Turning Point

How Gary Hart Became the First Political Sex Scandal Casualty

In a new book on the 1987 scandal that wrecked Gary Hart’s presidential chances, Matt Bai argues that the episode marks the moment when political reporting went tabloid.

10.01.14 9:55 AM ET

If Matt Bai becomes the instrument of redemption for former senator Gary Hart, best known as the central figure in a sex scandal that sank his front-running presidential campaign and provided endless fodder for the late-night comics, he’s probably just in time.

Hart—who, according to Bai’s new book, All the Truth Is Out, has struggled to find a purpose in life since his descent into tabloid hell a quarter-century ago—turns 78 in November.

It will surely come as a welcome balm to a failed statesman in his twilight years that a widely respected political journalist—and a wonderful writer to boot—has re-examined the senator’s stretch on the spit and basically signed on to his theory of the ordeal: namely, that Hart was the first victim of a political news media that had finally, in the spring of 1987, succumbed to the mob-pleasing temptation to display entertainment over serious reporting, gossip and trivialization over policy and substance, and take “character” simply to mean “character flaws.”

Woe to the Republic, Bai argues, that visionary if imperfect leaders like Hart aren’t permitted to put their talents to the benefit of the people because of a cheap, tawdry media barrier that is every bit as impassable as the Berlin Wall once was. “The Week Politics Went Tabloid” is Bai’s bold subtitle, suggesting that Hart’s nightmare was a transformational moment. (Bai’s argument is somewhat undercut by the fact that five years later, in an even less hospitable media environment, Bill Clinton survived a much tougher scandal—not only the Whitewater business and the Gennifer Flowers tapes but allegations of draft-dodging and lying about it—and went on to win two terms in the White House. Of course, maybe Clinton, who even post-Lewinsky ranks as one of the country’s most admired public figures, wasn’t as fine a president as Gary Hart would have been.)

To recap: Aided and abetted by his frequent traveling companion, Washington lobbyist Billy Broadhurst, the 52-year-old Hart sailed aboard a Miami businessman’s yacht on an overnight cruise to Bimini with 29-year-old Donna Rice. The model and aspiring actress, who in the infamous photo on the cover of The National Enquirer sat skin-to-skin on the senator’s naked knees, took his phone calls from the campaign trail and later on, that Friday night in May when it all came crashing down, was spotted returning from dinner with Hart and entering his Capitol Hill townhouse by a sneaky stakeout team sent by the Miami Herald.

It was a combustible combination that exploded in Hart’s face. His 27-year marriage to his high school sweetheart, Lee Ludwig, had been so rocky that there were occasional separations, with the senator camped out during one such hiatus in a spare bedroom of Bob Woodward’s Georgetown manse. And despite Hart’s aspect of formal reserve and the sense that he thought himself too pure and too wise for the grubby business of politics, he was known to “like women,” as Bai reports, and widely rumored to have “a zipper problem.” What’s more, Rice was “positively breathtaking.” She “was an attractive blonde,” Bai writes, “only in the sense that the Sistine Chapel had some pretty good artwork.”

When all these particulars came light to light—including Hart’s spectacularly ill-advised dare to The New York Times Magazine (“Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.”)—the resulting media feeding frenzy was unparalleled up to that point in the ongoing melodrama of American democracy. It reached its climax at New Hampshire’s Hanover Inn, where, in an overheated event space, Hart faced down a feral pack of reporters, and The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor asked his famous question, “Have you ever committed adultery?”

“Ahh,” Hart stammered. “I do not think that’s a fair question.”

After Taylor presented The Post’s evidence to Hart’s campaign staff that the senator had in fact been sleeping around, Hart dropped out of the race with a fiery, unrepentant withdrawal speech. “We’re all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders,” Hart declared, “that reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted, that has reporters in bushes, false and inaccurate stories printed, photographers peeking in our windows, swarms of helicopters hovering over our roofs, and my very strong wife close to tears because she can’t even get into her own house at night without being harassed. And then after all that, ponderous pundits wonder in mock seriousness why some of the best people in the country choose not to run for higher office.”

