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When the Personal Becomes Political: What Can the Gary Hart Scandal Teach Us About 2018?

‘The Front Runner,’ a new Jason Reitman movie cowritten with Matt Bai and Jay Carson, suggests that the 1987 Gary Hart presidential campaign brought personal lives to the forefront of American democracy—and changed national politics as we know it. Did one sex scandal really ruin America?

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“I tremble for my country when I think that we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.” This is Gary Hart in 1987, and also Hugh Jackman as Hart at the end of The Front Runner, a new film dissecting an old political scandal. The scene is one of many in the movie designed to question what might have been in American politics. Hart’s warning about the future of politics came during a speech that the real-life former Colorado senator gave as he dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidential race, stymied by cataclysmically bad polling numbers after newspapers reported about Hart’s perceived infidelity. Hart’s career curdled; the film implies that a dignity to the political process withered along with it.

“There is a direct line from the moment we’re depicting in the film and the moment we’re living in now,” Matt Bai, one of the film’s screenwriters, and the author of a book about Hart, told The Ringer. “That line between politics and entertainment is so confused that it’s possible for a reality television star essentially treating American politics as if it were a reality show.”

The Front Runner takes place over less than a month in the spring of 1987, the time span representing the bulk of Hart’s doomed presidential campaign. Based on Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Jason Reitman’s film — cowritten with Bai and former Hillary Clinton press secretary Jay Carson — reassesses the scandal that Bai describes as “the story that changed all the rules.” The plot is familiar: Hugh Jackman’s Hart, comfortably ahead in the polls for the Democratic nomination, has an opaque personality and thick hair. He nails the political performances required of him, expertly hurling an ax at a routine campaign stop as smitten supporters look on at their flannel-clad leader. He announces his intention to run by corralling a press scrum under the dramatic sandstone outcroppings of Red Rocks, like a picture-perfect progressive forged on the high frontier. But the rosy beginning ends quickly.

The movie retraces real-life events: Rumors of infidelity mar Hart’s reputation; Hart denies allegations of womanizing. The Miami Herald, following a tip that Hart had invited a woman who was not his wife to spend the weekend with him, stakes out his D.C. townhouse. The reporters confront Hart in the alley behind his house after they observe a model named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) in Hart’s company. The paper publishes a story, “Miami woman is linked to Hart; Candidate denies any impropriety.” Major outlets and television stations clamor to cover the story. Scandal ensues. Hart fumes; his wife is sad. (And portrayed by Vera Farmiga.) Five days later, Hart suspends his campaign. (But only after reporters show him photographs of himself with another other woman.) Everyone looks glum.

Reitman’s film feels beamed in from a different era, not because it’s a period piece but because it’s the type of movie that hardly ever gets made anymore, an old-fashioned middlebrow drama. It’d fit right in on HBO; like Game Change or Confirmation, it is a play-by-play of a recent-history political circus. It raises questions about morality and privacy and responsibility, and then doesn’t wholly answer them. That is meant as a compliment; the movie dissects a world that no longer exists, but that world is exhumed with (most) nuance intact. It presents Hart less as a tragic hero than a pathetic one, a man undone by his assumptions of how things ought to be — that is to say, how they were.

The film is particularly interested in how the press’s approach to covering the private lives of politicians was evolving at the time. It shows reporters using new technologies to pioneer on-the-ground broadcasts in scenes where Hart’s wife, Lee, is swamped by satellite-wielding reporters in her Colorado home. It shows a fictional female Washington Post reporter weighing in on why covering Hart’s private life made sense to her, hinting at how the shift in newsrooms to include more women led to conversations about private morality that included a female perspective. “Even though the writing predated the #MeToo moment, I think the story ended up being really relevant,” said Bai, who credited producer Helen Estabrook for helping the all-male writing team with its approach.

The film seeks to capture a flash point in American culture, when politics, the press, and technology underwent a disorienting, speedy change. Its portrait of Gary Hart is that of a man whose weaknesses make him shut the door on a promising career — but inadvertently jump-start a new era of accountability. “Once the door was opened, it became much easier and much more attractive for journalists who, in the past, might have looked the other way, and whose publications might have said, ‘Well, we don’t really go there,’” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan told The Ringer. “It became much easier, more compelling, and maybe even obligatory for them to go there.” In this way, modern investigative work on politicians’ private conduct — from The New Yorker’s reporting on former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s abusive behavior in romantic encounters, to The New York Times reporting on former Pennsylvania representative Patrick Meehan using taxpayer dollars to settle his own sexual harassment case, to Politico reporting on former Texas representative Blake Farenthold using taxpayer dollars to settle his own sexual harassment case — is indebted to the legacy of tenacious reporting on personal integrity that the Miami Herald helped popularize.

