The Question at the Center of the New Gary Hart Movie

The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman, wonders: To what extent did the 1987 scandal fuel the brand of freak-show politics that produced a Donald Trump presidency?

A still from 'The Front Runner'
Frank Masi / Sony Pictures

It was the era of boxy cellphones, balky mobile-satellite trucks, and the rise of 24/7 cable television news. Photography required developing wet film, and smoking was still ubiquitous in journalism and politics. And on Wednesday afternoon, May 6, 1987, a Washington Post reporter asked the leading candidate for president of the United States if he had ever committed adultery, and nothing has ever been quite the same since.

At least that’s the compelling suggestion at the heart of The Front Runner, the director Jason Reitman’s new film about the implosion of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in a sensational weeklong swirl that combined an anonymous tipster, a controversial journalistic stakeout, a yacht named Monkey Business, and a 29-year-old sometime model and pharmaceutical sales rep named Donna Rice (who, it is less well remembered, also just happened to be a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of South Carolina).

The film, which stars Hugh Jackman as Hart, is based on All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, a searching 2014 book on Hart’s fall by the longtime political reporter Matt Bai. The screenplay was written by Bai, Reitman, and Jay Carson, the veteran House of Cards co-producer who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign press secretary in 2008. The question the movie implicitly asks—but pointedly doesn’t answer—is: To what degree did the Hart furore help fuel the brand of freak-show politics that produced a President Donald Trump?

“To me, the Hart story—this is a losing battle—but to me, the Hart story was never really about sex,” Bai told me recently over coffee in Washington. “It was about our obsession with scandal and our decision to treat politicians like celebrities. You know, the real turning point there seemed to be, Well, after that, sex lives matter. That’s too simple. After that, every candidate is considered to be a fraud, and candidates are covered the way celebrities are covered. And when you create a process that mirrors entertainment, you’re going to get entertainers in your process, and to me that’s the through-line from 1987 to now.”

Bai, a former Newsweek reporter who now writes a regular political column for Yahoo News, has been obsessed with the Hart case since 2003, when he wrote a profile of the former senator from Colorado for The New York Times Magazine. This was at a time when some students at Oxford University (where Hart had earned a Ph.D. at age 64) were urging the former senator to run for president again. After the piece ran, Bai realized he had bought into some of the encrusted false impressions surrounding Hart’s abrupt forced withdrawal from the 1988 race and became determined to revisit the story. The film is the culmination of that long odyssey.

Yes, Hart had reacted to long-standing rumors of womanizing (he and his wife, Lee, had endured two periods of public separation in their marriage) by urging E. J. Dionne Jr., then a national political correspondent for The New York Times, to “put a tail on me.” But that story had not yet appeared in print in the Times Magazine when an anonymous caller told Tom Fiedler of The Miami Herald that a friend of hers was having an affair with Hart and had been invited to visit him in Washington that very weekend. After checking out the tipster’s list of dates and places from which Hart had supposedly made calls to the woman, Fiedler’s paper indeed decided to spy on Hart.

And so it was that on the night of May 2, 1987—having seen Hart outside his Capitol Hill townhouse with a woman who turned out to be Rice—Fiedler and his colleagues confronted Hart in a darkened alleyway, demanding to know what was up. Their surveillance was imperfect—the reporters had taken breaks, and were at first not aware the house had a rear entrance—and immediately drew swift condemnation from some journalistic quarters. Hart and Rice would both deny that they had had sex or spent the night together, but Rice did reveal they had taken an overnight cruise from Miami to Bimini on a chartered yacht. (The infamous photo of Rice seated on Hart’s lap—remembered so often in hindsight as the blow that drove the politician from the race—in fact appeared on the cover of the National Enquirer only after Hart had dropped out.)

