The sex scandal that changed American politics

Jason Reitman’s new film charts the end of Gary Hart’s White House dreams

The official trailer for The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart. Video: Sony Pictures

 

In the spring of 1987 Gary Hart was the hands-down front-runner to be the Democratic Party’s nominee in following year’s US presidential campaign. The former senator had a double-digit lead over other Democrats and, in the event of a general election, a 13-point lead against the incoming Republican nominee, Vice-President George HW Bush, who faced the additional hurdle that, since the FDR-Truman era, neither party had won three presidential elections in a row.

Hart’s advantage was flipped when reporters from the Miami Herald, acting on an anonymous tip, staked out his Capitol Hill town house and found that Hart, a married man, was with a young former model named Donna Rice.

The paper published the story under the headline, “Miami woman is linked to Hart; Candidate denies any impropriety.” Other media outlets followed. Hart stubbornly denied any wrongdoing and insisted that the press had no business investigating his private life. Rice went on record to deny that there were “sexual relations”. Five days later, Hart suspended his campaign.

The Front Runner: Donna Rice and Gary Hart, whose relationship led to the end of Hart’s presidential campaign
The Front Runner: Donna Rice and Gary Hart, whose relationship led to the end of Hart’s presidential campaign

The incident and its fascinating fallout were explored in Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid , which has now been adapted for the big screen as The Front Runner. The film, which stars Hugh Jackman as the ill-fated presidential hopeful, was written by Bai, the former Clinton staffer Jay Carson, and the film’s director, Jason Reitman.

“I’d tell people I was making a Gary Hart movie and they’d laugh,” says Reitman. “It was interesting to me how they remembered or misremembered the story. Us humans love storytelling and as a story this was kind of perfect. You had a politician and a beautiful young woman on a boat in Miami called Monkey Business. There are reporters hanging around an alleyway behind his house in the middle of the night. People remember Gary Hart challenging reporters to follow him around. They remember the photograph of her sitting on his lap as being his downfall. But that photo didn’t emerge until months later.”

The folk-tale version holds that Hart, in a moment of delicious hubris, said “Follow me around, I don’t care,” to EJ Dionne of the New York Times magazine. The comment wasn’t published until after the Miami Herald’s stake-out but his womanising was already a topic of discussion. Hart and his wife, Lee, had separated twice by the early 1980s.

“It was well known around Washington, or at least well accepted, that Hart liked women, and that not all the women he liked were his wife,” as Bai puts it.

Writing in Vanity Fair in 1987, Gail Sheehy records the start of a beautiful friendship between Hart and his fellow Lothario Warren Beatty on the campaign trail for George McGovern: “Gary copied Warren’s seductive body language and eventually metamorphosed into the kind of character Beatty played in Shampoo: a philanderer hiding from his own promiscuity.”

“It’s a hard thing to go back and to think about this story years later from where we’ve gotten,” says Reitman. “But this is the moment when a private life is no longer private if you’re in the public eye. That was already the case for celebrities but this is the moment in which the country shifted and said: no, we need to know this about our politicians, this is relevant. Gary Hart just did not see this coming. I think he was genuinely confounded by how much people wanted to know about his personal life. This is someone who was prescient enough to say things like “America’s addiction to oil will take us into the Middle East, where we will be embattled by Islamic terrorism” in the mid-1980s, yet he didn’t realise what was happening around him.”

The Front Runner: Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart, the American politician
The Front Runner: Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart, the American politician

As a 41-year-old, Reitman, the director of Juno and the son of film-maker Ivan Reitman, can remember more about the sets of his father’s late-1980s movies, Twins and Ghostbusters II, than he can about the Hart affair. (He has youthful credits on both those projects.) Reitman has touched down on politics before with the tobacco-lobby satire Thank You for Smoking. And he recently explored the perils and pitfalls of social media in Men, Women, and Children. As soon as he read Bai’s book he could see the film in his head. The Front Runner, in keeping with Bai’s assessment that the Miami Herald’s actions sent the US spiralling towards the current “dispiriting state of our politics”, is framed as a tragic, pivotal moment when the media transforms politics into entertainment. Even the venerable Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post (as played by Alfred Molina in the film) is heard to say, “If the rest of the country is going to cover this, how are we not going to cover it?” – something he did, in fact, tell David Frost after the fact.

“This starts with the Miami Herald taking the decision that no major paper had ever done before and treading a line of gossip. And it ends with the Washington Post asking a candidate in a political press conference has he ever committed adultery, and that’s not allowed,” says Reitman. “That’s not part of the rules. And, depending on who you ask in an audience, that’s either a great thing or a horrible thing.”

As a news story, the Hart scandal neatly foreshadowed such big hits of the newly-minted 24-hour news cycle as the Gulf War and the OJ Simpson police chase. Reitman relates the fascinating convergence of factors, as Bai explored in his book, that led to the fateful week when Hart was forced to pull out of the race: “A proliferation of satellite trucks which creates a 24-hour news cycle. CNN gives all the reporters satellite phones for the first time so they can cover from anywhere in the United States. A generation of journalists who grew up on Woodward and Bernstein, who saw them investigate Nixon and then get played by movie stars. So there’s a new sense of identity for the journalist: it’s your job to investigate and to take down a president. The birth of A Current Affair, which is the first gossip television show, so gossip has moved from print to TV. And the simultaneously breaking scandals around Tammy Faye Bakker and Oliver North ensure there’s a sudden taste for gossip.”

Another view is that the chumminess that existed prior to the Hart scandal – Hart slept on Bob Woodward’s couch during one of his marital separations – was just as compromising as an appetite for tittle-tattle. Responding to the publication of Bai’s book in 2014, Gail Sheehy wrote: “Bai’s piece reflects the old-guard journalistic practices – maintained by an almost exclusively male press corps – that viewed any reporting on personal behavior or psychological observations as inappropriate; ‘just the facts, ma’am’ ... But a character portrait can be more valuable than a policy analysis in predicting the kind of leader a candidate will be... It was Richard Nixon’s character, not his policies that brought him down.”

The Front Runner: Mamoudou Athie and Jason Reitman on the set
The Front Runner: Mamoudou Athie and Jason Reitman on the set

While The Front Runner largely reflects Bai’s romantic view, the film is nuanced enough to depict male journalists congratulating themselves on turning a blind eye to the extramarital dalliances of Kennedy and Johnson, and to include a female journalist questioning Hart’s abuse of position.

“Of the many modern conversations that we could have about the abuse of power, this is not one that I would lean towards,” says Reitman. “Only because this is not someone who was working for him; this is not someone who met him in a political context; these are two people who met on a boat at a party. I don’t know the rest of his life. I think any man who has ever been in a position of power now has to reckon with their life and think, oh, when I said that thing or I when I made that joke I was doing so within the parentheses of privilege, and I need to rethink. But while this story is about gender and the complexity of marriage, I think of this story in the context of a public and private relationship with journalism.”

I wonder, though, if we haven’t come full circle in terms of political reportage. Viewed through the post-truth, post-Trump spectrum, the film’s central thesis – that before 1987 politician’s affairs weren’t a big deal; after 1987 they ended promising careers – looks uncertain.

“Can we be post-Trump?” Reitman says with a smile. “I can’t wait for that. I think that we’re asking what is important to us. What is relevant and what is just entertainment. Right now we talk about politics every day the way we used to talk about episodes of The Sopranos. Politicians are like characters in a drama. The Brett Kavanaugh hearing was like the latest episode of Game of Thrones without dragons to make everything better. And on and on. Tune in next week. There’s a lack of a sense of truth and it feels like something has been lost, something very important.”

The Front Runner is on general release

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