Gary Hart was the presumed Democratic presidential candidate in the spring of 1987 when the Miami Herald reported that rumors of his “womanizing” were true. The ensuing scandal over his extramarital affair with a woman named Donna Rice ended his candidacy. Yet according to Gail Sheehy, a journalist who covered Hart for Vanity Fair in the 1980s, the real story was bigger than just one affair—it was about Hart’s fundamental character, and whether a man like him should be president.
Stories of Hart’s affairs had circulated long before his scandal broke in the spring of 1987 (those weeks are depicted in the new film The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Hart). The rumors had trailed him the first time he campaigned to be the Democratic presidential candidate in 1984, and even stretched back to his time as the national campaign director for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid.
“The wife of a very prominent Duke political scientist told me that he would just take every one of the college girls who volunteered [at the McGovern campaign] to bed,” Sheehy says. “And the next day, she would be hanging on her chance to talk to him, and he would walk right past her as if he’d never seen her before. He did that over and over and over again.”
Hart also sexually harassed at least one female reporter. When journalist Patricia O’Brien went to his hotel room to interview him during his 1984 campaign, he greeted her in a short bathrobe, then got “huffy” when she asked him to put some clothes on, Richard Ben Cramer reported in his book, What It Takes: The Way to the White House.
Hart wasn’t discreet about his affairs, either. At one point during his 1984 campaign when the media was focused on him as a major contender, a “veteran political mistress he’d been seeing since 1982 was startled to have him turn up on her Washington doorstep,” Sheehy wrote for Vanity Fair in September 1988. “She could see the Secret Service van parked right down the street. Hart stayed the night and blithely walked out her front door the next morning.”
Covering both of his presidential campaigns in the ‘80s, Sheehy caught him in several lies; not just about his affairs, but also seemingly unimportant details like whether he played varsity sports in high school. When reporters asked the Democratic candidate for president whether he had ever committed adultery in the spring of 1987, he not only denied it, but bizarrely challenged them to prove it.
“Follow me around,” The New York Times Magazine reported him saying just a few weeks after he declared his candidacy. “I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored.”
Whether or not he was being sarcastic, as he later claimed, it was a bad move. “Why would a man who’s running for the presidency of the United States challenge a reporter to follow him to see if he was an adulterer, when he was an adulterer?” Sheehy asks. “He had to get caught.”
And indeed, he did. Shortly after making the remark, Hart “canceled his plans for the weekend and he invited Donna Rice to fly up and stay with him at his house, where obviously he would be seen in Washington,” Sheehy says. Journalists from the Miami Herald were already staked out near his D.C. house thanks to a tip they’d received that he was sleeping with Rice.
After the Miami Herald reported on his affair, a picture surfaced showing Rice sitting on Hart’s lap while he wore a T-shirt reading “Monkey Business Crew,” referring to the name of the yacht they’d partied on. The ensuing scandal prompted Hart to drop out of the race. The next year, Michael Dukakis became the Democratic nominee and lost the general election to George H.W. Bush.
This wasn’t the first sex scandal to feature prominently in an American presidential campaign. When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, opponents dug up his marriage records to paint him as an adulterer in the press, as his wife’s first marriage had not been fully dissolved when they eloped. In 1884, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph revealed that presidential candidate Grover Cleveland had fathered a son out of wedlock. The woman involved said Cleveland had raped her and tried to bury the story by placing her son in an orphanage and sending her to a mental institution. Despite this, Cleveland became the only U.S. president to hold two non-consecutive terms.
The Hart scandal wasn’t even the first time in modern politics that reporting on a politician’s personal life had thwarted a presidential campaign. A decade and a half before, journalists reported that Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern’s first vice presidential candidate in 1972, had previously been hospitalized for depression and received electroshock therapy. McGovern quickly dumped Eagleton, and his poor handling of the affair may have affected the landslide by which Richard Nixon won reelection.
With few exceptions, however, male reporters in the 20th century generally protected male politicians by not reporting on their affairs, or anything else that seemed “personal.” In this case, however, Hart "was the one who set up himself to get caught,” Sheehy says.
In the press, “[the affair] was only treated as a superficial issue: an extramarital affair with one woman that he had just been on a boat with,” she says. “As if that was the only time and the only way in which Gary Hart showed that he was unfit to be a president.”
Yet far from being irrelevant to the campaign, Hart’s affairs and his general character were something that voters really cared about, says Laura Stoker, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studied voters’ attitudes toward Hart before and after the scandal.
“People who really preferred him over other Democratic candidates just turned against him,” she says.
In the decade after Hart’s scandal, Bill Clinton faced his own questions about extramarital affairs, as well as sexual harassment and assault. However, Sheehy doesn’t think Hart’s scandal made news organizations more willing to report on sex scandals. If anything, Hart’s attacks on the press—including direct attacks on Sheehy herself—made reporters more cautious.
“Many newspapers were weary of being called guilty of ‘gotcha journalism,’” she says.
During the Gary Hart scandal, the importance of evaluating the character of presidential candidates became clear. “We almost elected a compulsive sexual predator as president in 1988,” says Sheehy, “but we didn’t because he got himself caught.”