A national media frenzy ensued, until finally, at a news conference days later in Hanover, N.H., Paul Taylor of the Post asked Hart the question that, as depicted in the movie, still has the power to elicit a sharp intake of breath from the early screening audience with which I watched it: “Have you ever committed adultery?” (Hart’s stunned initial answer, “I don’t think that’s a fair question,” soon devolved into a flustered discussion of theology, from which he never recovered.) The next day, as the Post confronted the campaign with reports of another alleged affair, Hart—then leading in all the polls and seen as the Democrats’ strongest general election opponent to George H. W. Bush—effectively ended his candidacy. (He would later revive it in a quixotic, shoestring quest that won him not a single delegate.)

The film is told from three perspectives—that of Hart and his circle, that of journalists at the Herald, and that of journalists at the Post—and it is sympathetic, to the candidate and to the reporters and editors who grapple earnestly with how to cover a story in which the moral and journalistic ground seems to be shifting uncertainly underneath them. The real-life reporters Dionne and Taylor are rolled into a single composite character, a young reporter for the Post named A. J. Parker (played by Mamoudou Athie). At one point he argues to his legendary editor, Ben Bradlee (portrayed by Alfred Molina), “Just because some other paper used gossip as front-page news, I mean, that doesn’t mean we have to.” Bradlee’s reply is terse: “It does. It does now.” But Ari Graynor, playing a character based on the late Ann Devroy, then the Post’s political editor, justifies the relevance of the story on a higher plane. “He is a man with power, and that takes certain responsibility,” she says in a moment that presages the era of #MeToo.

Reitman, the director of Up in the Air, Juno, and Thank You for Smoking, told me that he is naturally drawn to ambiguity and that his films tend to “lean into the gray.” In the end, he says, The Front Runner is a thriller. “I mean, it’s very easy to talk about the politics, because they are so relevant. It’s funny—as a filmmaker, I’ve never talked about politics more and filmmaking less. But it’s a thriller. It’s a thriller that takes place in less than a week, in which the guy goes from being the presumed next president to leaving politics pretty much forever.”

Still, Reitman, who was 10 at the time of the events depicted in his film—and more interested in the adventures of Marty McFly than those of Gary Hart—is quick to acknowledge that he fell in love with the story after hearing a Radiolab podcast about Bai’s book. He was drawn in by “this same urge that everyone I know has to understand this strange moment we’re living in. I don’t think it matters what side of the aisle you’re on. You can’t help but look at the system and go, ‘All right, this is broken, and how did we get here?’”

It is a rueful reality that just one election cycle after the collapse of Hart’s campaign—he ultimately acknowledged having been an adulterer but noted that he wouldn’t be the first president to hold that distinction—Bill Clinton sailed to the White House despite conceding that he had caused pain in his marriage. It is an even more rueful reality that the current occupant of the Oval Office is a twice-divorced man whose predations against women—alleged and boasted of—make the Hart-Rice imbroglio seem as quaint as a lace valentine.

Gary Hart, in 1984, speaks to reporters on his campaign plane. (Wally McNamee / Corbis Historical / Getty)

Jay Carson, who started talking with Bai about collaborating on a movie script even before Bai’s book was finished, told me that his interest in the story grew out of the searing aftermath of his work on the 2008 Clinton campaign (when he and I tangled, unintentionally but intensely, over my Vanity Fair profile of Bill Clinton, whom longtime aides portrayed as a potential liability to his wife’s ambitions). “It took me a couple of years … to realize what actually drew my writer’s soul to the story, and it was my heartbreak from having worked in national politics, and seeing something in this story that would help me answer the questions of how and why we got to where we are.”

“Politics is an agglomeration of human beings who are trying to do their best,” Carson added. “We have gotten into this reductionist place right now where we have reduced everyone in politics to good or bad; black and white; this side, that side. And ultimately, it’s a human endeavor being carried out by fallible human beings. I think the goal of the movie is to start a conversation with people about that.”

