Do the personal lives of politicians matter? It varies.
While John Edwards had his presidential hopes dashed and Bill Clinton’s presidency is synonymous with the name Monica Lewinsky, Newt Gingrich had an affair with his now-wife (and current U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See) Callista during Clinton’s impeachment, former mayor Rudy Giuliani conducted trysts with his mistress in the bowels of City Hall, and Trump sailed into the White House with multiple sex scandals in his wake.
Gary Hart was not one of the so-called lucky ones.
The Front Runner tells the story of what seemed to be the perfect Democratic candidate for the 1988 presidential nomination. Gary Hart (played by Hugh Jackman) was smart, policy-driven, and even had a head of glossy brown hair to go along with it.
The only hitch? One media outlet broke the news of a woman Hart met and allegedly had an affair with, named Donna Rice. With one published story came an avalanche of questions, and within the span of five days, Hart withdrew from the race.
For a figure like Trump, however, previous press coverage of his personal life could render any new affairs as expected behavior, allowing them to fall into the background of other more pressing scandals demanding media attention (e.g. the 19 women who have accused him of varying degrees of sexual misconduct). For someone like Edwards, people expected him to rise to a higher standard only to fall dramatically short of expectations. In Clinton’s case, it didn’t help that Republicans seemed to weaponize morality enforcement when it was most convenient for them.
In attempting to dive deeper into that debate, The Front Runner examines a few determining factors. The press, the campaign, and the women around Hart shape his fate, despite his best efforts. The film also shows how the U.S., in the past and in the present day, has struggled to answer the debate’s central question in any consistent way.
You see journalists debate the question in the film, mulling over the lack of coverage John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson received for their numerous affairs. Why should Hart’s alleged affair be any different? While one outlet is more than willing to run the story, another internally fought about whether the story was worth the ink and the column inches.
Hart was more than happy to lecture the press about why his personal life was “relevant.” And in the film, one reporter he becomes particularly close to at the Washington Post is shamed into silence when Hart declares, “This is beneath you.”
Matt Bai, a political columnist who wrote a book about the Hart affair and co-wrote The Front Runner, said this debate has only gotten murkier with the arrival of President Trump.
“Just because it’s distasteful to people like me to dive into the private lives of politicians—and it is—doesn’t mean you never do it,” Bai told The Daily Beast. “I think of it as a constant struggle to find the line, and it’s gotten harder and more confusing as opposed to easier and less so.”
The more journalists pried into Hart, the antsier his campaign got. In one scene, campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) tells Hart that he needs to address the affair story with the media or he’ll be trampled by it. Hart refuses and passionately replies, “I care about the sanctity of this process.”
The women in the film are all treated as collateral damage. Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) is forced to deal with the after-effects of being the “other woman” on her own, left defenseless against a horde of reporters; Hart’s wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever), meanwhile, are similarly caught in the crossfire, trapped in their home surrounded by news vans.
Within the campaign, aide Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) asks a room full of men if Hart is going to “bring up Donna” in his final address to reporters before suspending his campaign. The men ignore her, again reinforcing how Rice was treated as political road kill.
In the Washington Post newsroom, one female reporter explains to her male colleague why the Hart scandal matters. “Hart is a man of power and opportunity, and that has responsibility,” she says. “As a journalist, you oughta care.”
So, does a sex scandal really matter in the realm of politics? Should it? This whirlwind of a movie leaves viewers with far more questions than answers, but that’s by design according to its makers. Director Jason Reitman called Hart a “really interesting test case” exploring the debate.
“Hart is a reflective canvas,” Reitman told The Daily Beast. “When a movie works best, the movie screen becomes a mirror.”
When looking at the scandals of Edwards, Clinton, Gingrich, Giuliani and Trump, that “reflective canvas” may as well be a fun house mirror. Trump, Gingrich and Giuliani likely had a higher threshold for scandal as boorish men who’ve conducted multiple affairs; Edwards, Clinton and Hart, on the other hand, were liberals who advocated pro-women policies, and thus, their reputations were more easily tarnished in the eyes of the public.
But the question remains: Would the “sanctity”-spouting Hart have been able to survive his sex scandal in 2018? The brains behind the movie think he wouldn’t eve have been in the running.
“I don't think we would have Gary Hart in today’s environment because he simply would have chosen to do something else,” Bai said. “With the lines he drew about privacy, I don’t think he would have thought for 10 seconds about entering the public arena in the current environment.”