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“We’re not laying blame anywhere,” Bai told The Ringer about the film’s re-creation of the Gary Hart scandal. “We’re not here to tell you what to think or blame anybody or divide the world into heroes and villains. We tried to convey a really complex picture of people caught in difficult and unfamiliar circumstances all the way around.” Reitman has also emphasized the intention for the film to tell its story with a straightforward approach: “The movie is a mirror,” he told Deadline. Still, The Front Runner’s narrative choices mold its perspective. Hart’s decision to re-enter the 1988 presidential race, and subsequent trouncing in the polls, don’t make it into the story — possibly because they would drag out his downfall too long, but also because they complicate the idea that the five-day press drubbing did him in. The film depicts a female aide drinking glumly after leaving Donna Rice to deal with a flock of reporters by herself, as if to say, Yes, we the filmmakers are aware that Hart’s abandonment of Rice was messed up. Rice, nonetheless, is portrayed as a naive dilettante. (Farmiga’s Lee Hart, it should be said, is one of the most finely drawn characters.) The Miami Herald team who broke the story are depicted as bumbling and slightly scoop-crazed in the film, although the journalism produced in real life was thorough and thoughtful.

While the film strives for a kind of message agnosticism, Bai’s book does offer a clear thesis, stressing that the way the media treated Hart represented a turning point for the political press, one that collapsed the personal and political to the detriment of politics in general. “Somehow, political and personal lives had collided overnight to create what was, in hindsight, the first modern political scandal, with all the attendant satellite trucks and saturation coverage and hourly turns in the narrative that Kafka himself could not have dreamed up,” Bai wrote in 2014. “The unrelenting assault that Hart and family and their closest advisors had encountered during those five days would become an almost predictable rhythm of political life at the dawn of the twenty-first century and it would spawn an entire industry of experts who knew — or claimed to know — how to navigate it.” Naturally, this thesis is disputed by some of the reporters who covered the Hart scandal. Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald reporter who received the tip about Hart, sees the scandal as an extension of changes that were already taking place. “The Hart story represented more of an evolution of the relationship of the media and politicians than a revolution or a single point of departure,” he told The Ringer. Jim McGee, the longtime Miami Herald investigative reporter brought on to look into the paper’s tip, does not believe that the Hart reporting in and of itself served as a flash point. “The media has changed dramatically in many ways since 1987, and there have been a number of driving factors to that process,” he said. “To suggest that one story and one incident were the primary drivers of those changes is an interesting thought experiment, but is also a little bit implausible.”

Columbia Pictures

What is plausible: Hart really thought he had a private life, an illusion most politicians have abandoned. As both book and film point out, Hart had at least three reasons — FDR, JFK, and LBJ — to believe that the press would not report on his extramarital dalliances. For as long as Hart had been in politics, presidents and presidential candidates had entertained mistresses and flings without worrying about public fallout. Hart’s folly wasn’t that he assumed things would go on as they always had. It was assuming that the chummy arrangement between press and presidency was anything other than a historical anomaly fueled by the fetishization of access and an unsustainable boy’s club ethos. It was a temporary, mutually beneficial armistice, not the natural order of things. For most of the press’s history, private-life stumbles had been fair game. “The publication and dissemination of scandalous information about the rich and powerful has existed almost as long as the written word,” journalist Jeannette Walls wrote in her 2000 book Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show. “Cuneiform tablets from the 15th century BC discuss allegations that a Mesopotamian mayor was committing adultery with a married woman.”

Go back a bit further in American presidential history and the oddity of the arrangement becomes obvious. Thomas Jefferson’s rape of his slave Sally Hemings got the tabloid treatment in 1802. Newspaper cartoonists mocked Grover Cleveland for having a child out of wedlock. “The sex-related controversies that hit the newspapers and Web sites today are surely unprecedented in sheer number and in the level of intimate detail routinely disclosed. But the move toward greater exposure hasn’t been a straight-line march,” historian David Greenberg wrote in a 2011 Atlantic piece on the long history of married politicians in sex scandals. Greenberg argued that it wasn’t that the press had always guided itself by a set of principles invoking privacy, but rather that politicians became canny enough over time to cozy up to the right members of the press in order to inoculate themselves from public critique for their sex scandals.

