The Contenders: The Sex Scandal That Rocked This Presidential Candidate

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Why you should care

Because it’s no good being a visionary if you turn a blind eye to your own shortcomings.

On so many domestic and foreign-policy issues, Colorado Senator Gary Hart was out in front of the other politicians of his time. While the rest of us were playing Atari and watching Mork & Mindy during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hart was talking about stateless terrorism, how to modernize a Cold War military and leading a group of “Atari Democrats” concerned about creating high-tech jobs for the information economy of the future.

But, as OZY explores in the next episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16 tomorrow night at 8 p.m. EST on PBS, the handsome presidential candidate did not foresee the major development that would prove his ultimate undoing: the media and public’s growing interest in the private lives and personal character of its leaders. How did one of America’s great political visionaries get blindsided by a sex scandal? Or, as political columnist Matt Bai frames the question in his recent book, All the Truth Is Out: “How could such a smart guy have been that stupid?”

Learn more about Gary Hart’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, a new TV series from OZY about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs every Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.

Starting with his strict Nazarene church upbringing in rural Kansas, Hart had always been serious and earnest — an intellectual who loved books and big ideas. And after being elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 37 in 1974, the Yale Law and Yale Divinity School graduate set out to bring a new rigor to the world of American politics. “I sensed that my party was running out of intellectual steam,” Hart says of that period in The Contenders.

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Gary Hart, you jokester.

Source Janet Knott/Getty

And Hart quickly established himself as a different breed of politician, one who thought about the substance of governing more than his peers — and who had an uncanny knack for reading the tea leaves of American life. “On the issues of the day,” writes Bai, “Hart could see around the corners with more clarity than any political figure of his time, or for some time after.”

Allegations of womanizing had long dogged Hart.

 

Fast-forward to May 1987: Hart was drawing comparisons to John F. Kennedy (in more ways than one) and was an early front-runner for president in the 1988 election. On Sunday, May 3, The Miami Herald ran a story about the married Hart’s liaison in Washington, D.C., with Donna Rice, a young pharmaceutical rep and an aspiring model. By the following Friday, the smartest guy in the room and the purported savior of the Democratic Party in the Reagan Era had folded his campaign tent. “This is how quick it was,” Hart’s former secretary Kevin Sweeney recalls. “There was a person on our campaign who went camping in the southern Utah wilderness for a week, and when she left, Hart was the front-runner … and when she came back, she was in the airport at Salt Lake City and saw Hart withdraw.”

Allegations of womanizing had long dogged Hart — known to hop a plane to L.A. to spend many a weekend with good friend Warren Beatty and the actor’s coterie of female companions — and the social and political forces that erupted in the Donna Rice scandal had been brewing for years. Bai makes the argument that a number of factors — including the birth of satellite television and the 24-hour news cycle, changing attitudes toward adultery as well as a new generation of political reporters raised on Watergate and dead set on exposing the character flaws of their leaders — had generated a swirling political storm by the mid-1980s. “Hart didn’t create that vortex,” says Bai. “He was, rather, the first to wander into its path.”

If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.

—Gary Hart

Still, it was a path littered with warning signs, especially for a politician noted for his clairvoyance. Hart’s younger aides, and Beatty himself, had warned him that the public temperament was changing and journalists could no longer be counted on to look the other way as they had with the personal indiscretions of Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and so many other U.S. leaders. And yet, Hart continued to tempt fate, going so far as to dare reporters to “Follow me around.… If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.”

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Hart announces he’s back in the game in New Hampshire in December 1987.

Source Janet Knott/Getty

At what point does a blind spot become willful ignorance? Did Hart’s hubris finally outstrip his vision? He may have been the first politician of his age to go down in the flames of a full-blown media sex scandal, but he had been playing with fire for years. “His was a compulsion rooted not in seeking illicit sex,” journalist Gail Sheehy argued in Vanity Fair in 1987, “but in proving he was so utterly worthy that he could break all the rules.”

Ever the visionary, Hart had big ideas for his presidency, including, as he reveals in The Contenders, a bold plan to address the Cold War from the moment of his inauguration. But there would be no Hart inauguration or White House, and the disgraced politician would never serve in Congress again. And for all his foresight on terrorism, technology and other pivotal matters, there was at least one version of America’s political future that Gary Hart could not imagine: the one without Gary Hart.

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