I recently finished reading The Front Runner (originally published as All the Truth is Out) by Matt Bai, which along with the accompanying motion picture starring Hugh Jackman by the same title, is an engagingly piercing retrospective on the collapse of then Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987. As anyone over the age of 40 likely recalls, Hart’s presidential ambitions were destroyed following revelations of his alleged extra-marital affair with Donna Rice, a young and beautiful pharmaceutical representative and former actress. The story became front-page news in The Miami Herald after two of its reporters staked out Hart’s Capitol Hill townhouse and observed Hart and Rice leave and return together multiple times that weekend. The story, published on Sunday, May 3, 1987, led to a national media frenzy the likes of which had not been seen before in presidential campaign history. Hart’s campaign never recovered, his political career ruined not by financial scandal or corruption, but by the media’s pietistic concern for his alleged personal sins.
I first took notice of Senator Hart in February 1984 when he upset former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. As a young law student with an interest in politics and government, I liked that Hart was an “ideas” man, socially liberal but not rigidly ideological, well respected by members of both parties, and refreshingly more thoughtful and intellectual than the average politician. I perceived Hart as an exceptionally talented and intelligent public official, who offered new and thoughtful legislative strategies that looked to the future and discarded the stale, special interest politics that was then holding back the Democratic Party. As described by journalist and author Matt Bai, “Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce.”
Although Mondale ultimately won the Democratic nomination that year (before losing in a landslide to President Reagan), Hart was well positioned to become the Democratic nominee for President in 1988. I enthusiastically supported Hart when he announced his candidacy in the spring of 1987 and promised to run a campaign focused on ideas. Hart had a prescient understanding of world economic trends and America’s interconnectedness to the global economy. He promoted collaboration between government and private enterprise to address pressing environmental and energy concerns and to transition the United States from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hart had advanced a series of policies (that were eventually widely embraced) to reform the U.S. military’s reliance on large-scale weapons systems and better defend against new forms of stateless terrorism. He seemed destined to lead at a time when the Democratic Party lacked any other true superstars.
But then, based on whispered rumors of Hart’s reputation as a womanizer and a “tip” from someone who claimed to have inside information about Hart’s marital infidelities, two reporters from The Miami Herald set-up surveillance of Hart’s D.C. residence. In a moment of “gotcha” journalism one would expect of The National Enquirer, not a mainstream news organization, The Herald reported its findings in a front-page story that treated the alleged Hart-Rice affair as if Hart had committed treason. Suddenly, the Washington press corps cared nothing about Hart’s ideas for the future of the planet and only about his sex life. The resulting coverage was relentless. It encompassed all the major news organizations, print and television. The Hart campaign was blind-sided, and, in a matter of weeks, he withdrew from the race.
Throughout the fast-moving media circus that followed The Herald’s stakeout, it seemed that all voices of common sense and good judgment were drowned out by sensational hype. I recall minimal coverage devoted to thoughtful reflection on the questions I and others asked at the time: Why is Gary Hart’s sexual life a relevant consideration to his fitness for office? Why did the press suddenly believe the private lives of public figures were fair game? If it didn’t matter that FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK or LBJ were adulterers, why should it matter if Gary Hart committed adultery? Assuming Hart did in fact commit adultery (to this day, both Hart and Rice have denied a sexual relationship and Hart remains married to his wife of nearly sixty years), what was it about Hart’s private sexual life that was fundamentally different or more important than the private sex lives of past presidents, prime ministers, Cabinet officials, or congressional committee chairmen?
The Herald defended its reporters’ tactics and the resulting coverage of Hart by suggesting that Hart’s apparent marital infidelities reflected negatively upon his “character” and “truthfulness.” Defenders of the media argued that the real concern was not that Hart may have slept with Donna Rice, but that he misled and lied to the American people. That a substantial majority of Americans did not think Hart’s private sex life was relevant seemed not to matter.
“Gary Hart has now become the first American victim of Islamic justice,” wrote Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Republic on June 1, 1987, shortly after Hart dropped out of the presidential race. “He has been politically stoned to death for adultery. The difference is that in Iran, the mullahs do not insult the condemned prisoner by telling him that he is being executed not for adultery but because of ‘concerns about his character,’ ‘questions about his judgment,’ or ‘doubts about his candor.’”
Even if Hart lied about his private life (in fact, he steadfastly refused to say anything about his private life), did that mean he would lie about fundamental matters of public policy, war and peace, or the future direction of our country? I think not. When I vote for a candidate for public office, I am not concerned about who the candidate is sleeping with any more than I care about the candidate’s sexual orientation. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant facts, between the trivial and important matters.