By the time Hart was campaigning, this arrangement was already seriously frayed. In The Front Runner, Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s (Alfred Molina) openness to pursuing the story is portrayed as a notable shift in his approach to putting presidential types’ private lives into newspapers. “It is now accepted history that [John F.] Kennedy jumped casually from bed to bed with a wide variety of women,” Bradlee, a close friend of Kennedy’s, wrote in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life. “It was not accepted history then — during the five years that I knew him.” In the years between Bradlee and Kennedy’s friendship and Bradlee’s pursuit of the Hart story, the look-the-other-way ethos had gone out of vogue. Fiedler said this shift began in the late 1960s. “The relationship between the political press and politicians really began to change after the 1968 Democratic convention,” he said. Fiedler noted that dissatisfaction with how Hubert Humphrey was selected as the Democratic nominee ended up spurring the modernization of political primaries, minimizing the influence of party bosses on who became the candidate in favor, while placing new importance on the work of journalists who covered these races. “What became really important was a candidate’s ability to create a personal narrative,” Fiedler said. “The press was gradually being pulled into taking over the role that the old party bosses had previously held. We would be the umpires. We would be the ones expected to go out and vet the candidates, and then our vetting would be presented to the voters.”

Additionally, Watergate had a galvanizing effect on newsrooms, as it proved, in spectacular fashion, how much could be gained and changed from adversarial reporting on how politicians conducted themselves rather than focusing on policy alone. “I went to journalism school during Watergate, and so did virtually every active investigative reporter in the 1980s and ’90s,” McGee said.

“It marked the start of an era when reporters would vie endlessly to re-create the drama and glory of the industry’s most mythologized moment,” Bai wrote, “no matter how petty or insignificant the excuse.”

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Looking at political writing from Hart’s time, the warning signs that his behavior would no longer be overlooked are abundant. Suzannah Lessard, writing for the Washington Monthly in 1979, laid out a compelling argument for reporting on the sex lives of prominent politicians — in this case, Ted Kennedy — nearly a decade before Hart’s folly. “If a person who behaved this way were a banker, or a musician, or a building contractor, one would merely wonder about the causes, perhaps feel sorry for him, and, if there were other good things about him, try to overlook the aberration and appreciate the rest,” she wrote. “But when the strong possibility arises that such a man might become president, then this trait suddenly becomes an important, unavoidable aspect of one’s estimation of him. It is not a reason to reject him out-of-hand. … But, it seems to me, one must take it into account.”

While Lessard articulated a rationale for looking at politicians’ private lives that has proved to be enormously prescient, she has stressed that the way that her essay came to be published is evidence of how difficult it was to take that sort of stance at the time. Speaking to The Ringer, she noted that she had originally been commissioned to write the essay for The New Republic. “Marty Peretz, who was the publisher of The New Republic, was friends with the Kennedys, and he killed the piece,” she said. “Nobody would publish it.” According to Lessard, it ended up published at all only because both she and Michael Kinsley, her editor at The New Republic (who resigned in protest when Peretz killed the piece) had formerly worked at the Washington Monthly and had close ties there. In researching the story, Lessard realized just how outré her stance was at the time. “I called all the leading feminists of the day. They all said it was a feminist issue, but nobody would go on the record. At that time, it just put you in with the Bible Belt to do so. It was a way to reveal yourself as prudish, unsophisticated, uncosmopolitan, and just really, really uncool,” she said. “In my time in Washington, when I’d go on a campaign trip, there’d be no other women on the campaign trip. They just weren’t. So to be a lone woman and on top of this taking this uncool position, it was a way of isolating yourself.” The fact that reporters had decided to report on Gary Hart’s private life, she said, demonstrated that a culture shift had occurred in the media. “It shows that something big happened between 1979 and the Gary Hart thing,” she said.

The Hart scandal’s timing mattered not only because of changing opinions about what the press should cover, but also because it took place during a period when how the press operated was undergoing a dramatic upheaval. The satellites used to report from the scene of the Harts’ house were just a small part of a burgeoning broadcasting shift. “Until the late 1970s, the only way a network could ‘go live’ from the scene of breaking news was to get the telephone company to install expensive audio and video lines — a process that took weeks to complete,” Bai wrote. In 1987, cable news, and the 24-hour news cycle it would usher in, was in its infancy; CNN was only a few years old. The industry would hit puberty at a remarkable clip. Bai described how shocked Hart campaign aide Joe Trippi was to discover reporters stationed outside Hart’s Colorado home. “It was an omen of things to come,” Bai wrote. The success of news tabloid programs like Current Affairs, Hard Copy, and Inside Edition paved the way for the launch of Fox News and MSNBC in the mid-1990s, flooding television with programs that needed fodder for their pundits. The Hart scandal was an early example of how voracious the public appetite for coverage of political scandals could be.

