‘The Front Run­ner’ and me

Sunday Star - - OPINION - The Wall Herald Street Mi­ami Herald Jour­nal’s Jour­nal The Jour­nal Post Times Post New York Times Herald Herald Wash­ing­ton David M. Shrib­man is ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Post-Gazette (dshrib­[email protected] com, 412-263-1890). Fol­low him on Twit­ter at Shri

Long ago and far away

— in 1987 and in New Hamp­shire, to be pre­cise

— a promis­ing can­di­date for the White House was hounded out of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign be­cause he was seen in his town­house with a 29-year-old woman. It was a po­lit­i­cal drama then, and it is a film drama now.

Gary Hart turned 82 Wed­nes­day. His hair is gray, his walk no longer the con­fi­dent stride of a man on the go or, his de­trac­tors would snicker, on the move — though we do not know to­day what we did not know then, which is whether he had an af­fair with Donna Rice.

But I do know this: I didn’t care then, and I surely don’t care now.

This is all rush­ing back to us now that the film “The Front Run­ner” is in the­aters across the coun­try. It is said to be a cau­tion­ary tale, a look at the mo­ment when Amer­i­can pol­i­tics be­came triv­i­al­ized and tabloidized.

Hart, his wife, Lee, and long­time Hart aide Billy Shore saw the film in Au­gust. I can’t imag­ine how they could bear to re­live what Hart said was the worst week in his life. I saw the film last week — one of 11 peo­ple in the movie house, so I ac­knowl­edge that this is not top of mind for most peo­ple — and I could hardly bear re­liv­ing what was one of the most fren­zied weeks in my pro­fes­sional life.

The Sun­day morn­ing the broke the story of Hart’s town­house guest, I got a tele­phone call from Al­bert Hunt Jr., then Wash­ing­ton bureau chief. I was a 33-year-old po­lit­i­cal re­porter and had cov­ered Hart’s 1984 cam­paign; spent time talk­ing about his 1988 cam­paign plans with him, his wife and two chil­dren in his Trou­ble­some Gulch, Colorado, re­treat; and trav­eled widely with the for­mer se­na­tor. Our re­la­tion­ship was con­ven­tional for the time, each re­spect­ing the dis­tance be­tween re­porter and can­di­date, breach­ing that only in jet­liner con­ver­sa­tions about Her­man Melville and Har­riet Beecher Stowe. He had been a book­ish boy and, truth to tell, so had I.

“You know all the Hart peo­ple,” Hunt said. “Who’s Donna Rice?”

I told him I had no idea. He told me Rice had been in the Hart town­house and the

had writ­ten about it.

I re­mem­ber gulp­ing. I hated this kind of story, then and now. “Al,” I said war­ily but res­o­lutely, “that’s not our kind of story.”

Hunt agreed. He didn’t as­sign me to write any­thing, and I didn’t. was the only news­pa­per in Chris­ten­dom that Mon­day that didn’t carry the de­tails. Though beaten on a big story, in our smug­ness we were proud of that. I talked with Hunt last week. We’re still proud of that.

But by Tues­day, there was no avoid­ing the Hart story. The man — so de­ci­sive a fron­trun­ner that one of the lead­ing an­a­lysts of the age, Wil­liam Sch­nei­der, told me a month ear­lier that “Hart has no one to run against” — was in free fall. His sup­port among likely Demo­cratic vot­ers dropped to 27 per­cent from 41 per­cent less than a month ear­lier.

The cam­paign limped into New Hamp­shire where, at the Hanover Inn, he held one of the most rau­cous press con­fer­ences in his­tor y, bat­ting back ques­tions about his char­ac­ter, whether adul­tery was im­moral, whether he had com­mit­ted adul­tery. It was a spec­ta­cle and the only mo­ment in a half-cen­tury ca­reer where I had a de­ci­sive com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. I am a grad­u­ate of Dart­mouth Col­lege and was the only per­son who, in an era when that mat­tered, knew where a pay phone was. I ran to the one op­po­site my one­time col­lege post box in the Hop­kins Cen­ter for the Arts.

“The Front Run­ner” cap­tures the ur­gency but not the ac­cu­racy of the mo­ment a third of a cen­tury ago. It pro­pels a fa­mous ax-throw­ing scene from 1984 into 1987 and moves a trip to Hart’s Ot­tawa, Kansas, home­town out of sync. It con­flates and

re­porters. Worst of all, it re­peats the ca­nard that the re­porters were re­spond­ing to Hart’s dare that re­porters fol­low him around. That re­mark appeared in the 24 hours af­ter the re­porters ac­tu­ally did fol­low him around. And the

ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor Ben Bradlee por­trayed in the film didn’t look or sound re­motely like the real one, or like Ja­son Ro­bards in “All the Pres­i­dent’s Men,” who did.

Hart told me that Hugh Jack­man, who played him, spent three days in Colorado with the Harts, who have been mar­ried for six decades. But he said the scenes be­tween him and his wife never hap­pened, that all their di­a­logue was imag­i­nary.

“It’s a drama,” he said, “not a doc­u­men­tary.”

Even so, “The Front Run­ner” raises vi­tal ques­tions for our pol­i­tics, cen­turies-old ques­tions reap­pear­ing fre­quently to­day, chief among them this: Is there a re­la­tion­ship be­tween pri­vate be­hav­ior and pub­lic po­lit­i­cal per­for­mance? This ques­tion is at the cen­ter of the lives of Hart — and Franklin Roo­sevelt, John F. Kennedy, L yn­don John­son, Bill Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump.

Then there is the strate­gic ques­tion at the heart of the sec­ond Hart cam­paign: Can a one­time in­sur­gent pre­vail as the front-run­ner in a new cam­paign? Here in the Trump era we still don’t know whether rebels can be es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures.

Months af­ter de­part­ing the race, Hart plunged back in, an un­wel­come in­ter­loper dis­par­aged by a top Demo­cratic strate­gist as a “guy in a funny suit com­ing onto the stage.”

He was go­ing nowhere, though that morn­ing he was head­ing to Sioux Falls, S.D., and I man­aged to get the seat be­side him on a com­mer­cial flight. He pulled out his black bill­fold and shook two $20 bills. “Here is the cam­paign bud­get,” he said. He had no cam­paign sched­uler, no press sec­re­tar y, planned no fundrais­ers.

“My daugh­ter’s the cam­paign man­ager, I’m the is­sues di­rec­tor, my son pro­vides the se­cu­rity,” he said. “That’s it.”

As he flipped through a yel­low le­gal pad, I no­ticed a quote from Ten­nyson: “My pur­pose holds to sail be­yond the sun­set ...”

At one point, he reached into a satchel and bran­dished a 96-page man­i­festo bear­ing the stul­ti­fy­ing ti­tle of “Re­form, Hope and the Hu­man Fac­tor: Ideas for Na­tional Re­struc­tur­ing.” Broke but not bro­ken, he told me he was go­ing to charge 75 cents for it. I sent him three quar­ters last week. I owed him.

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