Hertzberg accurately noted that, in the past, the private failings of our political leaders were only deemed a fit subject for public exposure in respectable news publications if they contained some connection to one’s fitness for office and the performance of his or her public duties. But in the spring of 1987, journalistic standards suddenly and dramatically changed. The Miami Herald story did nothing to test the merits of Hart’s ideas for leading a nation, or whether he had the leadership qualities to help prepare the United States for the 21st Century. Instead, in the post-Watergate mentality which makes journalists aspire to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, reporters wanted to know why Hart had separated from his wife on two past occasions, why his family had changed his name from Hartpence to Hart two decades earlier, why he had altered the look and style of his signature, and why there appeared to be a one-year discrepancy in his birth certificate.
“What all these things have in common,” contended Hertzberg, “is that they are trivial.” Such questions tell us nothing about a candidate’s character or “the collection of qualities that make one person distinct from another . . . the overall moral pattern of a life and work” that “is woven through the total pattern of a person’s life.” Besides, added Hertzberg:
If Gary Hart is a man of bad character, surely the voluminous public record of his actions, decisions, statements, writings, and political maneuvers over the last 15 years must be replete with examples. Those who have condemned his character on the basis of the Donna Rice affair have been quite unable to point to such examples. If character is something that manifests itself solely in a person’s private sexual behavior, yet leaves no trace in the rest of his life, including his work life, then “character” is not very important after all—and the sexual details tell us nothing. If character is something that manifests itself in the totality of life, then we don’t need the sexual details to discern it.
Yes, but wasn’t the issue Hart’s lack of candor, his untruthfulness? He lied about adultery, so therefore he is a liar. Why doesn’t the public have a right to know this? Because in real life, there are just certain things that even presidential contenders should have the right to say is “none of your damn business.” And when you lie about or falsely deny something that is none of anyone’s damn business, it says little about your overall truthfulness or character – it simply means there are boundaries to what you will discuss. “The fact that a person will lie in the context of adultery proves nothing about his general propensity to lie,” suggested Hertzberg. “[I]f Hart is a liar there must be one or two more lies among the millions of words he has spoken as a public man. Let them be produced.” In all the scrutiny of Hart’s life, then or later, I have seen no examples of lies or misleading statements from Hart on any matters of substance or public import. Contrast that with the current president, for whom in two years The Washington Post has compiled a list of over 10,000 lies and misleading statements on matters of substance.
Character and integrity matter. But character and integrity in public life has little to do with living a life of saintly purity. History has proven that many of our greatest presidents were flawed human beings. But their public virtues outweighed their private moral failings. Give me a president with the character and fortitude to rise to the occasion and do great things in times of stress and urgency, to always put the national interest ahead of personal concerns, and to tell me the truth about the things to which I have a right to know, and I will happily forgive his human shortcomings.
Gary Hart will forever be remembered as the politician who got caught with a woman on his lap on a boat called The Monkey Business. His entire life of public service essentially erased from public consciousness because he expected that there remained a circle of privacy even for presidential candidates. It seems incredibly naïve to think such a thing today, but that was not so in 1987. Maybe Hart was his own worst enemy. He should have known better than to be reckless under what he knew to be heightened scrutiny. Nevertheless, America lost the services of an exceptionally talented presidential contender in 1987 because the rules of engagement between the press and political candidates suddenly and unexpectedly changed; the focus shifted to the trivial and personal at the expense of serious public discourse.
I want leaders who genuinely care about the future of our planet, the quality of our public discourse, and the ideals of American democracy; who favor peace and diplomacy over war and conflict; and who believe in the dignity of all human beings. Most importantly, I want men and women of good will and intelligence, who demonstrate character through acts of kindness, decency, compassion, and empathy, and who have the backbone to make tough, unpopular decisions for the benefit of the greater public good. I am simply not interested in the private lives of our public leaders, so long as such private conduct does not interfere with the exercise of their public duties. I will continue to distinguish between public morality and private morality.
Matt Bai concludes The Front Runner by noting that, in the years since the Hart scandal first broke, Hart has maintained an unwavering silence about the details of whatever did or did not happen between him and Donna Rice in 1987. He has done this, Bai contends, because “he harbored a fierce conviction that private affairs had no place in the public arena, and he was going to hold fast to that conviction until his dying breath, no matter how anachronistic it seemed to others. There’s a way to describe a man who holds that tightly to principle, whatever the cost. The word is character.”