I was surprised that the movie, “The Front Runner,” about Gary Hart and the explosive affair that destroyed his 1988 presidential bid, wasn’t doing better at the box office.
But maybe that says something about my age — this is history I remember — and about the cavalier attitude Americans have today about politicians and extra-marital affairs — as evidenced by our current president.
What fascinates me about the Hart affair, in which the Miami Herald revealed that Hart was carrying on with a young woman not his wife on a pleasure boat appropriately named “Monkey Business,” was the role that journalism played. The Herald staked out Hart’s home, which doesn’t seem unusual now, but was a tough decision for a paper to make in those days.
There was a line between privacy for public figures and the public’s need-to-know. The press had a tacit agreement with Franklin Roosevelt not to picture him using crutches or a wheel chair, and many Americans didn’t realize he’d been handicapped by polio. Worse, it was common knowledge among journalists that John F. Kennedy used women in almost pathological fashion, yet in the media the Kennedys exemplified a faithful Catholic family.
So, the Herald strenuously debated whether to reveal the Hart affair. Hart might have made a great president despite his infidelity. But the Herald made the right decision in letting the public decide.
There is a quote I love from the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin: “Faith has need of the whole truth.” That applies to our own lives, facing our own demons and denials, but it also applies to public life, and now more than ever, life in the church.
During the past couple of months, since the jarring report of the Pennsylvania grand jury concerning child sexual abuse and its cover-up in Pennsylvania dioceses, we’ve faced a steady stream of sickening news. For those of us with long experience in Alaska, the recent report revealing those Jesuits with credible reports of abuse released last month by the Western Province of the Society of Jesus was in some cases jaw dropping, and deeply sad.
In the city where I now live, the archdiocese released a similar list. The attorney general of Nebraska asked all three dioceses here for a full report, so there’s more to come. To long-time local Catholics, some of the revelations were a slap in the face.
I was thrilled when Time magazine picked “The Guardians” — journalists — as their “Person of the Year.” Particularly, Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post reporter who was covering human rights and abuse in his native Saudi Arabia. For his pursuit of the truth, Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered in a Saudi embassy in Turkey.
Watergate inspired a generation of journalists. “All the President’s Men” chronicled Bernstein and Woodward’s pursuit of the truth. Without them, would Nixon’s misdeeds have ever come out? Without the Boston Globe, would sexual abuse within the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston have been revealed?
It’s certainly appropriate to criticize journalism. There’s biased news, there’s the insufferable talking heads of cable news, a tendency to exploit the sensational — but there’s credible reporting going on worldwide every day, and journalists sometimes risk their lives to do it. We need to honor that. Journalists are a bulwark of freedom, not the enemy of the people.
Powerful institutions have a tendency to hide the truth. This isn’t new, and it isn’t just confined to the White House or our beloved church. For myriad reasons, many in power sometimes fear transparency.
But faith has need of the whole truth.