WASHINGTON — Talk about journalistic impact.
It may be hard to remember at a time when revelations about presidents and porn stars are greeted with little more than collective giggles and shrugs, but 31 years ago, a single news story about a presumed extramarital affair upended a U.S. presidential campaign.
The story was the Miami Herald’s May 1987 front-page scoop that Sen. Gary Hart — the overwhelming favorite to be the next year’s Democratic nominee — had spent the evening in his Washington townhouse with a young woman who was not his wife. The Herald never quite proved that Hart was having a sexual relationship with the woman, an ex-model named Donna Rice whom he had met on a yacht called the Monkey Business (though most readers were left with little doubt that the purpose of their liaison was not exactly professional).
Still, the Herald’s story set off a political firestorm that, within five days of its publication, forced Hart to bow out of the race. That Herald story is about to get fresh attention with the release of a movie, “The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman as Hart. The film raises provocative questions about political and journalistic ethics and how the media decides what — and what not — to cover about public figures’ private lives.
“The connective tissue between the Gary Hart scandal and 2018 is … clear,” said Jason Reitman, who directed the movie, in an interview for Buried Treasure, a regular feature of the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”
“Whether we are talking about the line between public and private [lives], whether we are talking about gender politics, whether we are talking about the relationship between politicians and journalists — these are conversations we are all having right now,” he said. “What kind of flaws are we willing to put up with in our leaders?”
Reitman — the director of hits such as “Juno,” “Thank You for Smoking” and “Up in the Air” — was drawn to the Hart story after reading “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” the definitive reconstruction of the scandal by Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai. Bai teamed up with veteran Democratic political operative Jay Carson (who served as press spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential run) to write a screenplay offering an insider’s look at how two major news organizations — the Herald and the Washington Post — grappled with how to cover the story at the same time Hart and his campaign were doing everything they could to quash it.
Bai and Carson view the Hart story as a cultural turning point, opening the floodgates for the media to cover the sexual antics of politicians. “The pre-1988 rule is never; the post 1988 rule is always,” Carson said.
One can quibble about whether Hart’s dalliance with Rice was the trigger for the change or whether the high-minded Colorado senator was merely the first, most conspicuous victim. As Bai pointed out, the rules were already shifting about what the media considered news that was fit to print. If the Washington press corps collectively ignored President John F. Kennedy’s serial affairs, the casual assumption that such things were off-limits had begun to change by the late 1970s. That was after the Church Committee — set up by the U.S. Senate to investigate abuses by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies — discovered that one of JFK’s sexual trysts had been with Judith Exner, who at the time was the girlfriend of Sam Giancana, the Chicago mobster hired by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. The potential for blackmail was obvious, and the affair inevitably tainted Kennedy’s relationship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who, thanks to bureau wiretaps, knew the basics. The only reasonable conclusion was that, in some cases, presidential recklessness and extramarital affairs really can matter. It all depends.
“I’m not a big fan of drawing lines,” Bai said in the Buried Treasure interview. As a correspondent covering John Edwards’s ill-fated bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination, he belatedly discovered that the North Carolina senator’s campaign would be doomed not by the detailed position paper on poverty about which Bai was writing but by the National Enquirer’s discovery that the candidate had fathered a child with a young woman he had an affair with while his wife was battling cancer.
Clearly, Bai said, “character and judgment” matter, but “the key to judging them is context.”
It is precisely the context of Hart’s dalliance that is so vexing in “The Front Runner.” Hart, who had managed George McGovern’s anti-Vietnam War campaign against Richard Nixon in 1972, was a political maverick who viewed himself as a visionary focused on the country’s future while disdaining the petty rituals of day-to-day politics. Yet, as the movie shows, when there were whispers at the start of the campaign about the state of his marriage, Hart reluctantly agrees to pose for a People magazine photograph with his wife — all for the purpose of dispelling any rumors about his private life with the voting public.
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That is one context in which to consider what happens next in the film: Hart parties on the Monkey Business in Miami and meets Rice. He invites her to spend a weekend in Washington. The Herald gets tipped off by a “friend” of Rice’s. The paper dispatches a team of reporters to stake out Hart’s townhouse, hiding in a car across the street to catch the woman entering his house and, once they do so, attempt to nail down that she never left. Finally, the reporters confront the candidate in a dark alley — the film’s dramatic highpoint. Neither the reporters nor Hart are quite sure what to say.
“It feels like the world crosses a line in that alleyway,” Reitman said. “It feels like ‘High Noon’, the way they are lined up. It is the most cinematic of scenes. … You get the mix of a Western showdown in a film noir.”
In the end, Hart — unable and unwilling to answer questions on the subject — drops out. For Bai, this was the moment when the political culture truly shifted into one that would reward candidates who deal with their foibles, either by lying about them or covering them up or simply embracing the tabloid culture that produces them.
“There is a real through-line between the trend that begins in 1987 toward treating politicians as celebrities and politics like entertainment … to the inevitable drift of entertainers and celebrities into your politics,” Bai said.
It is, in short, a through-line that may have begun with Gary Hart but ended up with President Trump.
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