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Was Gary Hart Set Up?

What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987? In The Atlantic’s November issue, James Fallows asked what alternative courses history might have taken.


My name is James Savage, and I was the Miami Herald’s investigations editor who helped report and edit the 1987 stories that uncovered Gary Hart’s relationship with Donna Rice and prompted him to quit his presidential campaign.

I believe from my personal knowledge of the facts that The Atlantic’s article contains 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.

I believe The Atlantic should publish a correction and an apology to Ms. Rice. I would be happy to discuss further details.

James Savage
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


James Fallows replies:

The details of the Miami Herald’s handling of the Gary Hart–Donna Rice case were explicitly not the topic of my article. The literature on the topic is too vast and contradictory to set out, even in a magazine article many times longer than the one I wrote.

In brief (as I said in giving a summary of the crucial episodes in my article): Over the decades, many of those involved in the Herald’s decision to send reporters for a stakeout of Gary Hart’s house in Washington have stoutly defended the public and journalistic interests they believed they served in doing so, and the care they took in choosing this course. Mr. Savage, who was involved in those decisions, defends them in his note. A fuller account of the Herald’s decisions, by James Savage and his Herald colleagues Jim McGee and Tom Fiedler, appeared in that paper just a week after the stakeout. You can read it here.

Over the decades, many people not involved in the choices have debated these same aspects: whether the Herald exercised sufficient care in pursuing the tip it received and what the consequences were of the way it (and, separately, The Washington Post) then handled the “scandal” of Hart’s possible affairs. Back in 1987, the journalist John Judis offered a skeptical and negative assessment of the Herald’s and The Post’s approaches in the Columbia Journalism Review. Matt Bai’s 2014 book about the episode, All the Truth Is Out, is about the way that coverage of Hart became the moment when “politics went tabloid” and changed both politics and journalism for the worse.

Read them all. See the forthcoming movie based on Bai’s book, The Front Runner. Judge for yourself.

But wherever you come out, what the Herald did was not the topic I was discussing. The news my article conveyed is what might have happened before anyone at any newspaper got involved.

It was about the circumstances in which Hart, Donna Rice, another woman named Lynn Armandt, and Billy Broadhurst got together on a boat in the first place, which led to the tip the Herald later received. Broadhurst, a lobbyist and fixer, was by all accounts a man of many faces. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Savage’s report of the Herald’s dealings with him. Other people who dealt with him firsthand, and have spoken with me about him, have offered much less positive perspectives.

As most readers noted from my story, and as Mr. Savage might see if he looks at it again, the story was careful to present new information as a possibility—as another way of thinking about a consequential moment in modern political history. The headline of the story was not “Gary Hart Was Set Up.” Instead it asked, “Was Gary Hart Set Up?” There is a proper journalistic bias against using questions in headlines. But doing so was appropriate in this case, for an article whose point was, in fact, a question: What if Lee Atwater’s deathbed admission to his colleague and competitor, Raymond Strother, was actually true? What if the Monkey Business disaster was not just a catastrophic error by Hart but a setup plan?

As the article points out, Strother himself realized that this claim would forever be unprovable, since Lee Atwater died soon after he revealed this information over the phone (according to Strother) back in 1991. Strother told me that this very unprovability was part of the reason he kept the information to himself for so many years—doing so, in fact, until he spoke with Hart early this year, in what he thought might be one of their final meetings.  

Can I prove that Lee Atwater actually made this confession to Raymond Strother 27 years ago, as Strother said to me in several conversations this year? Of course not. But Strother has a long record as a campaign strategist and press spokesman, which, to the best of my knowledge, offers no grounds to be skeptical of his honesty—especially on this topic and at this stage of his life. Could Strother himself, back at the time, prove that Atwater was telling him the truth? Also, of course not. And Atwater’s short record in public life contained ample grounds for doubts about his honesty. But in his final weeks, Atwater was offering a lot of public apologies for other campaign dirty tricks, which are known to have occurred. Would he have simply invented this additional trick (without actually having been responsible for it) so that he could privately apologize to his former rival Raymond Strother? Anything’s possible, but that seems far-fetched.

No one can know whether Gary Hart would have gone on to the nomination or the presidency if this scandal hadn’t erupted when it did; or whether some other scandal might have ensued if this one hadn’t; or whether Hart, like Bill Clinton after him, to say nothing of Donald Trump, might have ridden out the scandal coverage if he’d decided just to brazen his way through; or whether Michael Dukakis might have risen to the nomination even if Hart had stayed in the race; or whether George H. W. Bush was destined for election anyway; or a thousand other imponderables. The point of the story was: History is full of counterfactual what ifs, which by definition are unknowable, and the Atwater-Strother-Hart series of conversations adds another unknowable but provocative what if to the list.

Mr. Savage concludes by saying that I owe Donna Rice Hughes an apology. I disagree. First, the article does not say what Mr. Savage thinks it does. Lee Atwater told Raymond Strother (according to Strother) that he, Atwater, was behind the whole episode. Necessarily, Billy Broadhurst would have to have been involved as well. Who else might have been, and what witting or unwitting roles the other main figures (including Donna Rice) might have played, Atwater did not tell Strother, and Strother did not claim to me.

Donna Rice Hughes presumably knows more than other still-living figures about this incident. I sent her many messages asking for a chance to talk and explaining what I wanted to ask. I know that she received at least some of them. She chose not to reply to repeated requests, which is her right and is entirely understandable. But it is not the occasion for an apology on my side.

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