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Sporting News

Boston Diarist

Summer's almost here, and the Celtics are in the playoffs. Thanks to my friend Barry Kaplovitz, who has season tickets, I'm in the front row at Boston Garden, maybe ten feet behind the backboard. Professional basketball is a beautiful game, full of flowing patterns and joyous jumping. Seeing it this close up one is electrified by the sheer physicality of it. The guards dart and dance; the tall centers loom like Easter Island statues. Kaplovitz is a political and marketing consultant who thinks the Gary Hart story was a press atrocity. Just for fun—his fun, not mine—he introduces me to the other regulars as "Rick Hertzberg, from the Miami Herald." In consequence, I am unmercifully razzed. "So what brings you here? Trying to catch Larry Bird in bed with somebody?" That kind of thing, over and over. Good game, though. The Celtics win.

With the publication of the Gary 'n' Donna vacation snapshots in the National Enquirer, the 1988 presidential "character" story has at last found its natural level. But before the story takes its place on that big front page in the sky, there to join such other all-time greats as the Boston American's Toodles and Honey Fitz Fitzgerald story (1913) and the New York Evening Graphic's Peaches and Daddy Browning story (1926), a couple of final examples of press pathology deserve to be recorded. The first concerns the Washington Post and its lead political reporter, Paul Taylor. It was Taylor of the Post (not some hireling of Rupert Murdoch or Lyndon LaRouche) who achieved a Fawn Hall-like 15 minutes of fame by asking Hart the two key questions, "Do you consider adultery immoral?" and "Have you ever committed adultery?" Taylor has now offered his apologia, in the form of a letter to the editor of the New York Times. The letter is written in the slangy, regular-guy style much prized at the Post ("Let's review the bidding here," "What in heaven's name are these guys talking about?" etc), Taylor's argument is essentially that Hart asked for it, both by fooling around after telling his staff he wouldn't, and by saying, after the Miami Herald scoop, that he'd done nothing "immoral." But there's another explanation for Taylor's line of questioning. Six hours after Taylor popped his questions, the Post, as he boasted in his story the next day, "presented a top campaign aide with documented evidence of a recent liaison between Hart and a Washington woman with whom he has had a long-term relationship." Given that, it looks very much as if Taylor's real reason for asking Hart if he had ever committed adultery was to elicit a denial and thus to establish a "cover-up" rationale for going with the "recent liaison" story the Post was sitting on. This proved unnecessary, in the event, because Hart decided to drop out of the race, in exchange for which the Post agreed not to print the name of the "Washington woman." I'm sure there is a moral distinction between this transaction and simple blackmail, though it escapes me for the moment.

By the way, according to rumor (or "persistent reports," as the Post would say), the "documented evidence" of the "recent liaison" was in fact collected by a private eye hired by a jealous husband, himself a prominent politician. So here we have a new "role" for the press: adjudicating the love triangles of the rich and famous. 

Taylor wrote to the Times because the Times's Anthony Lewis had named him as the questioner, and because Lewis, William Safire, Tom Wicker, Russell Baker, and former executive editor A. M. Rosenthal, in a rare display of op-ed unanimity, had all deplored the Post's and the Miami Herald's handling of the story. (The Times's sixth columnist, Flora Lewis, whose specialty is foreign affairs, merely reported Europe's bafflement that such things were considered serious news.) But in its own coverage, the Times went haywire, too. On Monday, May 5, the day after the Herald's big score, the Times confined itself to a story on page A16 under the discreet headline "PAPER AND HART IN DISPUTE OVER ARTICLE." On Monday, May 6, though, the newspaper of record kicked out the jams. At the top of page one was a glamorous publicity still captioned, "Portrait of Donna Rice purchased from a Miami photographer who asked not to be identified." The story, headlined "AN ACTRESS IN TURMOIL," was not yet six paragraphs old when it hit pay dirt: "Three years ago she posed partially nude for a photograph used to publicize a Miami-area country-western saloon, standing at a bar in jeans and"—here the story jumped, forcing the reader to turn with trembling fingers to page B6, column 5—"a cowboy hat, with a Confederate flag draped across her front." Hubba hubba! At the end of the story was a box headed "HOW PICTURES WERE OBTAINED" that bragged breathlessly that "The New York Times yesterday purchased two pictures, about three years old, of Donna Rice, an actress and model identified as the woman in the controversy embroiling former Senator Gary Hart…The photos were exclusively provided to The Times by a photographer who insisted on anonymity." For some reason the Times printed only one of the pictures, the head shot. The Confederate flag one was omitted. Space considerations, probably. I describe all this because it appeared only in early editions, such as the one we get in Boston. By the time of the late edition, the one most New Yorkers (and most Times staffers) see, the publicity still had been replaced by a news photo and the box had been pulled. Future researchers looking for those exclusive pix will scan the microfilm in vain; only the late edition lives in history. A close shave. I mean, I'm all for glasnost, but could it be that de-Rosenthalization has gone too far? 

On Memorial Day, on a diamond hard by the trolley tracks in Brookline, a pickup team consisting of five fortyish pencil pushers (TNR house liberal Robert Kuttner, Boston public TV newsie Christopher Lydon, Harvard Business Review cum Dissent editor Bernard Avishai, American history free agent Alan Brinkley, and your Diarist) takes on a pickup team consisting of five junior high and high school boys plus one first-year medical student (good field, no hit). Sandlot Softball under the open sky: the kind of thing that can happen only in America. Or only in America, Japan, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, or Cuba. With three home runs and ten RBI's, Kuttner powers the A.K.s to a 27-25 victory. But after a disputed play, we are astounded by a jeer from one of the kids: "Ahhh, yer muthah writes for the Miami Herald!" 

Hendrik Hertzberg is a senior editor and staff writer at The New Yorker. He was the editor of The New Repubic from 1981-1985, and again, from 1988-1991.