All the Truth Is Out feels like it is from a different era, because it is. “Everything has changed so much since 2014. It’s like we live in a different world now,” Sullivan said. In 2014, candidate Trump had not yet blustered into the presidency despite video evidence of him bragging about sexual assault. “Me Too” was a niche rallying cry for feminist activists. “Beginning with Watergate and culminating in Gary Hart’s unraveling, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted, from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods,” Bai wrote. His book was written and published before the 2016 election, so he does not mention the current president, but he does view Trump as a result in the shift in culture he describes. Bai also said that this culture of the celebrity politician has insulated Trump from feeling the effects of journalism exposing private conduct that would create scandals for other political figures. “My view has always been that Trump’s personal conduct matters less to people because he’s effectively judged more as an entertainer than a politician,” Bai told The Ringer. “He’s effectively seen as a celebrity. Celebrities live by different rules than traditional politicians do. That, again, is a symptom of a way that our politics and our entertainment have become almost indistinguishable.”

Speaking today on how the Trump election dovetails with the idea that political reporting has changed, Bai stressed that he does not find the shift he describes in the book to be the reason for the rise of Trump. “I’m not saying that the Miami Herald and The Washington Post made certain decisions and suddenly our politics and our entertainment were indistinguishable, or that Gary Hart made a dumb decision and thanks to him we now have celebrity-driven politics,” Bai said. “What we’re saying is that there was this moment in the culture where a lot of forces were coming together, and Hart walked into it.”

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It wasn’t long after the Hart scandal that a politician proved himself capable of worming himself around a sex-related controversy of his own making. Bill Clinton’s two-term presidency was a success by many measures, even though it produced the single most infamous political sex scandal of American history. Clinton’s conduct toward women resulted in a series of controversies, culminating in his impeachment after he lied about abusing his power to enter into an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “I kept hearing, during my research, that Gary Hart was the beginning,” says Leon Neyfakh, host of Slate’s Slow Burn podcast, which focuses on the Clinton sex scandal for its second season. “That [Clinton] should have known in a post–Gary Hart world that it was not going to fly, that people were going to be interested and feel like it was a legitimate thing to cover.” The “it” in question is Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky, although Neyfakh pointed out that it was far from the only imbroglio Clinton created through his behavior with women. Before independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation, there was still some hemming and hawing over how to cover reports of infidelity; Neyfakh cited “Troopergate,” in which several Arkansas state troopers claimed that they had helped Clinton cover up extramarital affairs while he was governor. The first story on the matter was published in the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, followed one day later by a lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Times. “If you read the L.A. Times story, you’ll see there’s a lot of hand-wringing toward the top of the piece about what legitimizes the publication of these allegations,” Neyfakh said. “It’s an interesting moment in the media’s relationship to these kinds of stories.”

If Clinton did learn from Gary Hart, he likely saw Hart’s retreat as an example of how not to handle a sex scandal, and in doing so, provided a playbook for future adulterers-in-chief. “I would say one of the unfortunate lessons from the Clinton episode that some other politicians have internalized is that denial works, and in Clinton’s case, lying works,” longtime White House beat reporter Peter Baker told Politico in 2018. “For seven to eight months, he basically says to the American people, ‘No, I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,’ and then he finally admits it in the grand jury in August 1998. But by that point, the public was tired and sick of it, and they’d already made up their own minds about it, and it wasn’t as shocking. Had the admission come from the very beginning, it might have shocked the public enough to force him to resign.”

Lewinsky has pinpointed the Clinton scandal as another turning point in political coverage. “Both clinically and observationally, something fundamental changed in our society in 1998, and it is changing again as we enter the second year of the Trump presidency in a post-Cosby-Ailes-O’Reilly-Weinstein-Spacey-Whoever-Is-Next world,” she wrote in a March Vanity Fair piece. “With the introduction of the World Wide Web (in 1992–93) and two new cable news networks (Fox News and MSNBC in 1996), the lines began to blur between fact and opinion, news and gossip, private lives and public shaming.”

