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Before 1987, politicians' affairs weren't a big deal. After, they almost ended a presidency

Gary Hart at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, where he came in second for the presidential nomination to Walter Mondale.
Gary Hart at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, where he came in second for the presidential nomination to Walter Mondale.
Nancy Wong
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In 1987, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart had his political career derailed by reports of an affair with 29-year old model Donna Rice. He was forced out of the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination after being the heavy favorite following a close second-place finish in 1984. He restarted the campaign later that year, but he performed miserably and has been out of the public eye ever since.

Hart's fall is old news, but Yahoo! politics reporter Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out — set to be released this Tuesday and excerpted in the New York Times magazine — argues that the scandal marked a fundamental turning point in American politics and political journalism, away from a world in which Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy's affairs weren't even reported upon and toward one in which Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his. Bai notes that when the Washington Post's Paul Taylor asked Hart at a press conference in Hanover, NH, "Have you ever committed adultery?" it was the first time a presidential candidate had ever faced that kind of query. It represented an increased focus on politicians' personalities and character, a shift whose implications All the Truth Is Out explores in depth.

Bai and I spoke Thursday about Hart, his scandal, and how it changed American political life.

DM: For readers who may be unfamiliar with Gary Hart — who maybe weren't even alive when he ran — what makes him distinctive? What did he bring to the table that was so unique?

MB: He was a really important political figure at the time. He was described to me once as the most important American politician of his age who didn't become president, and I think that's almost unquestionably true. You don't have Bill Clinton and Clintonism without Hart first, though Hart doesn't always like the comparison. He was the first of that '60s generation to hit the very pinnacle of national politics.

He was the first to talk about reforming the military for the post-Cold War period; he was the first to talk about stateless terrorism as a gathering threat; he was the first to talk about transitioning the economy from manufacturing to something more information based, and how that technology was going to change things. He had and has an innate ability to see around corners and to connect various strains of American society to what needs to happen in government.

He spent a lot of time — as much time as any candidate for the presidency I know of — thinking not just about the political dynamic, but how he would actually govern. The people engaged in the process at that time would say he was a remarkable candidate intellectually. Even the people who don't like Hart, even the people who don't think he was fit to serve because of his personal life, would concede he's a visionary. And we don't have a lot of visionaries in presidential politics.

DM: Early in the book, you quote an interview Hart gave to Sally Quinn when he was George McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, where he said that he and his wife Lee had a "reform marriage." There's one view in which Hart did nothing wrong at all. He had an open marriage, the media didn't understand, and even if he had an affair with Donna Rice it wasn't a big deal, because he wasn't betraying his wife or anything. Was that your interpretation of what happened?

MB: It's an interesting question. As I say in the book, there are a bunch of explanations for why Hart may have put himself in the position he did, and I don't think he will ever reflect on that with himself or with others.

But we know that he and his wife — who, by the way, are still married and have been married more than 50 years — separated twice before that campaign. They spent long periods apart. Much of his reputation as a Washington casanova was earned during the two periods when he and his wife were not together, during which he slept on Bob Woodward's couch for a while, and nobody wrote about it. I think it's very likely that he did not consider the marriage to be traditional or binding in the way some marriages were, and it's very possible that he did not feel that he was acting immorally.

I don't think it's reasonable to look back at Hart and say he was idiotic, he should have known he'd get caught. When you look back at his body of experience — having worked on the Church Commission, having been McGovern's campaign manager, having been in the Senate, having been separated from his wife a couple of times, having dated openly in Washington with nothing written about it, having run for president in 1984 and become the single most talked-about politician in America for months without anybody writing about any of this — it becomes reasonable from his perspective to think this stuff wasn't going to become a topic for journalists, or if it was, they certainly weren't going to go searching out the evidence for it. In hindsight, it's easy to dismiss that, but if you look at it in that moment, it makes a lot more sense.

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A 1987 ABC News report on the end of Hart's campaign. Hart would resume it later that year, but perform poorly, finishing in seventh in New Hampshire after winning the state by ten points four years earlier.

DM: What was it about 1987 that the media attitude toward politicians' personal lives shifted this radically? Was it just happenstance or were there factors explaining why this didn't become an issue in 1984 but did three years later?

MB: You had a profound, reverberating effect from Watergate, which created a whole new focus on personal morality in politicians that really hadn't been there before. You had changing attitudes about adultery because of the women's liberation movement and the debate over the Equal Rights Amendment. All of a sudden, the afternoon tryst wasn't okay anymore.

You had these really fundamental changes in the media after Watergate, because you have a whole new generation of journalists coming in who really want to be Woodward and Bernstein, and really want to expose politicians and report on scandals. That becomes their highest calling. You have the The McLaughlin Group premiering around that time, and Crossfire debuts around then. You suddenly have this new thirst among people in my industry to get famous in a way that they hadn't before.

