THE STING OF SCANDAL
It had all the ingredients of a classic Greek tragedy—plus the titillating details of a low-grade bedroom farce. The protagonist, a man who aspired to be president of the United States, boasted qualities traditionally considered heroic: intelligence, charisma and the rhetoric of lofty idealism that promised an era of “new ideas.” The chorus in the drama consisted of modern-day scribes who accused him of spending the weekend with a woman other than his wife. Gary Warren Hart, 50, the Democratic front-runner for the 1988 elections, vehemently denied the story—and attempted to fight off the perception that he had a fatal character flaw. But then, after a reunion with his wife in New Hampshire, and fleeing home to Denver, he abruptly closed down his campaign, admitting that he had made “big mistakes, but not bad mistakes.”
Lurid: The week—the toughest in his life, he said—began with a report in The Miami Herald that Donna Rice, a 29-year-old Miami saleswoman and sometime-actress, had visited his Washington town house late on a Friday night, while Hart’s wife, Lee, 51, was at home in Denver. There followed a report that Hart, Rice, a major Hart fund raiser and another woman sailed to Bimini in March on a boat called Monkey Business—and that Hart had maintained periodic contact with Rice. While Hart fought back against the allegations, campaign contributions began to dry up, and his standing in the public opinion polls dropped. By Friday his campaign was over. Confronting the threat of a second report about yet another extramarital affair, Hart said that he refused to submit his wife and their two adult children to an “intolerable situation.”
But even before Hart made his emotional announcement in Denver, an explosive debate was erupting, and Jesse Jackson, another Democratic presidential hopeful went so far as to allege that Hart had been “set up.” In addition to Hart and his peccadillos, the debate focused on the role of the North American media in scrutinizing the private lives of public figures (page 28). And inevitably his downfall stirred memories of past sex scandals that had irrevocably tarnished prestigious political careers, including a handful in Canada where the pursuit
of personal details in political life has been more restrained (page 30).
Even a shaken Hart admitted that the issue had become much larger than whether or not he had slept with Rice, a onetime bit player on the TV series Miami Vice. Only five days after the
publication of the lurid front-page story in The Miami Herald, the candidate himself conceded that his hopes of refocusing attention on his political agenda had foundered in a storm of persistent media questions about his character. Emerging from the seclusion of his rustic Colorado log home on Troublesome Gulch Road, 40 km outside Denver, to renounce his presidential dream, the former senator declared: “I don’t want to be the issue [in the campaign], I cannot be the issue because that breaks the link between me and the voters. You can’t get your message across.”
Hart’s stunning withdrawal from a contest he had formally entered only three weeks earlier irrevocably altered the political landscape in the 1988 presidential race. By taking himself out of the running, he turned the scramble for the Democratic nomina-
tion by eight other relatively unknown contenders—none claiming more than 10 per cent support in public opinion polls—into a wide-open battle. Perhaps as significantly, the uproar over Hart’s private life focused the spotlight on the issue of presidential char-
acter just as opening testimony to the joint congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra arms scandal raised new questions about President Ronald Reagan’s own credibility.
Details: Indeed, some experts predicted that the widespread public disillusionment provoked by the two scandals would prompt voters to subject the current crop of White House hopefuls to the most intense moral scrutiny in more than a decade. Said James David Barber, a professor at North Carolina’s Duke University and author of a classic study called Presidential Character. “You reach a point at which there has been an accumulation of so much corruption and lying and fighting in American politics that the public gets sick and tired of it and wants to find somebody to go clean it up. This is an election of conscience coming up.”
To many, the spectacle of Hart’s
hasty exit from the campaign appeared all the more puzzling because he seemed to have brought it on himself. In the course of interviews designed to dispel the reports of philandering that had dogged him, he had thrown down a challenge to the media. “Follow me around, I don’t care,” he dared a New York Times reporter. “I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead.
They’d be very bored.”
On May 3, the very day that the Times Sunday magazine published that dare, five journalists from The Miami Herald were reporting details that were anything but boring. After spending the better part of 24 hours staking out Hart’s three-storey town house near Washington’s Capitol Hill, they wrote that he had spent much of the weekend alone with Rice, an unmarried pharmaceutical saleswoman who promotes baby formulas and gynecological products to Miami-area doctors.
Scandal: Both Hart and Rice, in separate news conferences, denied the accusations after a day of silence. Both claimed that Rice and a girlfriend had shared a king-size bed at the nearby home of Hart’s confidant, influential lawyer William Broadhurst, whose wife was also out of town. Said Hart: “If I had intended a relationship with this woman, believe me—I have written spy novels, I am not stupid—I wouldn’t have done it this way.” He ignored a reporter’s query,
“How would you have done it, senator?”
