political consultant. He's worked on three presidential campaigns.

CARSON: You talk to your family into standing - your family who you have hurt so personally and so publicly you force to go out and handle this publicly, to stand by you publicly to help you out, to help you get to your end goal, which is to get that higher office, to become that governor, to become that president. As we've progressed in politics, you've gotten to a place where you pay people off. You have your attorney try to silence people. You - big, fat checks show up in places. I mean, hell, there's a whole FBI investigation going on along these lines. You basically do whatever it takes to get through the scandal.

MATT BAI: And you hire Jay 'cause he can get that done.

CORNISH: The other voice there is political writer Matt Bai. He's a journalist well-versed in what happens when a politician doesn't know the playbook, doesn't care about it and watches his political fortunes die as a result. Bai wrote the book and, along with Jay Carson, the screenplay for "The Front Runner." It's a new film based on the story of Gary Hart.

Hart, a Colorado senator, ran for president in 1987 and was undone in the weeks after the Miami Herald sent reporters to stake out his Washington townhouse to confirm allegations of an extramarital affair. The new movie unpacks how and why a political press that once turned a blind eye to such stories came down on Hart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FRONT RUNNER")

STEVE ZISSIS: (As Tom Fiedler) Senator, did you have sex with that woman?

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Gary Hart) You can't be serious. There's no need for that.

ZISSIS: (As Tom Fiedler) Don't you think you owe it to us to be forthcoming?

JACKMAN: (As Gary Hart) Owe you?

ZISSIS: (As Tom Fiedler) You're running for president.

JACKMAN: (As Gary Hart) I'm aware of that, Tom. It's in the papers.

ZISSIS: (As Tom Fiedler) Well, you have a responsibility.

JACKMAN: (As Gary Hart) I know full well what my responsibilities are. Do you know yours?

CORNISH: Back in 1987 when the real Gary Hart eventually withdrew from the race, he unleashed on the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY HART: We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders that 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 peaking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roofs 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.

CORNISH: To Hart, Americans had better do something about this, or...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HART: We're all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say, I tremble for my country when I think we may in fact get the kind of leaders we deserve.

BAI: To me, when I saw - when I heard that and saw that speech, I knew I wanted to write a book because I thought it was one of the most important speeches ever forgotten.

CORNISH: Earlier this week, I sat down with Matt Bai and Jay Carson at NPR's Studio One in front of a live audience. I wanted to understand why this story still matters and 2018. Here's Matt Bai.

BAI: There's a direct through line between what occurred in that moment in 1987 that we show here - the collision of entertainment and politics - and the process we created afterward that attracts entertainers and performers. When you create a process of politics that is more like entertainment, you will draw entertainers into your politics. And that's what it will become, and that's where we are.

CORNISH: Can I ask about President Trump in this moment 'cause he seems to sit at that nexus in a way between kind of, like...

BAI: Yes, he does.

CORNISH: ...A Hollywood figure and now a political figure. Why is he immune to scandal?

BAI: This is really - this is an excellent question, Audie, and it's a - I mean, this is the whole crux of the thing - right? - is...

CARSON: It really is.

BAI: Your political process that you create doesn't just affect your campaigns. The process determines who you get and, therefore, how you're governed. The process creates the kind of leaders you get. This was the point Hart was making in '87. We created a process that treats politicians like entertainers and celebrities, and we have attracted celebrities and entertainers and performers to that process.

That means two things I think that answers your question. One, be shameless. What we have learned is that people who are primarily concerned with the entertainment who will just lie or do anything to evade or disclose anything about themselves or their family or who enjoy the publicity no matter what the publicity says about them - if you just plow forward and endure, you can get by 'cause there's another story 10 minutes later, and that's - those are the people we consider politically skilled, right?

The other part of it is I just don't think fundamentally the public judges President Trump as a politician. I think he is judged as an entertainer, and those are different things. Entertainers reinvent themselves all the time. They say one thing one day and one thing the next. They're not flip-floppers. They're just reinventing. They get - they have celebrity divorces more often than they have celebrity marriages, right? They...

CORNISH: But this is also...

BAI: This is a...

CORNISH: ...A process that produced Barack Obama, and...

BAI: You know...

CORNISH: These are very different politicians.

BAI: Well, yes, but Obama is a special case because he's probably the most like Hart in terms of personality of politicians I've known. There are a lot of similarities between them. But this no-drama Obama thing that he's separate from the entertainment culture is completely false.

Barack Obama's candidacy would not have been viable in an era where substance and resume were the precursors to being able to run. He was a story. He ran as the central character in a narrative about America, about America overcoming the past, turning the page. He was a classic movie hero and very much more - much more of a celebrity when he ran than he was a politician. He'd only been a politician for several years. It was an entirely entertainment age kind of candidacy. He happened to be I think temperamentally and intellectually suited for the job, but that was...

CORNISH: Incidental to this.

BAI: That was happenstance, yeah.

CORNISH: And in the case of Trump, why is one of them just completely - every little lesson we've talked about Gary Hart had to learn...

CARSON: We...

CORNISH: ...Doesn't apply.

CARSON: We elect people based on their performative ability, not their ability to do the job. Every now and then, we incidentally elect a performer - Bill Clinton, Barack Obama - who have actually - who've thought about how to do the job and have the intellectual capacity to do it and show up and do a pretty good job as president, both of them. More often than not, I think we're going to because that's not number one on our list. More often than not, we're going to end up with dunces who've never thought about it and are going to do, you know, a pretty horrible job of being the president because that's not what we prioritize in our election process.

BAI: And by the way, Audie, I mean, you know, look; I think there are things that - the reason this story matters, the reason this movie matters and resonates is because there are things that happened in the crucible of 1987 that reverberate in our politics and create a process that takes us to today. We're not at the end of that continuum. I don't believe as a political writer, as an observer of the culture that Donald Trump is the end of entertainers in our politics. We will never have another fully traditional field of presidential candidates.

You watch 2020 on the Democratic Party. We will never have a field of insiders. We will never be free of - there are corporate titans and athletes and rock stars and entertainers who are looking at this process right now and saying, I can do what Donald Trump did. And we are nowhere near the end result of what began in that moment when the worlds of politics and entertainment, you know, collided and became inextricably linked.

CORNISH: Author and political writer Matt Bai, thank you so much.

BAI: Thank you, Audie. I appreciate it.

CORNISH: And Jay Carson, political consultant, thank you so much for being here - screenwriters of "The Front Runner." Thank you, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

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