“The Front Runner” refers to Gary Hart, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee in 1988 whose campaign collapsed because of a sex scandal.
But in many ways the term, and title of the compelling new film, could also refer to a new era — for press-presidential candidate relations, as well as a new and ever-evolving scrutiny that candidates received from voters.
Moviegoers of a certain age will quickly recall the salacious case and the sensational coverage surrounding it: Hart, a telegenic, technocratic Colorado senator (labeled an “Atari Democrat”), who had made a strong showing in a White House bid four years earlier, seemed a certainty for the nomination, if not the White House.
But in a chaotic campaign lasting only three weeks, Hart’s alleged dalliance with Donna Rice in Bimini on a boat called “Monkey Business” (the jokes wrote themselves, as a Johnny Carson clip in the film attests) resulted in a reset of the race and, perhaps, history itself.
As depicted, Hart seemed to be playing by old rules regarding presidents (Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy among the most notable) who had had affairs that were known to reporters but not reported on.
But an emboldened post-Pentagon Papers, post-Watergate press corps, goaded in part by Hart’s challenge to the New York Times’ E.J. Dionne to “follow me around” with a promise that they’d “be very bored,” broke the conspiratorial silence around such matters after a Miami Herald reporter did just that and staked out Hart’s Washington townhouse.
“The Gary Hart controversy was so remarkable and decisive and destructive that it set a mark for presidential candidates” going forward, said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School. It also set a mark for media coverage, said Jacobs, who called it a “critical moment in the nature of press coverage and politics.”
The coverage became a crush of reporters and photographers, Jacobs said, that reflected “a greater intensity, if not a feeding frenzy, that became almost a mob of journalists” that “operated in a herd on a singular story.”
As herds do, they stampeded past some of the most important aspects of the scandal.
“I don’t think the press handled any of it well,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Jamieson, an expert on political communication, added that “I didn’t think we had the national discussion we needed to have about the relevance of it.” The “Gary Hart moment,” she said, “is really a seismic change, because it raised the questions ‘is the private life relevant?’ and, if so, ‘what facets of it, and what levels of proof are required to document those facets?’ ”
Like current-day contenders (and presidents), Hart denied the story and stuck with the narrative that voters were being denied the right to an issues-oriented campaign they say they desire. But the frenzy — and especially the iconic photo of Rice on Hart’s lap — eclipsed economic policy discussions or any other issues. (In fact, the alleged tryst continues to make news, with publication of a recent story in the Atlantic claiming that Hart was set up.)
“The framing the press used to rationalize the Gary Hart thing was [his] hypocrisy,” said Jamieson. Questions about his judgment were also crucial, especially since his infidelity came during a campaign, rather than involving adulterous allegations from prior times, which was one distinction that helped produce a different outcome for candidate Bill Clinton in 1992. (The Monica Lewinsky scandal, which occurred while Clinton was in the White House, was an entirely different affair, in the figurative and literal sense.)
Voters’ evolution on these kinds of issues was also apparent in the 2016 election, when Donald Trump’s campaign contended with tabloid-cover controversies from years past like the “Access Hollywood” tape.
What changed between ’88 and ’16? “The behavior was worse under Donald Trump,” Jacobs said. “But the context and environment has profoundly shifted.” Jacobs continued his comparison of the eras by saying that in the 1980s, about 15-20 percent of voters “floated between parties.” Today, he added, that’s rare. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon: The conduct from a candidate has taken a back seat to their party ID.” Trump, Jacobs concluded, “was spared the harsh rebuke because of his political ID; his voters stood behind him.”
Whether voters would have stood behind Hart wasn’t tested, since the front-runner ran himself out of the race. Which changed not just the ’88 race that saw George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis, but subsequent elections, too.
“It was highly consequential,” said Jamieson. “Had [Hart] won, you would have had a different trajectory of history.”
Hart, Jamieson continued, “was a very strong candidate. He was smart. He was telegenic. And he was very well-informed on the issues. So he may have been trapped by his own arrogance into thinking that because of all that, the rest was irrelevant.”
Hart himself was anything but irrelevant — then, and later, when he returned to his roots as student of history and predictor of the future that earned him his initial acclaim. For instance, along with former Sen. Warren Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire, he co-chaired a 2001 task force on homeland security that proved prescient about the threat, if not the specifics, of a 9/11-style attack. More recently he has sounded the siren on cyber threats.
“He’s a person who on issues that have been important subsequently was ahead of his time,” Jamieson said. “So the country lost a leader who would have taken us in a different direction. And that’s important historically. So, whatever else one says, those three weeks mattered.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.