Gary Hart: When US Journalism Stopped Ignoring Politician's Private Sexual Affairs

When should journalists report on the personal affairs of politicians? It is a good question to which the answer reveals much about the person responding and the state of the society they are living in.

I came to age during the Clinton White House sex scandal, and observed how public opinion surrounding his abuse of power has shifted, especially since the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

Prior to reexamining Clinton through the prism of #MeToo, I shared the view expressed by Dee Dee Myers who served as his press secretary "How many second chances does a person deserve? ... Clinton's view is, as many second chances as a person is willing to try to take."

Clinton's scandal happened in the White House, in the Oval Office, with an intern. Clearly tieing it to his exercise of public power. This scandal was a watershed moment for Internet news with the Drudge Report being the first to report the scandal.

Gary Hart 1988

Clinton was not the first politician to be outed for an affair, Democratic Party primary frontrunner Gary Hart's presidential campaign ended following the reporting of an affair in 1987.

Both Hart and Clinton have towering intellects, and very similar character flaws. The key difference in the outcomes of their scandals is timing and humility.

Hart was not prepared for the reality of the new 24-hour news cycle of CNN cable news, and the effectiveness of synicated tabloid television which arrived in the late 1980s. Hart felt a deep responsibility for how its actions effected his family, and resigned from the race to spare them further indignity.

Clinton was prepared for the 24-hour news cycle, had already learned to deflect and obfuscate during a scandal, and did not spare his family the indignities resulting from his affairs becoming publicly known.

The Book on The Hart Scandal

All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, written by Matt Bai, is the definitive account of how the chase of the Gary Hart story changed American political journalism.

Prior to the Hart scandal, private morality of candidates was not as relevant an issue to the press as it is now. Bai chronicles more than just the scandal, he explains how changes in technology and journalism practice created the circumstances of the chase of Gary Hart.

Bai chronicles Hart's fall from grace, from how the Miami Herald came to break the story of his affair with a young woman, the stake-out in front of his house, the debate regarding publication of the story, the fallout which followed, and the media frezny resulting from the decision that private affairs were now matters of public business.

In those weeks in 1987, the rules changed.

Only a few years prior, during a separation from his wife, Hart slept on the couch of famed Washington Post Bob Woodward! It was not reported. Consider today how quickly politician's personal lives are reported, quite the contrast.

Robert Caro, in his recent memoir Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing discusses the affairs of President Lyndon Johnson and how the media of the time choose to not cover them. What was private remained private. (Presidential affairs were common.)

Working's discussion of how Caro learned of is fascinating. The public was unaware for decades.

Returning to Hart, I'll note there is a movie adaption of Bai's book, The Front Runner staring Hugh Jackman. It is presently on Netflix in Canada. I recommend reading the book first, there are details which do not translate well to film..

Hart's Warning That Hunting Good Politicians Will Only Leave the Bad Ones

Gary Hart's 1987 exit speech predicted the crisis that exists today in the American republic's political debate. Hart's foretold of how the tabloid frenzy of the cable news cycle would lead to a decline in the quality of America's political leaders.

"We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders, for it reduces the press of this nation to hunters and Presidential candidates to being hunted", Hart stated.

"Politics in this country - take it from me - is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match. We all better do something to make this system work or we're all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say: I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve".

We have not been consumed by a sex scandal in Canada, we do not have the tabloid style current affair televisions shows of the United States or Australia, and our morning shows are not domainant as they are in the US. Politics as entertainment has not fully crossed the border.