Based on the book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Matt Bai, with a screenplay from Bai and former Clinton staffer Jay Carson, and directed by Jason Reitman, The Front Runner revisits Gary Hart’s 1988 campaign and argues it’s the point when the mainstream press decided a politician’s sex life was legitimate news. The media’s movement across that line over the past three decades has had significant impacts on politics, journalism, and people’s perception about what matters in the public sphere.
Because when we decided to go down the road of politics becoming a reality TV show, the end result may have been to create the conditions for a reality TV show host as president.
In 1963, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller married his second wife, Happy. This occurred after his first wife, Mary Todhunter Clark, had to travel to Nevada to obtain a sealed divorce before the term “no fault” became common place (i.e., at the time the only grounds for divorce in New York state were adultery, cruelty, and imprisonment, with all of the information about a dissolving relationship available for anyone to see in a public record), and Happy’s husband, James Slater Murphy, petitioned for a split in Idaho based on “grievous mental anguish,” with Happy surrendering custody of her four children. Rockefeller’s relationship with Happy, who was a former member of his staff, had been going on for five years prior. Their affair was never reported by any member of the press until the Rockefellers remarriage brought everything to the surface. This severely impacted Nelson Rockefeller’s chances at winning the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, since “the image you presented in public was what counted, not how you behaved in private,” with a Republican official stating “our country doesn’t like broken homes.”
Rockefeller is an example of how a politician’s personal life has never truly been off limits. Whether it be Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox, questions about Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel, being a bigamist, or Sen. Lester Hunt shooting himself inside his own capitol office after Republicans, including Joseph McCarthy, threatened to reveal Hunt’s son had been arrested for soliciting a male police officer, there have always been moments where things private have become public. However, these skeletons were largely the stuff of rumor and gossip, not actively pursued by the media, and not on the front page, unless there was a drunk stripper swimming in the tidal basin making it impossible to ignore. For example, Hunt’s suicide in 1954 was reported by The New York Times as being the result of “apparent despondency over his health.”
Rightly or wrongly, there was a belief that who someone was fucking at the end of the night, whether it be his wife or not, was not relevant to the person’s views on tax policy, nuclear weapons, or farm subsidies. This deference by the mainstream press to leave private things private, or at least in the orbit of gossip, largely changed after the 1988 presidential race and the candidacy of Gary Hart.
After eight years of a conservative Republican administration, a progressive senator from Colorado is the front runner for his party’s nomination and thought to be the favorite to be the next president. Hart (Hugh Jackman) is attractive, well-spoken, and knowledgeable. This is his time after being denied four years earlier by an elder statesman who got the better of him with a vacuous slogan. He seems to be the perfect package for a candidate ... until it all imploded.
Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) attempts to relate this story in Robert Altman-esque broad strokes, with multiple wandering story threads overlapping the main narrative. To that end, the film has a cinema verite style, which attempts to mimic Michael Richie’s Downhill Racer, The Candidate, and Smile. The press, and the process of running for president, is portrayed as being closer to a stage production or the more apt “circus,” with the media as hungry jackals nipping at the heels of politicians over their performance. It’s already considered an open secret that Hart fools around, but the revelation reporters had actually staked out Hart’s residence and documented a pretty blonde coming and going sends things into a frenzy. (e.g., Gary Hart was actually quoted in 1998 as saying: “I watched journalists become animals, literally.”) Washington Post journalist AJ Parker (Mamoudou Athie, playing a composite of a generic mainstream journalist) watches as his profession goes through a momentous change in standards that forever alters it.
Jackman portrays Hart as both self-righteous about his predicament and exasperated by the coverage. Defiant about questions of his personal life or the true nature of his relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), Hart’s vague answers and non-denial denials only feeds the beast and leads to more and more of a mess that his idealistic campaign manager, Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), can not remedy. And of course there are areas of the movie where dramatization leads to pure speculation. Given Hart’s privacy, his relationship with his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), is anyone’s guess, but Reitman, Bai, and Carson do not depict her as a victim. Instead, they suggest a true partnership, but one based on an understanding that Hart was not gonna be a faithful husband.
From Anne Thompson at Indiewire:
After star Hugh Jackman met Gary and Lee Hart, he said the prospect of playing a living person was daunting. “They had just celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary,” he said. “It was a complicated situation. They separated twice, got together again, met when they were 19, coming from the Nazarenes, which is a very strict form of Christianity. But they have a real partnership.” … Jackman carried around a thick notebook filled with his subject’s life story. Hart was a 50-year-old brainiac with total command of foreign and domestic policies, on his second run for the presidency. People were intimidated by him. “What makes a man believe they’re the right person to be the leader of the free world?” asked Jackman. “It takes incredible confidence and intellect to say, ‘I should be the one.'”
As outlined in Bai’s book, and depicted in the film, the larger legend of Hart’s demise as a presidential candidate is dependent on many myths which have taken hold in pop culture.
All of these assertions are false, or a stretch of the actual history.
