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The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
37. Donna and the Senator

Copyright 2000     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
In late April 1987, the Miami Herald's political editor, Tom Fiedler, received two anonymous phone calls from a woman who claimed that a friend of hers, whom the caller refused to identify, was having an affair with Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart. The caller provided the skeptical Fiedler with enough details to prompt the editor to dispatch top investigative reporter Jim McGee to Washington, D.C. Early that Friday evening, McGee staked out Hart's townhouse, and at 9:30 PM saw the former Colorado senator emerge with a young, attractive, blonde woman. McGee knew the woman was not Lee Hart, the senator's wife, who was back home in Troublesome Gulch, Colorado, just outside Denver. Hart and the as-yet unidentified woman returned to the townhouse at 11:17 PM. Joined by other Herald staffers, McGee did not see Hart and his companion leave the residence again until Saturday evening. At that point Hart realized he was being watched. Taking the woman back inside, he came out to speak to McGee. He was nervous, evasive, and refused to identify or discuss the mystery woman. The story broke with a front page headline -- "Miami woman is linked to Hart" -- in the Sunday (May 2, 1987) edition of the Herald. Within a matter of days Gary Hart -- the leader in a crowded field of aspirants for the Democratic presidential nomination -- would see his political career wrecked.
Hart's companion was identified as Donna Rice, a 29-year-old model and actress whom the senator had first met during a New Year's Day party at the Aspen vacation home of rock singer Don Henley. Rice had dated Henley, and had also been seen in the company of various other celebrities. Later, she accompanied Hart on an overnight trip to Bimini from Miami aboard the yacht Monkey Business, chartered by prominent Louisiana lobbyist and Hart pal William Broadhurst. (One devastatingly intimate photo taken of Rice in the senator's lap on a Bimini dock would later make the cover of National Enquirer.) It was Broadhurst who invited Hart and her friend Lynn Armandt to Washington, ostensibly to interview Armandt for a job. Rice told reporters that she and Hart had slept on separate boats in Bimini, and that she had not spent the night of Friday, May 1, in Hart's townhouse -- leaving, she claimed, by a back door and staying at Broadhurst's nearby residence.
A graduate of the Yale University law school, Gary Hart had worked for the Justice Department before becoming campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. In 1976 he was elected to the United States Senate. A late entrance into the 1984 presidential race did not prevent Hart from giving the eventual candidate, Walter Mondale, a run for his money. Hart presented himself as a "New" Democrat -- a fiscal conservative who was liberal on social issues -- in contrast to the "old style" New Deal Democrat as represented by Mondale. The crushing defeat Mondale suffered at the hands of Ronald Reagan resulted in a changing of the guard within the Democratic Party, with power shifting to the moderates and making Hart the odds-on favorite to win the 1988 nomination.
But there were doubts about Hart, even within his own party. In 1984 questions had arisen regarding his candor. Relatively minor discrepancies in his background -- among other things, the events behind changing his name from Hartpence to Hart and an insistence that he was born in 1937 instead of 1936, as records revealed -- were magnified by his stubborn refusal to budge from his deceptions and a conviction that, in the words of U.S. News & World Report's chief political correspondent Michael Kramer, "anything reflecting negatively on him as a person should be considered irrelevant to a voter's choice." Additionally, persistent rumors of reckless womanizing during the course of his 28-year marriage cast doubts about his judgment. Even Hart's friends admitted that the senator was a maverick who felt he could flaunt convention. He was smart and charismatic, almost Kennedyesque. His ideas on defense and the economy were fresh and innovative. His style attracted many young voters disenchanted with "politics as usual," and early polling showed that he had a very good chance of beating Reagan's heir-apparent, Vice-President George Bush, in the 1988 presidential contest.
