On a scalding July day five years ago, I found myself hiking in Red Rocks Park, just outside Denver, with Gary Hart. The copper cliffs were brilliantly lit in the midday sun, which burned our uncovered heads as we trudged up a steep incline toward the amphitheater that Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration ingeniously carved into the boulders.
We had come because Hart wanted to show me something, and as we made our way uphill, I was soon breathing heavily in the mile-high air. But I was more aware of Hart, who, at 72, labored audibly despite his legendary ruggedness. (The most famous picture from Hart’s first presidential campaign, where he came from nowhere in 1984 to stalemate Walter Mondale and overturn the aging Democratic establishment in the process, was one from New Hampshire, in which the flannel-clad Hart had just managed to bury an ax in a tree from a distance, legend had it, of 40 feet.) He had developed a paunch and was slightly stooped, his arms swinging crookedly at his sides. He wore black pants and a black Nike polo shirt, from which tufts of chest hair sprouted near the unbuttoned collar. His famous mane, still intact but now white and unruly, framed a sunburned, square-jawed face.
“When I announced for president in 1987, we did it right up there,” Hart said, pointing toward a rock formation at the top of the hill.
I tried to imagine the lectern set against the red rocks and blue sky, the crush of cameras and the palpable sense of history. Hart’s aides had wanted him to do something more conventional, with a ballroom and streamers and all of that, but he insisted on standing against the mountainous backdrop, near the amphitheater he called “a symbol of what a benevolent government can do.”
Back then, Hart was as close to a lock for the nomination — and likely the presidency — as any challenger of the modern era. According to Gallup, Hart had a double-digit lead over the rest of the potential Democratic field among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.
“Must have been a hell of a backdrop,” I said. Hart didn’t respond, and after an awkward moment, I let it drop.
As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap. When they talked about him now in Washington, Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce. He warned of the rise of stateless terrorism and spoke of the need to convert the industrial economy into an information-and-technology-based one, at a time when few politicians in either party had given much thought to anything beyond communism and steel. But such recollections were generally punctuated by a smirk or a sad shake of the head. Hardly a modern scandal passed, whether it involved a politician or an athlete or an entertainer, that didn’t evoke inevitable comparisons to Hart among reflective commentators. In popular culture, Gary Hart would forever be that archetypal antihero of presidential politics: the iconic adulterer.
The rest of the world was finished with Gary Hart, but I couldn’t get his story out of my mind, which was why I ended up standing alongside him at Red Rocks on that summer day, like an archaeologist searching for shards of a lost political age. I had come to believe that we couldn’t really understand the dispiriting state of our politics — and of our political journalism — without first understanding what transpired during that surreal and frenetic week in April nearly 30 years ago.
The Hart episode is almost universally remembered as a tale of classic hubris. A Kennedy-like figure on a fast track to the presidency defies the media to find anything nonexemplary in his personal life, even as he carries on an affair with a woman half his age and poses for pictures with her, and naturally he gets caught and humiliated. How could he not have known this would happen? How could such a smart guy have been that stupid?
Of course, you could reasonably have asked that same question of the three most important political figures of Hart’s lifetime, all Democratic presidents thought of as towering successes. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were adulterers, before and during their presidencies, and we can safely assume they had plenty of company. In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, the most prolific and influential chronicler of presidential politics in the last half of the 20th century, wrote that he was “reasonably sure” that of all the candidates he had covered, only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of “casual partners.” He and his colleagues considered those affairs irrelevant.
By the late 1980s, however, a series of powerful, external forces in the society were colliding, creating a dangerous vortex on the edge of our politics. Hart didn’t create that vortex. He was, rather, the first to wander into its path.
The nation was still feeling the residual effects of Watergate, which 13 years earlier led to the first resignation of a sitting president. Richard Nixon’s fall was shocking, not least because it was more personal than political, a result of instability and pettiness rather than pure ideology. And for this reason Watergate, along with the deception over what was really happening in Vietnam, had injected into presidential politics a new focus on private morality.