This book is apparently meant as an affirmation of that claim. “Indeed, what had it gotten us, this violent compression of politics and celebrity and moral policing,” Bai writes. “American history is rife with examples of people who were crappy husbands or shady dealers but great stewards of the state, just as we’ve had thoroughly decent men who couldn’t summon the executive skills to run a bake sale. Hart’s humiliation had been the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated scandals and public floggings, the harbinger of an age when the threat of instant destruction would mute any thoughtful debate, and when the perception of some personal imperfection could obliterate, or at least eclipse, whatever else had accumulated in the public record.”

Given Bai’s thesis, it’s hardly surprising that Hart, along with his long-suffering wife of 54 years, made himself available for 20 hours of interviews with the author—at the Dubliner bar near the Capitol in Washington, at his modest law office in Denver, and at their mountain redoubt in nearby Kittredge, called “Troublesome Gulch,” a name as ironically iconic as “Monkey Business,” which, unbelievably, was the name of the yacht.

At one point, inside their cabin in the woods (purchased with the help of Hart’s friend Warren Beatty), Lee and Gary ruminate on the lasting damage the scandal inflicted on the nation. “It’s what he could have done for the country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee says, and Gary agrees, pointing out that if only he’d made it to the White House, “George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president…And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” Punctuating his comment with a loud sigh, Hart adds: “You have to live with that, you know?”

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Bai’s account of the scandal and its aftermath—for which he also interviewed dozens of former campaign aides, reporters, and Donna Rice Hughes, now a happily married 56-year-old committed Christian and Internet safety advocate—contains several news nuggets, notably the identity of the tipster who unleashed the Miami Herald SWAT team, a rival model named Dana Weems. Paradoxically, it was never proved that Hart and Rice had sex. Rice has always denied it, Hart won’t say, a Hart aide speculates “I fear not,” and Bai fails to resolve the question. Yet his narrative is gripping, perceptive, and moving at times, even if his conclusions are highly debatable.

Bai, who was a college student when the scandal erupted, clearly developed something of a man-crush on his subject as he toiled on the book. While he acknowledges that Hart is a damaged human being, he resolves nearly every question about Hart’s character—such as the prevailing attitude in the Washington media-political complex that Hart was just plain “weird”—in the senator’s favor.

Perhaps significantly, he omits Gail Sheehy’s discovery in 1984, when Hart nearly beat Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination, that he considered a Native American woman named Marilyn Youngbird his “spiritual adviser.” Youngbird boasted of her intimacy with the senator during a Comanche ceremony, saying, “It was sensual. They brushed the front and back of our bodies with eagle feathers.” When Sheehy repeated to the senator Youngbird’s prophecy that “the Great Spirit had chosen Gary Hart to save nature from destruction,” he replied, “I know. She keeps telling me that.” Sheehy asked, “Do you believe it?” Hart’s answer: “Yes.”

Talk about weird!

Bai also commits a few minor errors, such as suggesting the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been carrying on an extramarital affair with actress Debra Winger, who was actually Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey’s girlfriend; the married Jackson, in 1988, was rumored to be involved with Margot Kidder. And he implies that The Post’s Paul Taylor was so traumatized and possibly guilt-ridden by his much-criticized role in ending Hart’s presidential quest that he never covered another campaign. Yet during my stint as a Post national reporter on the 1988 campaign, many months after the Hart debacle, Taylor was an eager and energetic colleague, happily covering the campaigns of House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, Jackson, and Sen. Bob Dole, among others.

It’s to Bai’s credit, however, that near the end of All the Truth Is Out, he quotes Hart as he ruminates on perhaps the most compelling reason his candidacy failed—and it has nothing to do with the news media. “‘Well, this haunts me,’ Hart says, his eyes brimming and red,” Bai writes. “‘Because I think you are given certain talents. And you are judged by how you use those talents. And to the degree I believe in some kind of hereafter or transmigration of the soul, I will be judged by how I did or did not use the talents that I was given. And I don’t think I’ve used them very well.’”