Characteristically, Hart responded to the Miami Herald story with defiance. In a press conference on Wednesday, May 6, he emphatically denied sexual dalliance with Donna Rice. "If I had intended a relationship with this woman," he said, "believe me . . . I wouldn't have done it this way." He accused the press of engaging in the rankest form of yellow journalism. "The public does not have a right to know everything about everybody's personal life," he argued, and implied that his alleged infidelity was simply not important. The Herald's own opinion survey showed that 63 percent of its readers thought the newspaper had been excessive in pursuit of the Donna Rice story. The media did some soul-searching, but in the end generally concluded that a president's judgment was an important issue. Political historian Michael Beschloss pointed out that in the old days the press had kept stories of presidential peccadillos under wraps because "the tacit assumption was that the American people were not grown up enough to assimilate that kind of news." But Watergate had illustrated how important character and integrity was, and, said Beschloss, "if candidates can't bear up under full disclosure, they have no business being in politics." The press was quick to point out that Hart himself, in an interview that appeared in the New York Times on the same day that the Donna Rice story broke in the Miami Herald, had challenged the media to dig into his personal life, even going so far as to suggest that they "put a tail" on him. How could he complain after the fact about them doing just that?
Within days, the Washington Post was warning the Hart campaign that it had substantial evidence of a recent tryst between Hart and yet another woman. On Thursday, a beleaguered Hart flew home to Troublesome Gulch, and on the following day announced that he was withdrawing from the race. "I'm not very good," he said, "at playing the political game." This opened up the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between men that the press (perhaps unkindly) had dubbed the "Seven Dwarfs" -- Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, Senators Joe Biden (Del.), Al Gore (Tenn.) and Paul Simon (Illinois), as well as Jesse Jackson. Hart's departure, however, did not significantly enhance any of these candidates in the public's eye; in fact, a Time poll of Democrats and independents revealed that New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who wasn't running, was favored over all the candidates.
But Hart wasn't finished. In September 1987 he appeared on ABC's Nightline to test the waters and try to put the scandal behind him, insisting that adultery was not a legitimate subject to broach with someone running for public office. "It isn't anyone's business but that individual and his or her spouse." Nightline's Ted Koppel insisted that a candidate's judgment was a legitimate issue. "And bad judgment," added Koppel, "is something we do not want in our presidents. We frequently get it. But we don't want it." Hart went on the suggest that his actions paled in comparison to the alleged wrongdoing by members of the Reagan administration embroiled in the Iran Contra affair at the time. He did admit to marital infidelity but gave no specifics and concluded by stating that "no one is perfect and I wasn't running for sainthood." A few months later, appearing on the steps of the New Hampshire State House with his wife Lee, Hart announced that he was back in the race. Though 52 percent of Democrats polled by Time on December 17 approved of his decision, the press -- and many Democratic Party officials -- thought Hart's self-resurrection was the height of folly, if not hubris. Hart lacked an organization and funds; he still shouldered over $1 million in debt from his 1984 bid for the presidency. His hopes hinged on winning the all-important New Hampshire primary -- a feat he had accomplished four years earlier. That win could give him momentum going into subsequent contests. But Hart was defeated decisively in New Hampshire by Governor Dukakis. He hung on through Super Tuesday -- the March 8, 1988 collection of primaries -- before withdrawing a second time.
Like too many contemporary politicians, Gary Hart suffered from a failure to understand the American people -- a people willing to forgive almost anything except dishonesty and deception. A hundred years before, Grover Cleveland's run for the presidency was rocked by charges that he had sired an illegitimate son. Cleveland acknowledged paternity, ordered everyone in his campaign to tell the truth -- and won the White House. Hart practiced to deceive, and ruined a promising career. Donna Rice, on the other hand, saw her modeling career prosper in the aftermath of the scandal. "I make no excuses," she said in a commercial for No Excuses sportswear. "I wear them."


Others Who Fell From Grace
In the years immediately preceding Gary Hart's fall from grace, other prominent politicians became enmeshed in sex scandals. Wilbur Mills, one of the most powerful men in the Congress, wrecked his career following an affair with exotic dancer Fannie Fox, who drew unwanted attention to herself and Mills one evening by carousing in the Tidal Basin. Wayne Hays, a congressman from Ohio, engaged in an ill-advised affair with a secretary, Elizabeth Ray. And Maryland Representative Robert Bauman was arrested after soliciting a male prostitute.


Hart on Nightline, 8 September 1987


REFERENCES

The Economist, 9 May 1987

Time, 18 May 1987, 12 October 1987, 28 December 1987

U.S. News & World Report, 18 May 1987

Election Journal: Political Events of 1987-1988
Elizabeth Drew (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1989)

What It Takes: The Way To The White House
Richard Ben Cramer (New York: Random House, 1992)