Gary Hart and the Rise of the Paparazzi

The Media Responds to Voting Changes by “Going Tabloid”

Once upon a time, politicians could get away with infidelity. Reporters generally left the subject alone, White House staff worked to keep affairs secret, and wives and mistresses often lacked the power to expose the truth. One phone call in 1987 would change everything, making politician’s personal lives fair game for the media, and forever changing American’s relationship with their elect.

In the grand scheme of things, Gary Hart was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sexual revolution was long over, JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, the war in Vietnam had been lost, and illegal dealings in the Watergate and Iranian arm sales had shaken America’s faith in the government. An atmosphere of distrust was growing, and since it was now up to voters, not party bosses, to choose presidential candidates in primaries, the question of contender’s character was now left to the media’s judgment.

On May 10, 1987, an anonymous woman particularly fed-up with Reagan’s arms for hostages deal called the Miami Herald with some shocking news. “Gary Hart is having an affair with a friend of mine,” she said. “We don’t need another president who lies like that.” Hart, a former senator from Colorado, had announced his bid for presidency just weeks earlier, on April 13th, but was already leading polls as the front-running Democratic candidate. For reporter Tom Fielder, who had been writing about Hart since ‘84, the story was too good to pass up.

Hart’s infamous words to the New York Times – “Follow me around, I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” – were still two days away from publication when the Miami Herald stationed reporters outside of Hart’s townhouse in Washington D.C., waiting to confirm that a young woman was inside. They didn’t have to wait long before Donna Rice, a 29 year old model and bit actress, emerged.

Although the investigation had been admittedly flawed, with multiple points of entrance left unguarded for hours at a time, the sight of Hart in the company of a woman other than his wife of 27 years, Lee Ludwig Hart, was enough to start a mass media frenzy. In the days to follow, many of Hart’s secrets would come out – a picture of Rice sitting on his lap was obtained and published widely, as well as reports that he had changed his last name, lied about his birth date, and separated from his wife twice in the past. By May 8, Hart withdrew from the race completely.

Hart was a cheater, but would that have made him a bad president? Matt Bai, author of the forthcoming book, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, wrote:

“Indeed, what has it gotten us, this violent compression of politics and celebrity and moral policing? American history is rife with examples of people who were crappy husbands or shady dealers, but great stewards of the state. 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 has accumulated in the public record.”

Hart was favored to win the presidency in 1988, and was easily beating George Bush Senior in early match-ups. If Hart had become president, it is doubtful that either Bush would have made it to the White House, and certainly America’s history would look much different than it does today. Even Ludwig, Hart’s wronged wife, agreed that his place in politics was needed, saying after news of the scandal broke: “I’m with you. We can keep going. I think it’s important you become president.” While her words kept the Hart’s marriage together, they did nothing to mend his broken reputation.

In September 2014 the New York Times named Dana Weems as the anonymous caller, a woman who was just getting started on her career in fashion design in ‘87. Weems admitted to the charges, blaming her devastating actions on youth and immaturity. Fielder, on the other hand, has no regrets about his style of reporting and the damage it caused. He said:

“If the press didn’t ask these kind of questions, who would? The voters needed a way to test the abilities and the character of candidates. I don’t think the story was about his sex life. It was really a test of Gary Hart’s authenticity. It went to the heart of his credibility: Who was he?”

Rice withdrew from society for seven years following the affair, eventually resurfacing as the President and CEO of Enough is Enough, a non-profit that works for keep kids safe online. She later married, and is now Donna Rice Hughes. Hart never left politics completely, and was recently named the United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland – an important job, but a far cry from his White House dreams.

During the “week that politics went tabloid” many lives were ruined, and America lost a man who arguably would have been a better president than those who took his place. Hart was the first politician to have his political dream shattered by infidelity, but he certainly wouldn’t be the last. Standards had forever changed, and politician’s lives would never be personal again.