Social mores were changing, too. For most of the 20th century, adultery as a practice — at least for men — was rarely discussed but widely accepted. Kennedy and Johnson governed during the era that “Mad Men” would later portray, when the powerful man’s meaningless tryst with a secretary was no less common than the three-martini lunch. Twenty years later, however, social forces unleashed by the tumult of the 1960s were rising up to contest this view. Feminism and the “women’s lib” movement had transformed expectations for a woman’s role in marriage, just as the civil rights movement had changed prevailing attitudes toward African-Americans.
As America continued to debate the Equal Rights Amendment for women into the 1980s, younger liberals — the same permissive generation that ushered in the sexual revolution and free love — were suddenly apt to see adultery as a kind of political betrayal, and one that needed to be exposed. “This is the last time a candidate will be able to treat women as bimbos,” is how the feminist Betty Friedan put it after Hart’s withdrawal. (If only she’d known.)
Perhaps most salient, though, the nation’s news media were changing in profound ways. When giants like White came up through the news business in the postwar years, the surest path to success was to gain the trust of politicians and infiltrate their world. Proximity to power and the information and insight derived from having it was the currency of the trade. By the 1980s, however, Watergate and television had combined to awaken an entirely new kind of career ambition. If you were an aspiring journalist born in the 1950s, when the baby boom was in full swing, then you entered the business at almost exactly the moment when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post — portrayed by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the cinematic version of their first book, “All the President’s Men” — were becoming not just the most celebrated reporters of their day but very likely the wealthiest and most famous journalists in American history (with the possible exception of Walter Cronkite). And what made Woodward and Bernstein so iconic wasn’t proximity, but scandal. They had actually managed to take down a mendacious American president, and in doing so they came to symbolize the hope and heroism of a new generation.
It would be hard to overstate the impact this had, especially on younger reporters. If you were one of the new breed of middle-class, Ivy League-educated baby boomers who had decided to change the world through journalism, then there was simply no one you could want to become more than Woodward or Bernstein, which is to say, there was no greater calling than to expose the lies of a politician, no matter how inconsequential those lies might turn out to be or in how dark a place they might be lurking.
It was around 8 p.m. on Monday, April 27, 1987, when the phone rang on Tom Fiedler’s desk at The Miami Herald. A woman he did not know was on the line. Ever since Hart’s official announcement at Red Rocks two weeks before, reporters had been speculating among themselves about the state of Hart’s marriage and rumors of affairs, and some of that speculation had begun to leak into the press. Fiedler, a prominent political reporter for The Herald, thought it beneath the media to traffic in such innuendo without any proof, and he published a front-page article that day saying as much. The woman on the phone had apparently just read it.
“You know, you said in the paper that there were rumors that Gary Hart is a womanizer,” she told him. “Those aren’t rumors.” And then a question: “How much do you guys pay for pictures?”
In a subsequent conversation, the anonymous caller told Fiedler that a friend of hers had seen Hart aboard a chartered yacht at Turnberry Isle near Miami, and the two had started an affair on an overnight pleasure cruise to Bimini. Her friend had pictures of her and Hart on the boat that she had shown the caller. The caller never used the name Donna Rice, the 29-year-old commercial actress and pharmaceutical rep who would soon become the first woman dragged through the humiliation of a sex scandal during a presidential campaign.
The caller said there were phone calls between Hart and Rice. Somehow, she knew they had been placed from phones in Georgia, Alabama and Kansas, and precisely when. She claimed that Hart had invited her friend to visit him in Washington, and her friend was going to stay with him that Friday night. “Maybe you could fly to Washington and get the seat next to her,” the anonymous caller suggested.
For decades after that call, just about everyone close to the events of that week, and everyone who wrote about them later, assumed that the caller was Lynn Armandt, the friend Rice brought along on the Monkey Business during the cruise to Bimini. This was a logical deduction, because Armandt would later profit from selling photos she took on that trip. When I asked Fiedler about it last year, though, he told me that although he would continue to protect the identity of his source as he had for 26 years, he was willing to say flatly that it was not Armandt. Fiedler volunteered that he thought Rice knew who the tipster really was.
