Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Man Who Was Supposed to Be President

The media created Gary Hart, and when he offered them a scandal, they tore him right back down.
hart movie

Now that we’ve slogged through our own real-life election drama, the talented director Jason Reitman has invited us to revisit one of the first modern political sex scandals. The Front Runner stars Hugh Jackman as 1980s Democratic office-seeker Gary Hart and the always amazing Vera Farmiga as his wife Oletha (Lee) Hart.  

National Review’s Kyle Smith has a terrific (if thumbs-down) review in which he quite rightly states that the movie itself is a period piece in that it disses journalists for exposing a politician’s sex life. In 1999, after liberal backlash over Kenneth Starr’s Inspector Javert-like investigations into Bill Clinton, this might have been seen as liberal commentary. But in today’s era of Ronan Farrow (let alone Christine Blasey Ford) uncovering powerful people’s private sexual secrets and abuses, Reitman’s approach of accusing the accusers marks him as more of a subversively Gen. X libertarian-conservative than a frontline “Hollywood liberal.” It’s a point that’s been made about him for some time.

Smith faults Reitman for telling, rather than showing, how brilliant and irresistible and incomparably talented Gary Hart was. I disagree. I would submit that this is exactly the right approach for a film about Hart. While undeniably brilliant and visionary, Hart was branded as the wave of the future because his fawning cheering section in the Boomer punditocracy told us he was brilliant and visionary.

While not a Boomer himself, Gary Hart looked young enough to pass for one. He’s also credited with having inadvertently bred the first “yuppies”—a term originally used by rising young neoliberal columnists like Michael Kinsley, Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, and Maureen Dowd, to describe Hart’s New Democrat fanbase (Young Urban Professionals who had done the hippie thing and were now getting their first real taste of partnerships, BMWs, and two-story homes).

Hart first came to national prominence working under his mentor, University of California intellectual Fred Dutton, in 1972. He told George McGovern that it was high time to toss the white lower-middle class into the basket of deplorables and focus on a coalition of socially and religiously liberal, well-off coastal whites. In Hart’s 1974 Senate election, he pointedly dissed the greatest remaining giant of New Deal-style liberalism, declaring that “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys” anymore.         

Hart and Al Gore were the only major candidates for president during my lifetime who had even the faintest inkling of how to deal with the death of Detroit and the rise of Silicon Valley. But while Gore was about as likable and warm as Anton Chigurh, Hart was “charming” in a smarmy, Warren Beatty/Robert Wagner sort of way, with perfect teeth and wavy hair. All you had to do was get past the dripping self-righteousness and unctuousness.

The World War II and Korea veterans who were the Boomers’ parents—Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Mario Cuomo, Bob Dole—couldn’t imagine an economy where companies like Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Uber, and Tesla would be as or more important than General Motors, General Electric, and Sears. That meant they couldn’t understand that policies would need to be put into place to cushion Americans as things transitioned from a manufacturing-and-retail-based world into an irrevocably financialized and globalized information economy. In that sense, no matter what your politics were or are, Hart’s political death was a true loss.

While The Front Runner’s subtext seems to be, at least in part, “wouldn’t things have been great if this guy had been president?” it’s impossible not to play a little alt-history of our own and wonder what might have happened had Lee Hart done what the next would-be Democratic first lady did in 1992 (and again in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky crisis). And that takes us to a darker—even downright triggering—question mark.

Many high-powered Boomer executive women saw in Hillary Clinton the first potential first lady they could really identify with, one who mirrored their own lived experiences, balancing demanding careers with a difficult husband and motherhood. When Bubba’s sex life went public (just as Gary Hart’s did), a bunch of aging white male journalists like Ben Bradlee, Johnny Apple, Bob Novak, and Mike Wallace seemed poised to deny Hillary her rightful chance to be a partner in power, to shatter the glass ceiling of co-presidency. And all because of mistakes her husband had made!

These savvy feminists weren’t having any of it. Nina Burleigh ruled the roost when she wrote (during Monicagate), “These [male reporters and politicians] had neither the personal experience nor the credentials” to know what was and wasn’t appropriate, “nor to give a good goddamn about it.”

Lee Hart had worked respectable careers as a teacher and in real estate, and was certainly well enough educated. But by her own admission, she worked more because she had to than because she wanted to. (Despite Gary Hart’s A-list celebrity fan club, he was considered one of the “poorest” members of the Senate’s Old Boys Club.) So while Lee Hart wasn’t exactly a submissive housewife watching Jan Crouch and Tammy Faye Baker, she also wasn’t a high-powered Hillary Rodham Clinton, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, either.

And that takes us to the crucial question. Suppose Lee Hart had gone full-tilt boogie in mounting a media-blitz defense of her husband—from 60 Minutes and Today to Oprah, Barbara Walters, and Larry King to NYT and WaPo op-eds—the way her soon-to-be-successor did. Would female doctors, lawyers, executives, and even upscale soccer moms have seen her as a fabulous Murphy Brown or Diana Christensen, kicking the boys’ butts, giving orders, taking names, and looking fabulous?

Or—without Hillary’s star power and A-list career—would they have considered Lee a pathetic victim, standin’ by her man? (Of course, many more “traditional” wives and mothers might have found Lee Hart infinitely more sympathetic than Hillary Clinton. But the Edith Bunkers of the world also weren’t lining up for Gary Hart even on a good day.)  

Like a white man lecturing a black or Hispanic person on racial issues, it could be said that I don’t really have the right to even address these things, that they do not “belong to me.” Point taken. But if I’m not allowed to do it, then when The Front Runner hits wide release on November 21, I want to see a hell of a lot of (female) film and TV critics addressing this forthrightly and in detail, political correctness be damned. I’m talking everyone from feminist writers to female fundamentalists, from career women to crunchy-cons. For a movie that wants to be a Serious Statement On The Way Things Are—and comes just six short weeks after Dr. Ford v. Judge Kavanaugh and at the height of #MeToo—these power and class dynamics simply must be addressed in any “think piece” on Gary Hart. Full stop.

I also want to underline that I think it is absolutely not fair that in the end, the responsibility and blame for saving their errant but talented husbands’ careers always redounds to the real-life Good Wives, even when those wives were completely blameless with regard to the marriage. But unfortunately, that seems to be the way of the world—or at least, the way things were with Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.

And that brings us full circle to the very sad ending to both Hart’s movie and his political career. At the end of the day, it was the media’s craving for a performative, slick, $1.98 John F. Kennedy reboot that made Hart happen in the first place. And it was their unslakable appetite for circulation, ratings, and scandal that took it all away.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”