Thirty years ago, if there was a journalistic consensus about Gary Hart, it was that—whatever the truth of his alleged infidelities—the lack of judgment the candidate had displayed in putting himself in compromising circumstances with Rice was enough to disqualify him from the presidency. In all the intervening years, it’s probably safe to say that this prevailing judgment hasn’t changed much, and Bai thinks that’s not quite fair.

“My question about that was always pretty straightforward,” he says. “Which is if a guy is operating in an environment where the sex life of a presidential candidate has never been a story, and you’re still claiming as the media that you don’t care about sex, how can it be a mortal lapse of judgment and character to carry on an illicit relationship, right? I mean, I can’t square that circle in my head.” It was Hart’s bad luck, Bai believes, to have been “living by the old rules when the rules changed.”

(For the record, Bai doesn’t accept the notion, recently reported by my Atlantic colleague James Fallows, that Hart might have been set up by the GOP operative Lee Atwater, who is said to have made a dying confession of just that to Hart’s former media adviser, Raymond Strother. “There’s no way you could have bounced all those balls in the right order,” Bai says).

The movie doesn’t sugarcoat the enormous pain that Hart caused both his wife (played with moving understatement by Vera Farmiga, a long-standing member of Reitman’s stock company) and Rice (an equally affecting Sara Paxton). Two of the film’s most powerful scenes show Lee Hart, trapped in her own home by a media circus and playing classical piano to keep her sanity, and Rice, who has been sympathetically counseled by a Hart aide over a glass or three of wine, suddenly abandoned at the bottom of an airport escalator to face a horde of reporters and photographers shouting crude personal questions. But the film also ends with a silent black-and-white title card noting that the Harts remain married to this day. (Rice, now Donna Rice Hughes, and an evangelical Christian who supported Trump in 2016, recently told People magazine after seeing a screening of the film, “I was moved with great compassion for the 29-year-old person that was me.”)

And as depicted in the movie, the journalists are neither heroes nor villains, just working stiffs. Reitman told me he could not imagine ever asking anyone whether he’d committed adultery, but both Carson and Bai say they can’t judge Taylor for asking the question, or Fiedler for launching the stakeout that prompted it. “The question isn’t, ‘Was it wrong to ask the question?’” Bai says. “The question is, where does that question lead us?” Carson says he has no doubt that the Hart affair changed the profile of people willing to seek the presidency. “What are the kinds of people we attract to the process now?” he asks, answering that they are either people who have been “naturally and unhealthily focused on having that job” for their whole life, or “utterly shameless.”

Of course, it’s a debatable point to what degree some mix of ambition and a certain shamelessness has always been the defining characteristic of candidates for the presidency, at least in the modern era. But what’s striking is the shared conviction of Bai and Carson, hardened veterans of the cut-and-thrust of media-age politics, albeit from opposite sides of the fence, that there has got to be a better way. For his part, Carson says that writing the screenplay forced him to reflect on his own past life as a political operative. “I got into this business having read Richard [Ben] Cramer and Teddy White books and thinking that I was going to be a great facilitator of conversations between journalists who I’ve always loved and respected, and elected officials who I’d always looked up to. And I ended up being a guy that would be on the phone, screaming with you.”

The job of every modern political aide, Carson says, is to make sure that a confrontation like that with Hart and the reporters in his alleyway never happens again. “And the way to do that most safely is to put as much distance between the candidate and the press as possible. That is terrible for the political process.”

In fact, Hart, who first came to national prominence as George McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972, was famously reluctant to emote or share his inner life with the press, and was fond of quoting his old friend from those days, Warren Beatty: “When forced to show all, people become all show.” At the same time, he effectively ignored Beatty’s hard-won advice that for modern politicians, as for modern celebrities, there was no such thing as privacy left. In the end, that stubborn combination of attitudes, that blend of reticence and recklessness, may have been Hart’s true undoing. If the film never really resolves the meaning of Hart’s fall—or the question of how we got from him to Trump—that may be appropriate. After all, it’s not clear the country has, either.