But the denials by Rice and Hart were riddled with apparent contradictions. For instance, Rice had said she had seen Hart about taking a job on his campaign staff.
But friends of the model, who once dated Monaco’s Prince Albert, said they could not recall her ever showing any interest in politics. And a passenger who had sat next to her on the plane to Washington from Miami told the conservative Washington Times that Rice had proudly displayed one of
Hart’s books inscribed: “This is in lieu of flowers until we meet. Love, Gary.” Indeed, Hart admitted that he had first met the five-foot, six-inch, 108-lb. Rice at a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen, Colo., which she cohosted with her then-date Don Henley, former lead singer with the rock band The Eagles. He also confirmed that the two had
taken a boat trip together with Broadhurst and another girl in March that ended with an overnight stay in Bimini, a Bahamian island 55 miles off the Florida coast. Hart and Rice insisted that they slept on separate boats. CBS television news last week aired video-
tape shot by an American businessman of Hart’s pleasure trip, including shots of Rice in a scanty white bikini disembarking at one point to enter a local “Hot Bod” contest. Hart also admitted that he later telephoned Rice a half-dozen times from stops along the campaign trail.
Hart’s defence was not aided when a Florida photographer produced a poster of Rice, sporting a cowboy hat and with her bust only partially concealed by a Confederate flag, to publicize a now-defunct western bar. And perhaps most damaging of all, Hart’s wife of 28 years—they met when he was a selfdescribed “bumpkin” at Oklahoma’s evangelical Bethany Nazarene College— at first remained secluded behind barbed wire at their Rocky Mountain home. She was there for three days after the scandal broke with what spokesmen described as a sinus condition. As the Hart campaign moved to New Hampshire, and the chorus of questions mounted about his sex life, he faced one of the most personal questions ever put to a politician by a reporter: had he ever committed adultery? “I don’t have to answer that,” he said.
Character: His campaign unravelled with astonishing speed. Leading Democratic figures cancelled fund raisers designed to help pay off the $1.7-million debt still lingering from 1984. A USA Today poll reported that 76 per cent of respondents believed Hart had been hurt and campaign workers privately expressed anger and shock that he had betrayed their trust. Said Mayor Karen Merrick of Guttenberg, Iowa, a Democrat who had supported Hart in 1984: “You can forgive a lot, but stupidity is hard to figure.” In retaliation, Hart lashed back at the media for what he called “character assassination.” But many of his supporters declined to come to his defence on an issue he had repeatedly been cautioned about. Only a month earlier John McEvoy, a seasoned Washington political operative and former aide, had told a reporter that Hart was “always in jeopardy of having the sex issue raised if he can’t keep his pants on.” And indeed, just as the candidate was pondering last Wednesday night whether to cancel his campaign and return to Colorado with his wife in the early hours of the morning, he learned that the Washington Post was in possession of details of an alleged long-term romance between him and an unnamed Washington woman. Retired Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill said that with his indiscretions Hart had “shot himself in the foot.” Said Miami Herald editor Jim Hampton, countering Hart’s attack on the paper: “This isn’t character
assassination; it’s character suicide.”
Both armchair and professional psychologists, meanwhile, agreed with many sociologists that—in an age when 50 per cent of Americans admit to extramarital affairs—what hurt Hart most was not the revelation that the former Yale divinity student might have broken his wedding vows. It was the fact that his apparently self-destructive behavior raised more serious questions about his character. Said Gary Orren, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard: “This is not an isolated event or revelation. This fits into some other issues that have been troubling the public.” Indeed, Hart’s unsuccessful 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination had been damaged by doubts about his credibility. He never fully explained why he had changed his name from Hartpence to Hart in 1961. And in his Senate biography—as in other statements—Hart had shaved a year off his age, claiming he was born in Ottawa, Kan., in 1937 instead of the year on his birth certificate, 1936. Over the years he also changed his signature several times.
Destroyed: Trying to answer lingering questions about his character, the presidential aspirant earlier this year penned a 5,000-word autobiographical essay later published in the Boston Globe under the title “Hart on Hart.” But it merely raised further questions. Hart claimed that at age 4 in Kansas he “came almost face-to-face with a large grey wolf,” and that recently in Colorado he had “tracked a timber wolf a hundred yards from our door.” But Denver Post columnist Leonard Larsen took issue with both points, noting that the Audubon Society’s 1986 report stated that wolves had been virtually extinct in the American West since 1930.
