In American political mythology, Gary Hart remains a fallen god, an aloof sage whose enigmatic persona led to his demise, possibly changing presidential history. In 1987, Senator Hart embarked on a short-lived run for the Democratic presidential nomination. His announcement, amid the majesty of Colorado’s Red Rocks, was less a speech than a media-endorsed ordination that his “campaign of ideas” could extinguish challenges and challengers. But Hart would fall victim to a new age of media coverage. Rumors of Hart’s extramarital affairs, which triggered his downfall and ended his campaign shortly after it had begun, are the subject of Jason Reitman’s timely new film, The Front Runner.
Hugh Jackman stars as Hart in a commanding, yet cautious, portrayal. Jackman possesses the chiseled features that made Hart a post-Kennedy prototype for swooning reporters and supporters. He channels Hart’s serious demeanor without risking parody (biopics too often turn into cartoon-like sketches). The film presents Hart as a rugged intellectual, a man almost pained by his own prescience. An “Atari Democrat,” Hart called for computers in classrooms and solutions for America’s rusting industrial base. He grew up in Kansas, practiced law in Denver, managed George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, entered the Senate in 1975, and made his first run for the White House in 1984. That spring, Hart’s electoral prospects appeared promising until former Vice President Walter Mondale, during a Democratic primary debate, famously mocked his “new ideas” by quoting a popular Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?” Mondale prevailed, going on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Eyeing the 1988 presidential race, pundits looked at Hart as the top contender for the Democratic nomination.
Hart’s three-week campaign is a classic story of political pride going before the fall. With a rhythmic pace, The Front Runner revisits this tale, presenting the press as sloppy and ravenous in its hunt for Hart’s rumored misbehavior. The Miami Herald’s Tom Fiedler (played by Steve Zissis) follows a lead that Donna Rice, a model and pharmaceutical sales rep, is having a dalliance with the candidate. The tip leads Fiedler and his colleagues to stake out Hart’s Washington home, where Rice is allegedly staying. Their encounter with Hart in an alley, where they question his behavior, unleashes a chaotic rush for breaking news.
The subsequent discovery is almost too good to be true: Hart on a rowdy trip to Bimini in March 1987, posing for a photo with Rice sitting on his lap and donning a t-shirt with the yacht’s politically lethal name: Monkey Business. In a recent article in The Atlantic, James Fallows writes that legendary GOP operative Lee Atwater, before he died, confessed that the trip was staged. Regardless, the photo—spread across the National Enquirer—effectively ended Hart’s political career.
In a memorable New York Times Magazine profile, E.J. Dionne probed Hart’s past separations from his wife and possible infidelities. Such questions enraged the senator, who lamented that politicians could not risk candor. “People say, ‘Why are politicians such conniving, calculating S.O.B’s?’ It’s because who knows what oddball thing you say is not going to come back 15 years later to be some profound insight into your character,” said Hart. On the womanizing question, Hart told Dionne, “Follow me around. I don’t care.” The portentous quote was run after the Herald’s townhouse stakeout.
The introduction of the mobile satellite-news truck in the mid-1980s gave media outlets the capacity to break stories and report them from almost anywhere. The Front Runner’s storyline follows the era’s technological advances, detailing the clash of the futuristic with the soon-to-be obsolete—computers versus typewriters, fax machines versus payphones. A campaign aide rushing to rescue Hart’s wife Lee from a media crush watches a satellite dish rise into the air, heralding the arrival of surveillance politics. The days of an accommodating press, peaking with John F. Kennedy and beginning to fade with Richard Nixon, were over.
Announcing his withdrawal from the race, Hart questioned the media’s political coverage. “In public life, some things may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re important,” he said. “Whether I changed my name or still owe campaign debts may be interesting at least for a while, but for most people in this country that’s not what concerns them.” In the years ahead, Hart watched as politicians weathered far worse scandals and the public devoured the media coverage. American political culture became desensitized by personal misconduct: Bill Clinton’s liaisons, John Edwards’s dark cover-ups, and Donald Trump’s flagrant misbehavior all make Hart’s alleged sins look quaint.
Yet Hart’s transgressions transcend the famous photo. His political ambitions took precedence over the lives and feelings of the people he hurt. (The film shows how, as campaign aides scramble to rehabilitate Hart, they sequester Lee Hart and Donna Rice.) Perhaps Hart’s greatest misstep was acting like a self-righteous martyr, rather than a fallible human being who could have come clean. During a climactic news conference, a Washington Post reporter asked Hart, “Have you ever committed adultery?” Hart’s refusal to answer that question destroyed his campaign, revealed his character, and changed presidential politics. Gary Hart may have been a casualty of an overly aggressive press, but as The Front Runner reminds us, it was his conceit that dealt the fatal blow to his candidacy.
Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.