Friday, August 5, 2022

The Front Runner: Three Weeks Inside the Gary Hart Campaign Fiasco

This past week I watched The Front Runner. The movie stars Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, the Colorado senator whose bid for the presidency unravelled as reality collided with his personal convictions about how things ought to be. Though but a news blip for many of us at the time, I was interested in how Hollywood would treat this implosion of the Gary Hart campaign. Over a period of three weeks the Democratic front runner became an also ran.

Nearly anyone who half followed presidential politics in the 80s remembers the story. Gary Hart was involved with a woman name Donna Rice and the press pressed him on this. He challenged the press and even invited them to follow him around. Well, some took him up on that, and he didn't like the fact that they actually dare to invade his privacy like that. 

If you're unfamiliar with the time frame, this was 1987. Though Gary Hart and Michael Dukakis were front runners, there were other candidates on the edge of throwing their hats in the ring and a few who did begin laying the groundwork for a serious run. This was Joe Biden's first attempt to be president. The catalyst for Biden's stumble was not infidelity but plagiarism, using a speech almost verbatim from a British Labor Party leader. 

Hart's stumble is what this film was about. 

A lot of people who were critical of the film focused on its effort to be an argument on Hart's behalf, suggesting he was a great man who was unfairly hounded by a press that ought to respect peoples' privacy. In the film Senator Hart, at one point, cites the manner in which the press concealed JFK's and LBJ's infidelities. "Why is it suddenly different now?"

Well, this is precisely what Jane Leavy's The Last Boy was all about. A sports journalist, Leavy wrote how at a certain point in time the rules changed with regard to journalism. The boy at the center of Leavy's book is Mickey Mantle. Up till Mantle, the innocence of our heroes was preserved because of the unwritten rule that journalists protect the privacy of person's of importance. Hence, the foibles of many sports heroes were concealed, much like the media concealed FDR's reliance on a wheelchair.

The major takeaway in Leavy's book is this. At a certain point in time a shift occurred. Up until then, if you revealed what you knew about a ball player, you were bad. You were slapped on the wrist and sent to your room without supper. Post-Mantle, in the new era of sports journalism, if you failed to reveal something you knew, you were punished. Writers were no longer permitted to conceal. It was now their job to reveal.  

This is why the Hart incident is so tragic. These "new rules" were no longer new. This new ethic had been in play for at least a dozen years. Hart should not have been surprised that journalists wanted to know what was happening, in his private life and on his private yacht, which he had named Monkey Business.

* * * 

Response to the film at is less than enthusiastic. One reviewer felt it was an attempt to make Gary Hart historically more significant than he really was. Another simply didn't like the music score. I myself felt like there were some takeaways. The film does raise questions about how far the media should be permitted to strip away our privacy.  

Here's a review by someone called martimusross that I identified with:

The movie tried to establish that the public perception of morality towards its public figures changed sometime in the 80's and that accountability for their behavior in their private lives became news worthy. The movie implies this is a bad thing if this aspect of personal privacy deters decent candidates from applying for high office. I find this a totally morally ambiguous stance and leaves a nasty taste in the viewers mouth.

Here's another review of note by someone called ajkbiotech:

I was a high up guy in the Dukakis Campaign. Pretty obviously Hart's self-destruction was what turned the Duke into the front-runner. Having said that, Hugh Jackman's portrayal is spot-on. I've met Gary Hart, and there's no there there. He has a vacuous look, even though he's good looking with clear blue eyes. The person who impressed me in Colorado was Pat Scroeder, who was ten times smarter than Hart and far more charismatic. A good film.

I myself felt that it does bring certain issues to the foreground that are worth talking about. It's one thing for journalists and TV newspeople to hound public figures, but when protesters--some of them making threats--gather around the homes of of these same public figures, one wonders how safe this new level of privacy incursion is. Are we beginning to see a new "wild west" form of justice with kangaroo courts? Let's hope lynchings remain a thing of the past.

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