Hart did make the comment about “follow me around” to the (then) New York Times Magazine’s E.J. Dionne Jr., but the Miami Herald reporters who followed Donna Rice —Jim McGee, Tom Fielder (portrayed by Steve Zissis), and James Savage—knew nothing about it before they began stalking her and Hart’s whereabouts, although they later used the comment as justification. And neither Hart nor Dionne felt the statement was a challenge to the press. The “Monkey Business” image of Hart and Rice was published in the National Enquirer weeks after he withdrew from the campaign. And the Miami Herald’s decision to report on Hart and Rice was met with intense debate within journalism circles and criticism from voters at large. Both The New York Times and Washington Post were initially ambivalent to even acknowledge the story, and polling indicated the public thought the press had gone too far.
A key moment occurs when Hart attempts to quiet the storm with a New Hampshire press conference at Dartmouth College. Paul Taylor, a reporter for the Washington Post, put the following question to Hart: “Have you ever committed adultery?” This is considered a significant point because it’s “a question that no presidential candidate in America to that point had ever been asked.”
Hart’s response: “I don’t have to answer that question.”
The problem for both Hart, and (depending on one’s perspective) the public, is the culture decided politicians do have to answer the question. Whether out of legitimate concern or rationalizations anchored in wanting titillation, the last 30 years have made politics about these personal questions, as discussions about Social Security, Medicare, etc., are aspects too boring to deserve coverage, and the viewers are told to go to a website if they wanna know more.
Has this led to a more honest political environment? Or a more sleazy one?
According to Hart, that plan would have involved: contriving an invitation from [lobbyist Billy] Broadhurst for Hart to come on a boat ride, when Hart intended to be working on a speech. Ensuring that young women would be invited aboard. Arranging for the Broadhurst boat Hart thought he would be boarding, with some unmemorable name, to be unavailable—so that the group would have to switch to another boat, Monkey Business. Persuading Broadhurst to “forget” to check in with customs clearance at Bimini before closing time, so that the boat “unexpectedly” had to stay overnight there. And, according to Hart, organizing an opportunistic photo-grab.
“There were a lot of people on the dock, people getting off their boats and wandering up and down on the wharf,” Hart told me. “While I was waiting for Broadhurst and whatever he was working out with the customs people, I sat on this little piling on the pier.” Hart said that Donna Rice’s friend and companion on the boat, Lynn Armandt, was standing a short distance away. “Miss Armandt made a gesture to Miss Rice, and she immediately came over and sat on my lap. Miss Armandt took the picture. The whole thing took less than five seconds, with lots of other people around. It was clearly staged, but it was used after the fact to prove that some intimacy existed.”
- Reporter strongly denies the implication of a conspiracy: After The Atlantic published its article detailing Strother’s story and the idea Billy Broadhurst had set up the incident to frame Hart, one of the Miami Herald reporters who worked on the original story, James Savage, claimed the idea of Atwater’s intervention was based on “serious factual errors.”
The article’s conspiracy theory suggests that William Broadhurst deliberately maneuvered Hart into potentially damaging press exposure by arranging for him to spend time on the yacht Monkey Business and have his picture taken with Donna Rice sitting on his lap. The truth is the late Mr. Broadhurst did everything short of violence trying to prevent the Herald’s investigations team from publishing the first story about the scandal.
Reporters Tom Fiedler, Jim McGee, and I were preparing that story on deadline after interviewing Hart about his relationship with the young woman from Miami when Broadhurst phoned our hotel room in Washington. Broadhurst insisted that he had invited the Miami woman and a friend to Washington and any story we wrote would unfairly portray Hart’s relationship. He refused to name the woman who was later identified as Donna Rice.
We included Broadhurst’s defense of Hart in that first story. After filing our story, at Broadhurst’s suggestion, we met with him at an all-night restaurant, where he continued to argue on Hart’s behalf.
Broadhurst died recently and can’t defend himself.
I believe the Atlantic story also implies that Donna Rice was somehow involved in a conspiracy to embarrass Hart. I am convinced from my firsthand knowledge of how the Herald learned about Hart’s plan to meet with Ms. Rice that she did not have any involvement in any plan to embarrass Hart.
- It’s Richard Nixon’s fault: Radiolab’s episode on this incident (which I highly recommend) points to post-Watergate attitudes among the media as being the impetus for arguing the personal is political. If the crisis of Nixon’s presidency was caused by his character flaws, is it not logical to examine the character of presidents more thoroughly? Therefore the press felt more emboldened to go further and argue who a president is goes beyond a voting record or a policy platform. Whether one feels this is legitimate, a rationalization for tabloid behavior, or the truth lies somewhere in the middle, is a matter of perspective.
- A second opinion: On the same Radiolab episode, longtime pundit Cokie Roberts argued the fact there were more female reporters covering politics, some of whom had been hit on by Hart, may have been a big factor in why questions about Hart’s fidelity became a story. According to Roberts, there was a sense among the press that Hart “treated women like Kleenex” and it was relevant to who he was as a person. I recoiled a little listening to Roberts’s smugness as she flatly states the press is entitled to ask these sorts of questions of candidates, but there is at least some truth in this. If one doesn’t think so, then tell me Trump talking about grabbing women by the “pussy” doesn’t matter either. Because if one believes how Trump treats women is indicative of who he is as a person, then it’s relevant territory.