When I spoke to Rice a few months later, during the first of two long conversations, she told me that she had never figured out with any certainty who set all of this in motion in 1987. But she had come to believe that Armandt was in cahoots with another friend of theirs in Miami — a woman named Dana Weems — who was on the boat for a party but didn’t join them on the cruise to Bimini and thus escaped notice in contemporary accounts of the scandal. Rice had talked to Weems about her dalliance with Hart and showed her the photos from the cruise.
Dana Weems wasn’t especially hard to find, it turned out. A clothing designer who did some costume work on movies in the early 1990s, she sold funky raincoats and gowns on a website called Raincoatsetc.com, based in Hollywood, Fla. When she answered the phone after a couple of rings, I told her I was writing about Gary Hart and the events of 1987.
“Oh, my God,” she said. There followed a long pause.
“Did you make that call to The Herald?” I asked her.
“Yeah,” Weems said with a sigh. “That was me.”
She then proceeded to tell me her story, in a way that probably revealed more about her motives than she realized. In 1987, Armandt sold some of Weems’s designs at her bikini boutique under a cabana on Turnberry Isle. Like Rice, Weems had worked as a model, though she told me Rice wasn’t nearly as successful as she was. Rice was an artificial beauty who was “O.K. for commercials, I guess.”
Weems recalled going aboard Monkey Business on the last weekend of March for the same impromptu party at which Hart and his pal Billy Broadhurst, a Louisiana lawyer and lobbyist, met up with Rice, but in her version of events, Hart was hitting on her, not on Rice, and he was soused and pathetic, and she wanted nothing to do with him, but still he followed her around the boat, hopelessly enthralled. . . .
But Donna — she had no standards, Weems told me. Weems figured Donna wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe, sleeping her way into the inner sanctum of the White House, and that’s why she agreed to go on the cruise to Bimini. After that weekend, Donna wouldn’t shut up about Hart or give the pictures a rest. It all made Weems sick to her stomach, especially this idea of Hart’s getting away with it and becoming president. “What an idiot you are!” Weems said, as if talking to Hart through the years. “You’re gonna want to run the country? You moron!”
And so when Weems read Fiedler’s story in The Herald, she decided to call him, while Armandt stood by, listening to every word. “I didn’t realize it was going to turn into this whole firecracker thing,” she told me. It was Armandt’s idea, Weems said, to try to get cash by selling the photos, and that’s why she asked Fiedler if he might pay for them (though she couldn’t actually remember much about that part of the conversation). Weems said she hadn’t talked to either woman — Rice or Armandt — since shortly after the scandal. She lived alone and used a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis. She was surprised her secret had lasted until now.
“I’m sorry to ruin his life,” she told me, offhandedly, near the end of our conversation. “I was young. I didn’t know it would be that way.”
Fiedler never had any doubt that Hart’s marital infidelity, if it could be substantiated, was a story. Nor, it seems, did anyone else at The Herald, where the question of newsworthiness was raised but quickly dispatched. In the reconstruction of how the story unfolded that Fiedler and his colleagues at the paper later published, there is no mention of any debate about whether a candidate’s private life merited investigation.
On Friday, the day when Hart was supposed to meet with Rice at his Capitol Hill townhouse, The Herald dispatched Jim McGee, its top investigative reporter, to Washington. McGee, who at 34 could fairly be called one of the finest investigative reporters in all of American journalism, spent the flight to Washington stalking his fellow passengers, walking up and down the aisle in search of women who looked as if they could plausibly be on their way to sleep with a presidential candidate. “He wondered how he would decide which woman to follow,” The Herald’s reporters later wrote, without a hint of realizing how creepy that sounded.
On the ground in Washington, McGee caught a taxi to Hart’s home and took up a position on a park bench that afforded a clear view of the front door. It was 9:30 p.m. when he saw Hart leave the townhouse with a “stunning” blonde he recognized from the ticket counter in Miami. Hart and the young woman promptly drove off, and McGee rushed to a pay phone across the street. He called his editors and Fiedler to ask for backup; the story was unfolding rapidly, and he needed more bodies to help with surveillance. McGee was still stationed on the street when, about two hours later, Hart and Rice returned from dinner and re-entered the townhouse. He never saw her leave and assumed she spent the night, although Hart’s aides later said that Rice left through the rear door.
