There’s a new film out about Gary Hart, a man many thought was likely to be president of the United States or, at the very least, vice president. I know, those of you born after MTV stopped playing music videos are saying Gary Who? Didn’t he play bass for Oasis for a tour?
Back in ancient times, I’m talking 1987 here, not everyone in America was armed with a cell phone ready to post embarrassing, humiliating videos to TMZ, Twitter or Facebook. We relied on actual information provided by the likes of people with gravitas like Tom Brokaw, not on video that a 12-year-old shot of a politician looking the fool.
However, the idea that no reporter was interested in the peccadillos of particular politicians would be incorrect. While it wasn’t reported in the Times or the Post, whisper campaigns took place and books like Hollywood Babylon could be purchased if you knew where and who to ask. Go to the right bookstore and a clerk would look you over to make sure you weren’t a cop, cut their eyes left and right to make sure no one was watching and then sell you a rather poorly printed book with enough editing errors to render it unreadable.
But then came Gary Hart. He’s the subject of the new film The Front Runner, about when the world shifted on its axis in the spring of 1987. Suddenly, the private life of public figures was fair game, even if it wasn’t fair.
When rumors that Hart was having an affair surfaced, he challenged the press to prove it. It didn’t take Woodward and Bernstein to uncover this scandal.
Hart was the first major politician, at least in this era, to be grilled and eventually flambéed on his sex life – in public, anyway. He was then presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colorado. After being caught with his hands where his wife wasn’t, but a blonde was, he went from leading the Democratic field to being a political footnote in under a month.
Hart had been a key aide to Sen. George McGovern when the South Dakota Democrat ran for president in 1972 and was later elected a U.S. senator in Colorado. He was Kennedy handsome, boyish, charismatic and a policy wonk who could put the Tasmanian devil to sleep. He was also old-fashioned, at least in regard to keeping his public and private life separate. He didn’t see the train of change coming his way. Stormy Daniels was far, far from his mind. What did that matter to sound transportation policy, anyway?
I had one small interaction with Hart when he was a senator, but it was a telling one for me. It was 1980 and I was attending the University of Maryland near Washington, D.C., and was volunteering as an intern with a freelance photographer who often did work for The Washington Star, the then-rival to the Post. Though I was still in some denial about going into the reporting game, I loved hanging out around the newsroom, eventually meeting a legend or two like Jimmy Breslin.
So when my freelance photographer mentor asked me to man the second camera at a society event, I was all in. Our client was People Magazine, the big time as far as I was concerned. And, I might add, a magazine that seems rather harmless now, but was just a harbinger of the celebrity journalism train that was hurtling down the tracks. The event was some soiree or a fundraiser. Basically a bunch of people in some nice Georgetown digs drinking and having some conversation. And there was Sen. Gary Hart, drink in hand, along with several other senators in attendance.
I raised my camera and pointed it at the young Democratic rising star and before I could get it to my eye, Hart’s hand went down. The drink disappeared.
My mentor looked over at me. Aim up, he told me. Don’t get a photo of the drink in their hand, was the message. Or the blonde on their arm.
What struck me was how good Gary was at it. My camera went up, his hand went down. Drink disappeared. It was as natural as breathing.
I won’t say the world was a better place when we had polite, cultural rules for behavior both as politicians and as journalists. But for all the sex scandals we’ve uncovered, what the hell have they mattered to sound transportation policy?
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.