Matt Bai

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Even before binge-viewing and such media gorging became a thing, before it was technologically convenient to watch a season in a sitting, social critic Neil Postman believed we were amusing ourselves to death, though he didn’t live long enough to watch us kick dirt on our graves. The opening of Scott Timberg’s new Salon piece about Postman, “Meet the Man who Predicted Fox News, the Internet, Stephen Colbert and Reality TV“:

“These days, even the kind of educated person who might have once disdained TV and scorned electronic gadgets debates plot turns from Game of Thrones and carries an app-laden iPhone. The few left concerned about the effects of the Internet are dismissed as Luddites or killjoys who are on the wrong side of history. A new kind of consensus has shaped up as Steve Jobs becomes the new John Lennon, Amanda Palmer the new Liz Phair, and Elon Musk’s rebel cool graces magazines covers. Conservatives praise Silicon Valley for its entrepreneurial energy; a Democratic president steers millions of dollars of funding to Amazon.

It seems like a funny era for the work of a cautionary social critic, one often dubious about the wonders of technology – including television — whose most famous book came out three decades ago. But the neoliberal post-industrial world now looks chillingly like the one Neil Postman foresaw in books like Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. And the people asking the important questions about where American society is going are taking a page from him.

Amusing Ourselves didn’t argue that regular TV shows were bad or dangerous. It insisted instead that the medium would reshape every other sphere with which it engaged: By using the methods of entertainment, TV would trivialize what the book jacket calls ‘politics, education, religion, and journalism.’

‘It just blew me away,’ says D.C.-based politics writer Matt Bai, who read the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death while trying to figure out how the press and media became obsessed with superficiality beginning in the ‘80s. ‘So much of what I’d been thinking about was pioneered so many years before,” says Bai – whose recent book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, looks at the 1987 Gary Hart sex scandal that effectively ended the politician’s career. ‘It struck me as incredibly relevant … And the more I reported the book, the more relevant it became.'”

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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Matt Bai penned one of 2014’s best articles, a New York Times Magazine piece about the Gary Hart scandal and what it tells us about modern politics and media. It’s an excerpt from his new book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week That Politics Went Tabloid, which delves far deeper into the subject. He’s doing an AMA at Reddit, and it breaks my heart a little that Ray Liotta currently has 70 times more questions. I understand it, but I don’t like it. Three exchanges follow.

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Question:

Do you think that a candidate’s moral fortitude should play a role in their political success?

Matt Bai:

Yes. I want moral leaders, don’t you? The question is how we measure moral fortitude. Do we measure it by a single unflattering moment, a single gaffe or stupid decision? Or do we measure it in the full context of a life and political career. If a candidate has lied to his wife, but hasn’t lied to his constituents, or ducked tough votes, or been accused of corruption, then isn’t that worth something? Moral people do immoral things. Truthful people tell lies. I think we all want to be judged with some context (when we want to be judged at all), and so should our politicians.

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Question:

I grew up in NH and witnessed many presidential candidates up close over several election cycles. Gary a Hart was easily the most impressive, decades ahead on a whole range of issues. He also gets little credit for the strength of character it took for him to buck the party crowd in Washington that was mired in the past. How do you think the world would be different if Hart had been elected President?

Matt Bai:

He would appreciate hearing that, and you would love my book. Hart himself told me that had he been elected, George W. Bush would never have become governor of Texas, and we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. This haunts him. I can’t say how the world would have been different, but I know Hart had thought an awful lot about governing during a time of economic transformation and after the Cold War, and I think there’s a good chance he would have helped us navigate those changes sooner and better. That’s just my own gut feeling.

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Question:

What institutional source of congressional gridlock do you think has been underreported on?

Matt Bai:

Always willing to look at new ideas, thanks. As for gridlock, I really feel like we don’t talk enough about the primary system and how antiquated it is in an age where fewer people want to join anything local, much less a political party. You have a system where fewer and fewer people — the hardcore ideologues — are making choices for the rest of us about who can be on the ballot, and I don’t think that’s sustainable. What happens in Congress is that the representatives are more worried about that small number of activists than they are about the policy or their broader constituency.

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In an excellent New York Times Magazine article that completely untangles for the first time the players and particulars of the Gary Hart political scandal of 1987, Matt Bai reminds us what was lost for good when a confluence of factors brought down the front-runner for the American Presidency. Hart was an astute observer of his time, aware long before his peers that stateless terrorism and the Information Age were twin challenges that would soon require aggressive management. But his mastery of the moment was laid to waste by indiscretion. The Colorado candidate wasn’t collared only by ego, stupidity and the media’s shifting rules of engagement–when the get became more important than what was gotten, when the political became truly personal–but seemingly by a streak of common jealousy. An excerpt about a key figure who escaped notice at the time:

Dana Weems wasn’t especially hard to find, it turned out. A clothing designer who did some costume work on movies in the early 1990s, she sold funky raincoats and gowns on a website called Raincoatsetc.com, based in Hollywood, Fla. When she answered the phone after a couple of rings, I told her I was writing about Gary Hart and the events of 1987.

“Oh, my God,” she said. There followed a long pause.

“Did you make that call to The Herald?” I asked her. 

“Yeah,” Weems said with a sigh. “That was me.”

She then proceeded to tell me her story, in a way that probably revealed more about her motives than she realized. In 1987, Armandt sold some of Weems’s designs at her bikini boutique under a cabana on Turnberry Isle. Like Rice, Weems had worked as a model, though she told me Rice wasn’t nearly as successful as she was. Rice was an artificial beauty who was “O.K. for commercials, I guess.”

