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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Hart, 'Nightline' Engage In A Good Ol' Back Scratch

September 10, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Gary Hart won't run for President. He's stepped out on his wife, Lee. He won't tell about Donna Rice. So what else is new?

Nothing, including politicians hogging and exploiting TV. And nothing, including knowledge that the symbiotic tie that binds news media and news makers has never been stronger.

Hart's Tuesday night interview with Ted Koppel on ABC-TV's "Nightline" was conclusive evidence that mutual manipulation and back scratching is thriving and throbbing.

"Nightline" used Hart (every other news organization in the hemisphere was surely also clamoring for the same interview) and Hart used "Nightline." It was Jim and Tammy Bakker all over again, with Koppel becoming a human relaunching pad in exchange for an exclusive interview with a scandalized public figure, an interview that would serve the dual purpose of making news--even if it turned out to be not especially newsworthy--and soaring Nielsen ratings.

And soar they did. ABC reported that ratings for the Hart program in the nation's 15 largest cities were the third highest in the program's history, ranking behind only last May's interview with Bakkers and a 1986 segment on the United States bombing of Libya.

The intent and extent of Hart's relaunching is cloudy at this point and remains to be seen, but the Tuesday liftoff was unmistakable.

There was some pretty good TV tap dancing going on. In a way, it recalled the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently gathering the media to announce the date that he would announce his own Democratic candidacy, in effect extracting two media events from one announcment.

How did Hart--the former Democratic Presidential front-runner who withdrew from the race in May after allegations of infidelity and news reports that he spent a night alone with Rice--use "Nightline"? Think about it.

Was it really necessary for him to pick "Nightline" as a stage to announce publicly that he would not actively re-enter the presidential race? Of course not. Strong speculation about his possible resurrection as a candidate was first floated by his former campaign manager, William Dixon. Until then, Hart was considered permanently out of the race.

Hart, who was in Ireland at the time, could have immediately set the record straight, but he chose to make rather coy, ambiguous statements that heightened expectations about a re-emergence.

He could have called a news conference then and quashed the rumors. He could have made a phone call, sent a telegram, hired a skywriter, bought an ad, chosen any number of routes to end the speculation.

Instead, there he was one night on the evening news, in front of the cameras in Ireland, engulfed by reporters, refusing to comment on rumors of his renewed candidacy until returning to Colorado to assess what had "transpired the last few days." What had "transpired"? He sounded as if Democrats were marching in the streets calling for his return.

All that had "transpired," however, was the mysterious and suspicious speculation, which he refused to end, feeding a drum roll of suspense and anticipation that continued to build until he sat down with Koppel Tuesday night.

Ah, yes, Tuesday night.

You can't blame "Nightline" for wanting first crack at Hart, who had not granted any TV interviews since his presidential campaign exploded in a mushroom cloud of rumors about alleged extramarital affairs. Granting him a stage--for whatever use he would make of it--was a fair exchange for a story that would lead evening newscasts and make front-page headlines. News is frequently transacted that way with the media.

"Nightline" doubled its usual length to an hour for the event, and Koppel was good. He was incisive but not shrill, firm but not abusive. And as he promised, after doing his own bit to prolong the suspense and keep viewers in front of the set, he ultimately asked those "two questions."

Did Hart sleep with Rice?

Hart refused to answer, just as Rice was mum about it in her interview with ABC's Barbara Walters (Hart/Rice coverage is becoming ABC's cottage industry). Not that it mattered. There are probably three people in Guam who believe, rightly or wrongly, that Hart didn't sleep with Rice.

He would admit to Koppel only that he had not been "absolutely and totally faithful" to his wife throughout their 29 years of marriage. That, too, surely came as no surprise to anyone, even though Hart's admission has been described as extraordinary for a politician.

Finally, Koppel asked the second of the "two questions." Was Hart back in the race?

"I am out," Hart replied. Which was where he was before the beginning of the speculation that he could have stopped weeks ago. So, in effect, the news was that there was no news. Which, on TV and in newspapers, was subsequently big news.

But wait. Hart agreed with Koppel that he was leaving the door open just a "a crack." A teeny-weeny one, just wide enough for a slippery guy to slide through.

Hart said that he would be making lots of speeches--not as a candidate but as a good American--because being President was not as high a calling as being a patriot.

So that was what this was about, Gary Hart going on "Nightline" to declare his patriotism, unfurling himself like Old Glory. Using TV, the American way.

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