Fiedler awoke Saturday morning and hopped the first flight to Washington. He brought with him McGee’s editor, James Savage, and a photographer, Brian Smith. When you added in Doug Clifton, a reporter helping out the Washington bureau who had joined McGee for part of the stakeout Friday night, The Herald’s undercover team now numbered five, along with at least two rental cars, on a block where maybe one or two residents could be spotted on the sidewalk at any given time in the afternoon. The odds of this kind of surveillance going undetected were not especially high.
About 8:40 p.m. Saturday, Hart and Rice left the house and emerged into the adjacent alleyway, heading for the senator’s car. The idea, apparently, had been to meet Broadhurst and Armandt for dinner. It was then that Hart noticed things were amiss. The first reporter he spotted in the side alley was McGee, a 200-pound man who for some reason had decided to make himself inconspicuous by donning sunglasses and a hooded parka. At night. In May.
McGee, sensing he had been made, turned on his heels and ran, bumping into Fiedler, who, being the only reporter on the scene whom Hart actually knew from the campaign plane, had disguised himself in a tracksuit and was pretending to jog around every so often. “He’s right behind me,” McGee whispered urgently. Fiedler immediately changed direction and jogged across the street, like a disoriented sprinter.
Alarmed, Hart abandoned the dinner plan and led Rice back inside. He was certain he was being watched but mystified as to who might be watching. He peered out of his second-floor kitchen window and surveyed Fifth Street. Hart was by no means an expert in counterintelligence, but he had traveled behind the Iron Curtain, where Americans were routinely tracked by government agents, and he had spent considerable time in the protection of Secret Service agents who were always scanning the periphery for threats. All of this was more than enough training for Hart to recognize the clownish stakeout that had all but taken over his street. He saw the five participants milling around, pretending to be strangers but then talking to one another, ducking into cars or — at least in Hart’s telling, though The Herald team would dispute his account — disappearing behind the bushes. His bushes. He thought perhaps they were reporters, but how could he be sure? Maybe they worked for another campaign or for the Republicans.
Hart decided, at first anyway, to hunker down and wait. He called Broadhurst, at whose nearby townhouse Rice and Armandt were supposed to be staying that weekend, and Broadhurst came over with Armandt and some barbecued chicken. After dinner, Hart instructed Broadhurst to gather up the women and leave via the back door. He would never see Donna Rice again.
Like a character in one of the spy novels he loved to read and write, Hart decided to outwit his surveillants and flush them into the open. It’s not clear how he thought this was going to end, other than badly, but a cornered man does not think clearly. Hart put on a white sweatshirt and pulled the hood up over his thick hair. At first, he got into his car and merged into Capitol Hill traffic. He expected to be followed, and he was — Smith, the photographer, was tailing close behind. Satisfied with this maneuver, Hart pulled over after a few blocks, emerged from the car and started walking back in the general direction of the townhouse. He detoured down a side street and walked twice around the block. Next Hart walked past the rental car in the front where McGee and Savage thought they were safely incognito.
According to the writer Richard Ben Cramer, who chronicled these events in his classic campaign book, “What It Takes,” Hart made a show of writing down the license-plate number in full view of the two reporters; The Herald didn’t mention this detail, but it did report that Hart seemed “agitated” and appeared to yell over his shoulder at someone on the other side of the street as he walked away. Probably both accounts are true. In any event, McGee and Savage deduced from Hart’s behavior that their undercover stakeout had been compromised. They could not write an article without at least trying to get his response. So after quickly conferring, they exited the car, followed Hart’s path back up the alley alongside his row of townhouses and turned a corner. McGee, according to The Herald account, “flinched in surprise.” There was Gary Hart, the presumed nominee of the Democratic Party, leaning against a brick wall in his hoodie. He was waiting for them.
There were no press aides or handlers, no security agents or protocols to be followed. There was no precedent for any reporter accosting a presidential candidate outside his home, demanding the details of what he was doing inside it. It was just Hart and his accusers, or at least two of them for the moment, facing off in an oil-stained alley, all of them trying to find their footing on the suddenly shifting ground of American politics.
