When a Collision Between Politics and Sex Shocked Americans

Depending on your cynicism about politics, “The Front Runner” — a film that chronicles the rise and rapid fall of Gary Hart’s quest to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1988 — seems perfectly timed as a reminder of a period when character seemed to matter a great deal more.

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Sopan Deb
, New York Times

Depending on your cynicism about politics, “The Front Runner” — a film that chronicles the rise and rapid fall of Gary Hart’s quest to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1988 — seems perfectly timed as a reminder of a period when character seemed to matter a great deal more.

The story of the former Colorado senator may sound like a quaint footnote in history, an outlier that was unique to its era, perhaps more indicative of news media overreach than of things to come. After all, didn’t Bill Clinton survive sex scandals? Isn’t Donald Trump the president?

Perhaps. But on this there’s very little debate: Hart’s presidential campaign was the first to be tanked by a sex scandal, and it was an inflection point for how the news media covered politicians ever after.

It’s a very familiar subject to Matt Bai, who wrote “The Front Runner” with Jay Carson and Jason Reitman (also the director). The movie, starring Hugh Jackman and opening Tuesday, is based on Bai’s 2014 book, “All the Truth Is Out.” In his eyes, Trump is a logical endpoint to what started with Hart.

“That was the moment in 1987 where we began for the first time to think about politicians and cover politicians as if they were celebrities and entertainers,” Bai said in a phone interview. “When you create a celebrity culture in your political process, you are going to get celebrity politicians.”

You may not remember the details: Hart made a strong showing for the Democratic nomination in 1984, but Walter Mondale ultimately won out. In 1987, Hart was far and away the favorite to win the nomination and take on George H.W. Bush the following year.

However, rumors of Hart’s infidelity had circulated in the press corps, and a veteran reporter for The Miami Herald, Tom Fiedler (now the dean of Boston University’s College of Communication), received a call that spring from an anonymous woman saying Hart was having an affair and that Hart had been on a yacht in Miami with the woman recently. The anonymous caller also said the woman was planning to visit Washington, where Hart lived.

Eventually, Fiedler and other Herald reporters staked out Hart’s town house in Washington. They observed him with a woman that wasn’t his wife: Donna Rice, a 29-year-old actress and pharmaceutical representative. The Herald team confronted Hart in an alley outside his home — something that seems unthinkable today — after Hart realized he was being surveilled. Hart was firm: He would not talk about his private life. But The Herald’s reporting caused a frenzy, and allegations of an extramarital affair eventually forced Hart out of the race. (Hart and Rice have said they were just friends.)

Hart didn’t think what was going on inside his home was anyone’s business. Some members of the news media agreed with him. As the former New York Times journalist and columnist Anthony Lewis wrote in May of that year: “When I read about the Miami Herald story on Gary Hart, I felt degraded in my profession. Is that what journalism is about, hiding in a van outside a politician’s home?” In an opinion column, A.M. Rosenthal, who until 1986 had been The Times’ top editor, wrote, “The Herald damaged journalistic self-respect by skulking around Mr. Hart’s house all night.”

It wasn’t the first time a politician with White House ambitions had made headlines for his sex life. Those of you who can afford tickets to “Hamilton” know Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a 23-year-old woman named Maria Reynolds, to which Hamilton publicly confessed, effectively ending any future presidential run.

The same reporter who wrote about Hamilton’s tryst, James Thomson Callender, also wrote about Thomas Jefferson’s affair with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, but Jefferson, already president when the story broke, was re-elected anyway. During the 1884 presidential campaign, it was discovered that Grover Cleveland had a child out of wedlock with a woman named Maria Halpin 10 years earlier. He still won. But over the next several decades, the dalliances of White House occupants, including John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, were mostly known but unreported.

The Nixon administration changed those calculations. A post-Watergate electorate wanted a trustworthy candidate, both professionally and personally. In 1976, Jimmy Carter famously told voters, “I’ll never lie to you.” When Hart was running for president, the Iran-Contra affair was in the news. It wasn’t a sudden shift, but a drift years in the making. And reporters were different, too: Many saw the work of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who cracked open Watergate, as the new model for investigative journalism.

“The idea that you had to figure out what the character was of a candidate so that you could save the republic was slightly more in vogue than it is today,” said John Dickerson, the co-host of “CBS This Morning.” This is not to say Hart didn’t hurt himself. In an interview with Fiedler about a week before The Herald’s story ran, Hart said: “I’ve been in public life for 15 years, and I think that if there was anything about my background that anybody had any information on, they would bring it forward. But they haven’t.”

More famously, Hart told E.J. Dionne Jr., a political reporter at The New York Times, in an article published around the same time as the Herald story: “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” (Before The Miami Herald’s team left Miami to stake out Hart’s home, they didn’t know about Dionne’s report.)

In a recent interview, Fiedler said that it was the press corps’ job to point out a top political candidate’s dishonesty, and that even in hindsight, he would have pursued the Hart story largely in the same way.

“I do believe that this was an issue that was relevant to voters and part of the role as a reporter is that you bring information to voters that may or may not be important to them,” Fiedler said. This may explain why, in the 1992 primaries, the election cycle after Hart’s, Clinton was nearly sidelined when Gennifer Flowers, a former a cabaret singer, told a tabloid she had an affair with Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas. (Clinton denied the affair at the time but years later — under oath — admitted to “sexual relations” with her.)

One difference in Clinton’s case in 1992: He didn’t drop out of the race, even though there was a media frenzy. Clinton stayed in and tried to survive the New Hampshire primary, which he did.

It’s a different time now. The same questions about character and judgment that dogged Hart and forced him out of the race were also lobbed at Trump during his campaign, except exponentially more and seemingly with less effect. When BuzzFeed unearthed questionable comments Trump made about women on Howard Stern’s radio show, his supporters yawned. Even the Access Hollywood tape, which briefly caused universal outrage, even among top Republicans, didn’t puncture Trump’s rise.

As the Dallas pastor and Trump supporter Robert Jeffress said last spring referring to the evangelical vote, “They weren’t voting for an altar boy.”

During the 2016 election, social media was a new factor driving the news cycle like never before, while the cable news networks continued to hasten how quickly we moved on from stories.

The “24-hour cable freak-show coverage of campaigns is a totally post-Gary Hart phenomenon,” Dickerson said. “So if you’re thinking about what has made our campaigns awful today, the 24-hour microscope — who won the hour, who won the day — that’s made it much worse than our obsession with sexual behavior.” And politics, as Dickerson and others have noted, are more tribal now.

“The voters are so much more polarized that party voters are more willing to forgive their party’s candidate a multitude of sins,” Dickerson said.

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