Hart Starts Sex Scandal Era
In 1987, Gary Hart, former U.S. senator from Colorado, was on his way to becoming the Democratic Nominee for President of the United States. But events that spring would quickly end his political career and forever change journalism.
Although unprecedented at the time, Hart’s story sounds familiar to modern news consumers: The political candidate is accused of an affair or other questionable behavior, the public debates the scandal’s relevance, the evidence is produced and, usually, the politician suspends his campaign. The media, of course, is there every step of the way.
Sex scandals and politicians seem commonplace. Practically cliché. But, it wasn’t always so. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson had extra-marital affairs. Their political careers, however, were not ruined by it.
The shift begins, not with an affair or even a troubled marriage, but with the media’s reaction to Watergate. Thirteen years before Hart announced his candidacy, President Richard Nixon resigned from the office amid fallout from the Watergate scandal. It’s arguably one of the biggest scandals in White House history. And it caused journalists to reevaluate their role in politics.
Reporters had followed Nixon for decades. But they had “somehow either missed the fact, or failed to report the fact, that he had significant psychological issues and was paranoid and could be corrupted, ” says journalist Tom Fiedler in “I Don’t Have to Answer That,” a Radiolab program from 2016.
“Right after Watergate, reporters became tougher saying, ‘Okay, we have to be skeptical about everything,’ ” says news reporter Lesley Stahl in “I Don’t Have to Answer That.”
A politician’s character had gained new importance. “I remember there was a bit of a shift in the kinds of reporter[s] that were covering national politics. They had a different orientation. They were really interested in the character question,” says Kevin Sweeney, Hart’s press secretary in 1987, in “I Don’t Have to Answer That.” Candidates’ character became just as significant as their stances on political issues.
This shift caused a monumental change in how journalists handled the personal lives of politicians. In Hart’s case, gossip about his extramarital behavior prompted Newsweek to print that “rumors of womanizing” existed. It was a small part of their Apr. 13 profile on him, but it fed reporters’ interest in the subject.
Media ethics, as they pertained to the whispers swirling around Hart, were the subject of The Miami Herald’s Apr. 27 article “Sex Lives Become an Issue for Presidential Hopefuls.” Fiedler, the political editor for the Herald and author of the piece, questioned Newsweek’s decision to mention the unsubstantiated rumors.
The day “Sex Lives Become an Issue for Presidential Hopefuls” was printed, Fiedler received a call from a woman stating that the rumors he was concerned about were actually true. She told him of an on-going affair her friend was having with Hart. Her tip led to surveillance of Hart’s residence in Washington D.C. a few days later.
The Herald journalists on the stakeout observed a young woman spending the evening of Friday, May 1 and most of Saturday, May 2 with Gary Hart in his Washington townhouse. On Saturday, the reporters confronted Hart, hoping for a newsworthy statement.
“There was no precedent for any reporter accosting a presidential candidate outside his home, demanding the details of what he was doing inside it. It was just Hart and his accusers … all of them trying to find their footing on the suddenly shifting ground of American politics,” wrote Matt Bai in The New York Times Magazine’s Sept. 18, 2014 article “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics.”
The story, complete with Hart’s denial of any misconduct, hit the front page of The Miami Herald the next day, Sunday, May 3. It was titled “Miami Woman is Linked to Hart Candidate Denies Any Impropriety.”
Also on that day, The New York Times Magazine’s profile of Hart became available. Long frustrated by the media’s turn away from political issues and toward rumors, Hart remarked that reporters should follow him around. “If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored,” he said in an interview for the profile.
E. J. Dionne Jr., the author of the magazine piece, says neither he nor Hart thought of the remarks as a challenge to reporters, writes Bai. But that is not how it was perceived. Together, the two articles started a media frenzy.
On Monday, May 4, Donna Rice was named as the woman seen coming and going from Hart’s townhouse. Her name, along with a variety of pictures of her, was printed in several publications including The New York Post, The New York Daily News and The New York Times.
“By late Monday, there were two stories: the story of Gary Hart struggling to save his candidacy, and the story of The Herald’s handling of the story,” The Miami Herald later wrote in “The Gary Hart Story: How it Happened.” According to a Gallup Poll taken shortly after the publication of the “Miami Woman” article, two-thirds of respondents strongly disagreed with the notion that the Miami Herald was right to expose Hart’s private life, writes Fiedler in a CQ Researcher report on sex scandals.
Meanwhile, even though both Hart and Rice denied a sexual affair, the media continued to dig. An investigation by The Washington Post was unearthing evidence of another relationship between Hart and a completely different woman.
Perhaps the evidence coming to light in that investigation is what emboldened Paul Taylor, a reporter at the Post. On Wednesday, May 6, during a news conference in N.H., Taylor asked Hart, “Have you ever committed adultery?” It was a question that, until now, no candidate for president had ever been asked, Bai writes. Hart responded that he didn’t have to answer the question.
The press, however, did not relent and, on May 8, 1987, Hart ended his presidential campaign. It was less than one week since The Miami Herald broke their story.
While withdrawing his candidacy, Hart said, “Some things may be interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re important.” Hart failed to grasp just what had become important to journalists in the years between Nixon’s resignation and his own presidential bid.
“If a politician is true to his wedding vows, then he … is likely to be trustworthy in conducting the public’s business. The politician who cheats on a spouse, in this reasoning, then would be likely to cheat in his duty,” writes Fiedler.
For the first time in American history, journalists considered sexual behavior an acceptable indicator of a politician’s character and worthy of the public’s attention. The reporting on Gary Hart’s private life paved the way for coverage of the improprieties of President Bill Clinton, Rep. Gary Condit, Gov. Jim McGreevey, Rep. Mark Foley, Sen. John Edwards and many more. It ushered in the era of the political sex scandal.