Eight days later, The Herald published a front-page reconstruction of the events leading up to and including that Saturday night. Written by McGee, Fiedler and Savage, the 7,000-plus-word article — Moby-Dick-like proportions by the standards of daily journalism — is remarkable reading. First, it’s striking how much The Herald’s account of its investigation consciously imitates, in its clinical voice and staccato cadence, Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men.” (“McGee rushed toward a pay telephone a block away to call editors in Miami. It was 9:33 p.m.”) Clearly, the reporters and editors at The Herald thought themselves to be reconstructing a scandal of similar proportions, the kind of thing that would lead to Pulitzers and movie deals. The solemn tone of the piece suggests that Fiedler and his colleagues imagined themselves to be the only ones standing between America and another menacing, immoral president; reading it, you might think Hart had been caught bludgeoning a beautiful young woman to death, rather than taking her to dinner.
The other fascinating thing about The Herald’s reconstruction is that it captures, in agonizing detail, the very moment when the walls between the public and private lives of candidates, between politics and celebrity, came tumbling down forever. Even in the dispassionate tone of The Herald’s narrative, you can hear how chaotic and combative it was, how charged with emotion and pounding hearts.
“Good evening, senator,” McGee began, recovering from his shock at seeing Hart standing in front of him. “I’m a reporter from The Miami Herald. We’d like to talk to you.” As The Herald relayed it: “Hart said nothing. He held his arms around his midsection and leaned forward slightly with his back against the brick wall.” McGee said they wanted to ask him about the young woman staying in his house.
“No one is staying in my house,” Hart replied.
Hart may have surprised the reporters by choosing the time and place for their confrontation, but it’s not as if they weren’t ready. They had conferred on a list of questions intended to back Hart up against a wall — which was now literally the situation. McGee reminded Hart that he and the woman had walked right past McGee earlier that evening on the way to his car. “You passed me on the street,” McGee said.
“I may or may not have,” Hart replied.
McGee asked him what his relationship was with the woman.
“I’m not involved in any relationship,” Hart said carefully.
So why had they just seen Hart and the woman enter the townhouse together a few minutes earlier?
“The obvious reason is I’m being set up,” Hart said, his voice quivering.
McGee wanted to know if the woman was in Hart’s house at that very moment. “She may or may not be,” is how Hart answered, evading again. Savage then asked to meet her, and Hart said no.
McGee offered to explain the situation, as if Hart had just woken up in a hospital or an asylum and might not have any idea what was happening. He said that the house had been under surveillance and that he had observed Hart with the woman the night before, in Hart’s car. Where were they going?
“I was on my way to take her to a place where she was staying,” Hart said, referring to Broadhurst’s townhouse nearby.
Savage cut in and asked how long Hart had known the woman — “several months” was the response — and what her name was.
“I would suppose you would find that out,” Hart said.
His voice was steadier now, and the reporters noticed that his composure had returned. As would happen several times throughout the ordeal of the next week, and for long afterward, Hart was lurching between conflicting instincts. There were moments when he thought that if he said just enough, if he issued enough of a denial to explain himself, then his tormentors would see the absurdity in what they were doing. But then he would grow defiant. The hell with them, he would think. They were not entitled to know.
Fiedler made his way into the alley and joined his colleagues, making it three on one (or actually four on one, since Smith, the photographer, was there, too). Looking back years later, Fiedler would recall Hart’s besieged posture, the way he leaned back defensively, as if expecting to be punched.
As Fiedler watched, McGee hit Hart with questions about the phone calls he had made to Rice, which they knew about from the tipster (even though they still hadn’t figured out her identity). Hart, whose suspicions about being set up must have now seemed well founded, didn’t dare deny the calls, but he characterized them as “casual” and “political” and “general conversation.” Then Fiedler jumped in. He asked Hart if he had taken this woman on a yachting trip in Florida.
“I don’t remember,” Hart said, dubiously. You can imagine the vertigo he must have been experiencing as the details of his private life, things he had not disclosed even to his closest aides, just kept coming, one after the other. It probably dawned on him, right about then, that he should never have been in the alley, any more than he should have been on the yacht.