Weems recalled going aboard Monkey Business on the last weekend of March for the same impromptu party at which Hart and his pal Billy Broadhurst, a Louisiana lawyer and lobbyist, met up with Rice, but in her version of events, Hart was hitting on her, not on Rice, and he was soused and pathetic, and she wanted nothing to do with him, but still he followed her around the boat, hopelessly enthralled. . . .

But Donna — she had no standards, Weems told me. Weems figured Donna wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe, sleeping her way into the inner sanctum of the White House, and that’s why she agreed to go on the cruise to Bimini. After that weekend, Donna wouldn’t shut up about Hart or give the pictures a rest. It all made Weems sick to her stomach, especially this idea of Hart’s getting away with it and becoming president. “What an idiot you are!” Weems said, as if talking to Hart through the years. “You’re gonna want to run the country? You moron!”

And so when Weems read Fiedler’s story in The Herald, she decided to call him, while Armandt stood by, listening to every word. “I didn’t realize it was going to turn into this whole firecracker thing,” she told me. It was Armandt’s idea, Weems said, to try to get cash by selling the photos, and that’s why she asked Fiedler if he might pay for them (though she couldn’t actually remember much about that part of the conversation). Weems said she hadn’t talked to either woman — Rice or Armandt — since shortly after the scandal. She lived alone and used a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. She was surprised her secret had lasted until now.

“I’m sorry to ruin his life,” she told me, offhandedly, near the end of our conversation. “I was young. I didn’t know it would be that way.”•

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Remember at last year’s Republican Convention when Texas Congressman Ted Cruz was all but christened as a future President by lazy pundits simply because he was in the GOP and had an Hispanic name? None of these well-paid shoutbots actually stopped to notice that Cruz was a paranoid wackjob un-electable in a national contest even in the sovereign country of Upper Nixonia. 

Mark Warner, former Virginia Governor, was once that guy for the other party. A Southern liberal technocrat made left-leaning politicos salivate before they became aware that shifting demographics were jumbling the electoral map. In 2006, the very talented political reporter Matt Bai wrote a cover story for the New York Times Magazine about Warner as the apparent anti-Hillary. You heard rumors by 2008 about why Warner ultimately passed on a campaign, but who knows why he didn’t run? We should all pause the next time someone is “nominated” because they fit into certain categories. Barack Obama, who most certainly did not fit into any of them, is mentioned almost as an afterthought in Bai’s piece. The opening of the article, which is now largely remembered for the altered colors of the eccentric cover art:

“If you harbor serious thoughts of running for the presidency, the first thing you do — long before you commission any polls or make any ads, years before you charter planes to take you back and forth between Iowa and New Hampshire — is to sit down with guys like Chris Korge. A real-estate developer in Coral Gables, outside Miami, Korge is one of the Democratic Party’s most proficient “bundlers.” That is, in the last two presidential elections, he bundled together more than $7 million in campaign checks for Al Gore and John Kerry from his friends and contacts.

For Korge, the 2008 presidential campaign began a few days after Kerry lost, when, he says, one prospective candidate — he won’t say who — called to enlist his help. Having raised money for both of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, which earned him an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom, Korge already knew he would support Hillary Clinton if she ran; he considers her the most impressive politician he has ever met, including her husband. But that didn’t stop her potential rivals — John EdwardsJoe Biden, Evan Bayh, Wesley Clark — from dropping by, nor did it stop Korge, a guy who rightly prides himself on knowing just about everybody in Democratic politics, from taking the meetings. ‘In the last six months, I’ve pretty much seen or talked with all of them, or they’ve tried to meet with me,’ Korge told me during a conversation in late January.

A few weeks before we spoke, Korge had lunch at the Capital Grille in Miami with Mark Warner, who was then in his final weeks as Virginia’s governor. Though little known nationally, Warner has emerged in recent months as the bright new star in the constellation of would-be candidates, a source of curiosity among Democrats searching for a charismatic outsider to lead the party. Pundits credit Warner’s popularity in Republican-dominated Virginia — his 80 percent approval rating when he left office made him one of the most adored governors in the state’s history — with enabling his Democratic lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, to win the election to succeed him last November. Suddenly, Warner is being mentioned near the top of every list of candidates vying for the nomination in 2008.”

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Will the 2012 Presidential election be an opportunity for the GOP to take back the White House or for centrist members to take back their own party? From Matt Bai’s New York Times Magazine piece,  “Does Anyone Have a Grip on the G.O.P.?“:

“It’s worth pointing out that when Republicans express concern about the anti-government militancy in their midst, it has a ring of serious denial. After all, generations of Republican candidates have now echoed the theme of Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address: ‘In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.’ And a progression of ideological uprisings inside the party — the Reagan revolutionaries, Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork brigades, Newt Gingrich’s band of guerrilla lawmakers and now the Tea Partiers — have only pushed the anti-Washington argument closer to its illogical extreme. Thus could a smiling Michele Bachmann stand on a debate stage last month and declare that no one should pay the federal government a penny of taxes, for anything — a statement that didn’t even draw a follow-up question from the panel of Fox News journalists arrayed before her.

Longtime Republicans have been satisfied enough to have their candidates run down activist government as a campaign tactic, even as they themselves retained a more nuanced view of the federal government’s role (which is why a Republican Congress, working with a Republican president, managed to pass a Medicare prescription-drug bill in 2003). But when you talk to them now, these same Republicans seem positively baffled that anyone could have actually internalized, so literally, all the scorching resentment for government that has come to define the modern conservative campaign.”

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