Hart himself has shown impatience with such questions, branding them “unimportant.” But a vast majority of critics and fellow politicians disagreed. They pointed out that Americans voted for their president, more than any other official, on the basis of their gut feelings about him as a man. Said Orren: “We’re not electing just a chief executive; we’re also electing the chief role model. When we’ve invested in the presidency the functions of both prime minister and monarch—someone who is supposed to be this chief daddy of the country—then the indicators of moral rectitude and probity are relevant.”
Indeed, many political veterans point out that Hart ought to have known better. As the manager of George McGovern’s ill-fated 1972 presidential campaign, he had watched the career of McGovern’s running mate, Thomas Eagleton, destroyed by revelations that he had once received electric shock treat-
ment for severe depression. And as an ardent Kennedy supporter, he had seen Senator Edward Kennedy’s 1980 presidential hopes run aground on questions about his behavior at Chappaquiddick: on that fateful 1969 night on Cape Cod, the car Kennedy was driving crashed over a bridge, drowning his passenger, campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, with whom he had been partying.
The Hart scandal has given rise to a deluge of theorizing over why sex and politics have long been such volatile— and frequent—bedfellows. Dalliance was a pastime of Benjamin Franklin, Thom-
as Jefferson and president Warren G. Harding. So well-known was it that Grover Cleveland had sired a son out of wedlock that, during the 1884 presidential campaign, his opponents taunted him with cries of, “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” To which Cleveland’s supporters replied after he had won, “He’s gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
‘Disease’: Biographers also have detailed the risky amorous exploits of late president John F. Kennedy, including his cavorting with Mafia gangster Sam Giancana’s mistress, Judith Campbell Exner, in White House bedrooms. Commented Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic: “Such behavior seems to be a congenital disease of politicians. The same juices that drive them to run for office drive many to horse around and may drive some to express themselves in other ways, like starting wars.” But psychologist Philip Tetlock, a University of
California professor, dismisses that theory as ridiculous. Said Tetlock: “There is absolutely no evidence to support the view that politicians have higher levels of testosterone than others.”
Feminism: In Washington, observers say, power has long been recognized as an aphrodisiac, and Hart’s behavior may be more the rule than the exception. But the newest and most controversial addition to the social brew is a change of attitude: journalists, such as Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, once kept an unwritten gentleman’s agree-
ment not to write about John F. Kennedy’s sex life. Now, journalists regard the private lives of Edward Kennedy and Gary Hart as fair game. One reason for the change may be the rise of feminism and new attitudes about women. Another may be the post-Watergate perception that character is relevant to presidential performance. Said Harvard’s Orren: “We’ve had a succession of presidents who have caused the country some grief because of so-called character problems. People are disappointed about their leaders turning out to be different than they seemed.”
Certainly, Washington insiders’ gossip about Hart’s sexual habits is not new. The gossip became so rife during his 1984 run against Walter Mondale that Hart’s then-campaign manager prepared a contingency reply in case the matter became public. Charles Peters, editor of the liberal Washington Month-
ly magazine, points out that in some cases—such as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s longtime romance with his wife Eleanor’s social secretary Lucy Mercer Rutherford, or Martin Luther King’s affairs as documented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—a man’s sex life is no gauge of his political leadership. But, says Peters, “those issues have to be covered, especially when the sexual behavior has some elements of a deeper underlying nuttiness.” Indeed, many critics have found the most disturbing aspect of Hart’s recent behavior to be his reckless disregard for his own reputation when he knew he was under close public scrutiny. Wrote Washington Post columnist Judy Mann: “If he likes to live dangerously, who wants him to have the red telephone by his bed?”
Wounded: As Hart withdrew from the race, his chief rivals were already rushing to fill the political vacuum he had left. Perhaps the best known is Jesse Jackson, who could reap the rewards of his black voter registration drive when 13 southern primaries elect roughly onethird of the Democratic convention delegates during simultaneous primaries known as Super Tuesday. But Jackson could also split the party along racial lines in the South, and many Democrats say that a white front-runner will emerge from the pack over the next months who can assure a national victory. Meanwhile, Republicans, whose own front-runner, George Bush, is already sorely wounded by his links to the Iranian-contra scandal, were rejoicing at Hart’s fate last week. Said one White House official: “This is good for all the candidates, Democrats and Republicans.”
But Gary Hart’s demise has raised some troubling questions about the American political process. As he strode into his political twilight, Hart warned voters and the media not to subject political candidates to such intense personal scrutiny, for fear of driving good men and women from the pursuit of public service. And he urged them to pay heed to issues, not to personalities. But in Presidential Character, Duke University’s Barber stresses the vital importance of subjecting the character of candidates for the nation’s highest office to close scrutiny to permit a realistic estimate of how they will function in the White House. “The issues will changé,” says Barber, “ the character of the president will not.”