Fiedler reminded Hart that he had been at Red Rocks and had personally heard the speech. He quoted Hart’s own words back to him, where Hart, alluding to the Iran-contra scandal rocking the Reagan administration, talked about running a campaign based on integrity and ethics and a higher standard. If that were so, Fiedler wanted to know, then why was Fiedler having to stand in this alley, at this moment, doing something so beneath him? He pleaded with Hart to be more forthcoming.
“I’ve been very forthcoming,” Hart said.
When McGee pressed him again about the yacht and whether he was denying having met Rice there, Hart grew visibly irritated. “I’m not denying anything,” he said. They were missing the point. He wasn’t going to confirm or deny knowing Rice or having been on a chartered boat. Hart’s stance was that none of it was anybody’s business but his. When the reporters asked Hart to “produce” the woman or this friend who was supposedly hosting her, Hart said other people had a right to privacy, too.
“I don’t have to produce anyone,” he told them.
McGee pulled out his last question, the one you save for the moment when there is nothing to be lost by asking it. He put the question point-blank to Hart: Had the senator had sex with the woman in the townhouse?
“The answer is no,” Hart said, more definitively than he had answered other questions. As Hart walked away, shaken and alone, and started back up the alley, Smith, the photographer, started clicking away. Hart whirled around. This yielded the shots of him rumpled and recoiling, hiding in a hoodie like some perp who was about to have his head forcibly lowered into the back seat of a cruiser.
“We don’t need any of that,” were Hart’s parting words.
The next morning, on May 3, The Herald reporters published a front-page article about Hart’s purported affair. At the end, they referred to a statement in which Hart challenged reporters interested in his personal life to follow him. Hart couldn’t have known it at the time, but his words — “follow me around” — would shadow him for the rest of his days. They would bury everything else he had ever said in public life.
In the history of Washington scandal, only a few quotes — “I am not a crook,” “I did not have sex with that woman” — have become as synonymous with a politician. In truth, though, Hart never issued any challenge to The Miami Herald’s reporters, or to anybody else, really. The words were spoken weeks earlier to E. J. Dionne Jr., who was then the top political reporter for The New York Times and was writing a profile for this magazine. Dionne discussed a broad range of topics with Hart and then reluctantly turned to the rumors of affairs. Hart was exasperated and he finally told Dionne: “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.”
Hart said this in an annoyed and sarcastic sort of way, in an obvious attempt to make a point. He was “serious” about the sentiment, all right, but only to the extent that a man who had been twice separated from his wife and dated other women over the years — with the full knowledge of his friends in the press corps and without having seen a single word written about it at the time — could have been serious about such a thing. Hart might as well have been suggesting that Martians beam down and run his campaign, for all the chance he thought there was that any reporter would actually resort to stalking him. Dionne certainly didn’t take the comment literally, though he suspected others might. “He did not think of it as a challenge,” Dionne would recall many years later. “And at the time, I did not think of it as a challenge.”
As it happened, Dionne’s cover story was set to appear Sunday, May 3, the same day the Herald published its front-page exposé. No one at The Herald had a clue that Hart had issued any “challenge” on the previous Monday when Fiedler heard from his anonymous tipster or when he continued to chase the story during the week or when McGee flew off to Washington and began prowling outside the townhouse on Friday night. All of this they did on their own, without any prodding from Hart.
In those days before the Internet, however, The Times circulated printed copies of its magazine to other news media a few days early, so editors and producers could pick out anything that might be newsworthy and publicize it in their own weekend editions or Sunday shows. And so it was that when Fiedler boarded his flight to Washington Saturday morning, eager to join the stakeout, he brought with him the advance copy of Dionne’s story, which had been sent to The Herald. Somewhere above the Atlantic seaboard, anyone sitting next to Fiedler would probably have seen him jolt upward in his seat as if suddenly receiving an electric shock. There it was, staring up at him from the page — Hart explicitly inviting him and his colleagues to do exactly the kind of surveillance they had undertaken the night before.