You have the advent of satellite technology. That's the first presidential campaign where fly-away satellite dishes are the industry standard. That begins to redefine news, since once you can go anywhere and you can report a story at any moment, you want to keep people in their seats, and you want to break new turns in the story, and it becomes like a soap opera.

In the months before the Hart scandal, you had the scandal with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, the celebrity preacher and wife, with the mascara-streaked face on Nightline; it was like the most viewed interview ever. You had the whole drama with Oliver North and his secretary Fawn Hall smuggling out documents in her skirt. That overtook the facts of Iran-Contra in the public's mind, which was a massive scandal.

You could see, in retrospect, a really remarkable intersection of trends that are combining to put a lot of pressure on the political media to delve into the worlds of what had traditionally been entertainment and tabloidism.

DM: A lot of people would argue the primary problem with the press isn't that it gangs up on politicians, as it did to Gary Hart, but the opposite, that journalists are too chummy with politicians. The problem isn't the Washington Post's Paul Taylor asking Gary Hart if he had committed adultery, the problem is that Gary Hart used to sleep on Bob Woodward's couch. And you could argue the changes in political reporting you're documenting were for the better in that respect.

MB: These are complex issues. I tend to traffic in complexities, not in easy answers. There is a case to be made that things were not better in the old days. I don't dismiss that at all.

There are things about the old era of politics and political journalism that give me pause, and would give a lot of people pause. There was a lot of chumminess and protection. You can very reasonably ask whether the public was well-served not knowing about John Kennedy's associations. I don't think there's an easy answer there.

In the years since the Hart scandal in 1987, the focus of political journalism has shifted away from an interest in ideas and world views and how they were shaped, and much more toward trying to expose the lies and flaws that we know are there, because there's a lot of reward in our industry for doing that.

In some cases the flaws are real, as in John Edwards' case, and you do a real service by exposing them. But very often we lose context for the full scope of a human life, rather than just one moment, and we get fixated on things that may or may not be relevant to a person's fitness to serve. Under this banner of character, we've become really focused on a kind of destruction.

The result of that, ultimately, are a lot of people who don't want to be engaged in the process, and a lot of candidates that are so cautious or so narcissistic and driven to run that they lack the dimension we want in our leaders. Gary Hart said in 1987, when he left the race, that he worried, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that we would get the leaders we deserve. That's a speech, however dismissed at the time, that people should revisit.

Gary Hart appears on Real Time with Bill Maher on August 13, 2004.

DM: The book makes it clear that Hart really wanted to return to national politics, and it's sort of bizarre that someone of his stature didn't play much of a role in either the Clinton or Obama administrations. What accounts for that? Why was he not rehabilitated?

MB: It's kind of crazy and not great for the country, because I think there was a lot of service still to be rendered there. There are a lot of reasons you can point to, but it came down to the fact that he got stuck in time.

It's hard for someone who wasn't there, and I count myself in that group since I was very young, to understand what a national joke he was, and what it was to be a national joke at the moment when institutions like Johnny Carson and the evening news and entertainment media were so unifying. We didn't have market fragmentation. The whole country watched Johnny Carson, and Johnny Carson made fun of him endlessly, and so did everyone else. Because Hart was the first to get caught up in something like that at the presidential level, he really got stuck in that moment and became politically toxic.

There was a path. There were years where, as other politicians made clear later, he could have probably recovered his political prospects by going on an apology tour, or coming clean in a memoir, doing an interview with Oprah, or any number of other things that politicians would do later. And he just wouldn't. He believed it wasn't anybody's business, and he thought it was beneath him. You can sit around and debate whether that was a reasonable position to take in the modern era, but I think it's ironic to assail his character if he was willing to give up his own life's dream because he was holding to a principle. I think that defines character, in a lot of ways.

DM: It does seem like it's easier for people to recover from scandal than it used to be. David Vitter admitted to hiring prostitutes and is probably the next governor of Louisiana. Is that because there's nothing like Carson or the nightly news that everyone watches? Is something else happening?

MB: The ensuing years created a playbook for getting out of scandal and disgrace, whatever it was, whether it was sex or financial or because you said something stupid one day, whatever disgrace befell you. Everybody knew what they had to do. You had to apologize, and to disappear for a little while, and you'd write a book or go on a publicity tour. Entire agencies are devoted to rebuilding peoples' images.

Some people point to that and say, "We figured out how to get past this." People face disgrace and then they come back. Hart didn't for whatever series of reasons, but we worked through it as a country. But you have to ask yourself, and I think it's a very profound question, what kind of politician, what kind of leader is willing to do that? And is that the kind of leader you want to attract to your politics and your government?

How many people do you know, psychologically healthy people, who are willing to discuss the innermost aspects of their personal lives, and grovel to their families in public, and put their families through repeated humiliation, because they just have to achieve their career ambition? How normal is that? What kind of politician does it reward?

Correction: This post originally stated that the photo of Donna Rice and Gary Hart forced him out of the race in 1988; he left due to the scandal but not due to the photo. We regret the error.

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