This collapsing and blurring of media roles meant that solid journalism sometimes emerged from unlikely outlets. In 2007, the National Enquirer, often dismissed as an unreliable rumor rag, broke the story of presidential candidate John Edwards’s extramarital affair with his campaign’s videographer. The story was undoubtedly salacious; Edwards had betrayed his publicly adored wife, Elizabeth Edwards, while she was terminally ill; what’s more, his sexual partner Rielle Hunter had given birth to Edwards’s child, whom Edwards did not acknowledge as his own. Aside from being a gossip supernova, the story showcased substantial hypocrisy in a politician striving toward the highest office in the nation. The National Enquirer’s Edwards scandal reporting did not come with the sober self-accounting that accompanied the Miami Herald’s Hart scandal reporting; any anxiety about breaking this type of story was absent. Bai had been covering the Edwards campaign when the story broke, but he had not been aware of the affair. “What the National Enquirer did in that case was more relevant than my 10,000 words on John Edwards’s poverty program, because I think that was a disqualifying situation, his personal life,” Bai told The Ringer. The National Enquirer earned Pulitzer consideration for its work.

Perhaps the most instructive example of how press coverage of a politician’s personal foibles can make a major contribution to society took place during the career of former Democratic representative Anthony Weiner. The New York liberal was a rising political star until he accidentally tweeted a sexually suggestive photograph of himself. After TMZ published additional sexually suggestive photos it had obtained of Weiner, he resigned from the House. He attempted a comeback by running for mayor of New York City in 2013. His political resurrection failed after gossip website The Dirty published a new account of Weiner sending sexual text messages. Later, British tabloid The Daily Mail published a report noting that one of Weiner’s sexual text message recipients was underage; the report prompted an FBI investigation. (It is notable that all of the stories that broke news about his behavior came from news sources that were often looked down upon for peddling dirt.) What started out as a scandal about sexting turned into a scandal about habitually lying and finally into a scandal about criminal behavior. The more reporters looked into Weiner’s behavior, the more obvious it became that he was completely unfit for public office. Weiner is currently in prison.

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The rules for who can survive a political sex scandal and cannot are still fuzzy in 2018. While Weiner’s story is a modern example of how journalists following up on a scandal can bring about the end of a political career, the election of Donald Trump despite the publication of a tape of the candidate bragging about sexual assault demonstrated that it is possible to survive scandals that once might have been immediately disqualifying. Instead of signaling the inevitability of post-controversy political implosion, Hart’s downfall provided an instructive cautionary tale for how not to respond after getting caught. It is fairly clear at this point that when the press looks into accusations of impropriety in politicians’ personal lives, the results tend to be deeply germane to voters.

Though not, perhaps, in the way that journalists might expect. In his book, Bai argued that the Miami Herald reporters used a quote Hart gave to The New York Times Magazine — “follow me around” — to justify their stakeout. (This has been disputed, fervently, by the reporters. “It would have been an easy thing for us to at least correct him on,” McGee told The Ringer; both he and former Miami Herald editor Jim Savage said the book contained serious factual errors. Bai told The Ringer he stands by his reporting.) That New York Times Magazine profile is memorable for another reason, though. It opens with Hart pleading to “keep your mind open to the possibility that I’m not weird.” There is considerable evidence that Hart wasn’t too much of a horndog to be a successful politician — but he was too much of a weirdo.

Bai wrote at length about Hart’s reputation for strangeness, but did not connect it with the shipwreck of his campaign in the same way he drew a direct line between changing press mores and Hart’s downfall. When the Miami Herald published a postmortem explaining its reasoning behind the stakeout on Hart, it noted that a reader poll revealed that its own audience thought “too much fuss” was being made over Hart, by a 2-to-1 margin. “Part of the story of Hart’s downfall after the Miami Herald suggested he had a liaison with Rice is that prominent Democrats failed to rally around him, and seemed more than happy to move to a more reliable candidate,” Bloomberg writer Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2014, discussing Bai’s book in an op-ed titled “Gary Hart Was Never Going to Be President.” Hart’s biggest mistake may not have been his perceived sexual profligacy, but rather his huffy, arrogant response to the interest in it; had he molded himself into the kind of polished celebrity-politician who could pivot charmingly away from his weaknesses, he may have held onto his career.

In 2018, a politician’s capacity to navigate scandal depends less on how damaging the investigative stories about them are than on how they can reframe narratives in their favor, whether they have the stomach for spin, and whether they can look at denying wrongdoing as an endurance test instead of a serious moment of moral reckoning. While Hart never admitted to an improper relationship with Donna Rice, he couldn’t fully commit to a polished denial routine. In this regard, Hart is less a front-runner and more a relic from a time when an exposé on misconduct carried more weight with the American public. The Front Runner mourns lost idealism. At its gauziest, it hints that Gary Hart might have molded the country into something better, but the melancholy for his lost career in the film and book feels beside the point. The point is that Hart could never have been president. He was a man living in the wrong moment.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the National Enquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on John Edwards; it was considered for the prize, but did not win.

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