The discovery of Hart’s supposed challenge, which the Herald reporters took from the advance copy of The Times Magazine on Saturday night and inserted at the end of their Sunday blockbuster — so that the two articles, referring to the same quote, appeared on newsstands simultaneously — probably eased any reservations the editors in Miami might have had about pushing the story into print before they had a chance to identify Rice and try to talk to her. Soon enough, as The Herald would put it in their longer reconstruction a week later, Gary Hart would be seen as “the gifted hero who had taunted the press to ‘follow me around.’ ” Everyone would know that Hart had goaded the press into hiding outside his townhouse and tracking his movements. So what if The Herald reporters hadn’t even known about it when they put Hart under surveillance? Hart’s quote appeared to justify The Herald’s extraordinary investigation, and that’s all that mattered.
The difference here is far more than a technicality. Even when insiders and historians recall the Hart episode now, they recall it the same way: Hart issued his infamous challenge to reporters, telling them to follow him around if they didn’t believe him, and then The Herald took him up on it. Inexplicably, people believe, Hart set his own trap and then allowed himself to become ensnared in it. (When I spoke to Dana Weems, she repeatedly insisted to me that she had only called The Herald after reading Hart’s “follow me around” quote, which was obviously impossible.)
And this version of events conveniently enabled The Herald’s reporters and editors to completely sidestep some important and uncomfortable questions. As long as it was Hart, and not The Herald, who set the whole thing in motion, then it was he and not they who suddenly moved the boundaries between private and political lives. They never had to grapple with the complex issues of why Hart was subject to a kind of invasive, personal scrutiny no major candidate before him had endured, or to consider where that shift in the political culture had led us. Hart had, after all, given the media no choice in the matter.
I had a chance to talk to Fiedler about this over lunch one day in the spring of 2013. We ate at a French restaurant near the campus of Boston University, where Fiedler, who went on to run The Herald before his retirement, was now installed as dean of the College of Communication.
Fiedler explained to me that while he knew no political reporter had ever undertaken this kind of surveillance on a presidential candidate or written an article about a possible extramarital affair, he had never doubted that Hart’s liaison with Rice, if it could be proved, was a legitimate story. Fielder’s view — a view shared by a lot of his younger colleagues and informed, no doubt, by the lingering ghosts of Nixon — was that it wasn’t a reporter’s job to decide which aspects of a candidate’s character were germane to the campaign and which weren’t. It was the job of reporters to vet potential presidents by offering up as detailed a dossier about that person as they could assemble, and it was the voters’ job to rule on relevance, one way or the other.
Fiedler readily acknowledged that the order of events pertaining to the “follow me around” quote had since become jumbled in the public mind, and his expression was genuinely regretful. He mostly blamed the way the TV news programs that weekend juxtaposed The Herald’s reporting with the quote from The Times Magazine, as if one had led to the other. That had really been the beginning of the myth, he said, and from that time on, people were confused about which came first — “follow me around” or The Herald investigation. When I asked why he had never tried to correct the record, Fiedler shrugged sadly. “I don’t know what I would need to do,” he said.
Then I mentioned to Fiedler that I had done a web search on his name recently and been sent to his biographical page on the B.U. website. And this is what it said: “In 1987, after presidential hopeful Gary Hart told journalists asking about marital infidelity to follow him around, Fiedler and other Herald reporters took him up on the challenge and exposed Hart’s campaign-killing affair with a Miami model.” Why did his own web page explicitly repeat something he knew to be untrue?
Fiedler recoiled in his seat and winced. He looked mortified. “You know what?” he said. “I didn’t know that. Honestly. I’m serious.” He stared at me for another beat, stunned. “Wow.” I knew he meant it. I was surprised to find that for more than a year afterward — until just last month — Fiedler hadn’t changed a word.
In the days after the Herald story, Hart continued on to New Hampshire, where photographers and political reporters, who until then had always observed some sense of decorum, shoved one another aside and leapt over shrubs in an effort to get near the wounded candidate. It was there, at a carnival-like news conference on Wednesday, May 6, that Paul Taylor, a star reporter for The Washington Post, publicly asked Hart the question that no presidential candidate in America to that point had ever been asked, let alone from one of the country’s most admired newspapers: “Have you ever committed adultery?”
Hart stumbled to answer and ultimately said he shouldn’t have to. What he didn’t know then was that Taylor’s colleagues at The Post — acting at the direction of the paper’s legendary editor and Watergate hero, Ben Bradlee — were already unearthing evidence of a relationship with another woman. By Thursday, Hart was back in Colorado, news helicopters buzzing over his house like something out of Vietnam, and his campaign was through.
The most enduring image of that time, of course, is the infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, which Armandt snapped on a crowded dock in Bimini during that overnight cruise and later sold to The National Enquirer. In it, Rice is wearing a short white dress; Hart is wearing a “Monkey Business crew” T-shirt, along with a startled, crooked grin. Most people who lived through the event, and some who covered it, will tell you that the photo is what provided irrefutable evidence of the affair and drove Hart from the race. But the photo didn’t surface until nearly three weeks after Hart suspended his candidacy. It was a final indignity, to be sure, but it had nothing to do with his decision to quit.
If Nixon’s resignation created the character culture in American politics, then Hart’s undoing marked the moment when political reporters ceased to care about almost anything else. By the 1990s, the cardinal objective of all political journalism had shifted from a focus on agendas to a focus on narrow notions of character, from illuminating worldviews to exposing falsehoods. If post-Hart political journalism had a motto, it would be: “We know you’re a fraud somehow. Our job is to prove it.”
As an industry, we aspired chiefly to show politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions. As the former senator Bob Kerrey, who has acknowledged participating in an atrocity as a soldier in Vietnam, told me once, “We’re not the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives, and there’s a tendency to think that we are.” That quote, I thought, should have been posted on the wall of every newsroom in the country, just to remind us that it was true.
Predictably, politicians responded to all this with a determination to give us nothing that might aid in the hunt to expose them, even if it meant obscuring the convictions and contradictions that made them actual human beings. Each side retreated to its respective camp, where they strategized about how to outwit and outflank the other, occasionally to their own benefit but rarely to the voters’. Maybe this made our media a sharper guardian of the public interest against liars and hypocrites. But it also made it hard for any thoughtful politician to offer arguments that might be considered nuanced or controversial. It drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there was no expectation that a candidate was going to say anything of substance anyway.
Gary Hart, meanwhile, has continued to try to influence the issues of the day. Now a robust 77, he has written 15 books since 1987, including three novels, and now serves on voluntary commissions for the secretaries of state and defense. But he never said much publicly about the scandal or admitted to having an affair, and he never really recovered, politically or emotionally.
A few years ago, during one of our many conversations in the upstairs, book-lined study in Hart’s Colorado home, I asked him whether he ever felt a sense of relief at having not actually become president. This was what people said still — that he allowed himself to be caught because he was ambivalent about the job.
“It was a huge disappointment,” Hart said, shaking his head. “A huge disappointment.”
Lee Hart, to whom he has now been married for more than a half century, had entered the study and was refilling our water glasses, and she overheard him.
“That’s why he accepts every invitation where someone wants him to speak,” she told me. “Every time he can make any kind of a contribution, he does it, because he thinks he’s salving his conscience. Or salving his place after death or something.” She appeared to try to stop herself from continuing, but couldn’t quite do it. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s been very difficult.”
“Is that why I give speeches?” Hart said defensively.
“No, no,” Lee answered quickly. “But you do things when you’re tired to the bone that you shouldn’t be doing.”
I asked Hart what it was he might have to feel guilty about. It seemed we were veering close to the boundary beyond which he had always refused to travel.
“I don’t feel guilty,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with salving my conscience.”
“No, I don’t mean your conscience,” Lee said.
I asked Lee what she had meant to say.
“Gary feels guilty,” Lee said finally. “Because he feels like he could have been a very good president.”
“I wouldn’t call it guilt,” Hart said.
“It’s not guilt, babe,” he protested. “It’s a sense of obligation.”
“Yeah, O.K.,” Lee said, sounding relieved. “That’s better. Perfect.”
“You don’t have to be president to care about what you care about,” Hart said.
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee said.
“Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully. This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”