Future events in political campaigns came to be much worse than the events of late 1987 proved to be. One might be inclined to scoff at Gary Hart’s response given the way Bill Clinton handled his own sex scandal during the 1992 campaign. We might even further believe that sex scandals are news resistant after the way Donald Trump has handled his affairs. This would be missing the point. The institutional breakdown has allowed a larger crowd to follow and comment on the elected candidates. There seems no filter to what is reported.
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- The Blind Spot
Did the aborted candidacy of Gary Hart during the 1988 presidential season mark a significant change for American politics? The Front Runner (2018) believes this, more by it being a movie about the events of 1987 and 1988 than dramatically proving the point. At the least, the film allows us to stand back from the permanent presidential campaigns and ponder the meaning of the events that sunk a promising run for the presidency. It also stimulates nostalgia for the Hart candidacy: we see a missed opportunity for a candidate who seemed to have originality and a plan. Then we experience the same man running aground on the shoals of unimaginative reporting and blind public reaction.
What the film ultimately meant to me is something different from what makes up the contents of the film. The Front Runner refreshes the memory of events 36 years ago. The first part of the film’s tagline, “Gary Hart was going to be President,” reminds us of his precipitous fall, and the film fulfills this promise. He may have been an interesting person to hold the highest office. The second part of this tagline is problematic: “Instead he changed politics forever.” Does this mean that what Gary Hart went through changed politics? If so, the Clinton campaign in 1992 proved that Hart’s approach to the scandal caused his demise. Even had he survived the scandal, the world was becoming a media Gehenna.
Not living up to its tagline ideal doesn’t diminish The Front Runner because the film prompts another film, another prospect, in which I discern the meaning of Hart’s failed candidacy even though the film doesn’t. I don’t have to be concerned with real or imagined political change but, rather, deal with a darker, mechanistic side of American politics and media. Put another way, Gary Hart’s real prospect plays in plain sight what prevents many from seeing it is our sentimental view of the past.
Early in the film we’re offered wisdom secondhand from Warren Beatty via Gary Hart. Many years before, Hart told Beatty that people caring about sex scandals is limited to the Hollywood ethos. Beatty replied that these Hollywood-like scandals have gravitated toward the political culture. Hart’s inability to grasp this shift reveals a flaw or blind spot that persisted in his approach to dealing with his own sex scandal, to the bitter end of his campaign and after. The film shows his rejecting the idea that private affairs have nothing to do with authentic political leadership. He nearly appears foolish arguing this point, especially later, during his verbal encounter with the chief editor of Miami Herald during an economic conference in New York City, a few days after the paper revealed Hart’s liaison with Donna Rice.
- Slow Death
Previous films mark the slow death of American public discourse: A Face in the Crowd (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Medium Cool (1969), The Candidate (1972), Network (1976), Being There (1979), The King of Comedy (1983), The Truman Show (1998), The Social Network (2010). The Front Runner gives us an empirical example of this reality and, perhaps, in the process, loses the audience’s focus. Are we being told that a candidate’s sexual proclivities do not matter? That is, do we accept Hart’s reasoning here and, subsequently, have ourselves drowned in the din of media hysteria?1 One can’t watch the film and wonder at the whole injustice done to Hart, given a recent president’s unashamed sexual escapades and the transparent way his affairs were hushed up by the payout of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention Ben Bradlee’s (Alfred Molina) admission that the press had dutifully covered up Kennedy’s and Johnson’s affairs.
Nor can we help pondering the 1992 presidential campaign, which had an infinitely more incendiary sex scandal. There were tapes of phone calls between Jennifer Flowers and Bill Clinton, whereas Hart and Rice have denied to this day that they had an affair. Like Hart’s, Clinton’s bid for president looked dead in the water. Yet he recovered and won the election. He had the personality and campaign geniuses to manage the fallout. In other words, he lied and never wavered from lying about the nature of his involvement with Flowers.2 Sex scandals dogged his presidency until the end, playing a major part in his impeachment. On the surface, it would seem to corroborate the film’s point.
Where the parallel between the respective campaign scandals comes closest is the depiction of the ‘wronged’ wives. Hillary Clinton’s tolerance of Bill’s foibles has become legendary and may have shown her to be the superior political animal. Hart’s wife, Lee, had recently separated from Gary. Like Hillary, she avoided playing the victim. However, Lee had no stomach for the public pillaging of privacy – she did not have the will to go the distance. Hillary earned political points by maintaining the course through impeachment. She wanted a political future. The Clinton team seems to have taken important lessons from the Kennedy family.3
The death of discourse is signified by spurious speech and overwhelming content whence few can discern whether anything meaningful is being said. Spurious speech arises from the misuse and abuse of the English language. Overwhelming content can be thought of as the noise from too many voices and the drowning out of all reasonable thought. One might reflect on the mob mentality of the news media. It has been de facto in the twentieth century that the press and television headlines made the news – more than the events themselves. Cinematic examples of press hysteria go back to The Front Page (1931) and the many images in subsequent films of mindless questioners who evolved into the equally mindless photographers immortalized in La Dolce Vita (1960) as the paparazzi.
A hysterically activated press corps remains one of the last and lasting images in The Front Runner. The filmmakers place much of “what is wrong here” at the feet of the press. For some critics, this emphasis seemed to take Hart off the hook. Besides, it’s easier to focus on the candidate and his blunder than on the actions of press corps. They had a job to do. Gary Hart simply did not pass the “candidate test” – the “morals part” of the test. But to judge who acted wrongly deflects the light away from the process that we witness in the film.4
- The First Stone
How much different is this group of reporters from a mob seeking swift justice for a scapegoated perpetrator? I ask this not to sympathize with Gary Hart, as victim, or to allow Hart and his supporters to deflect us from the political stupidity of his actions. But we can’t deny it. A way to examine this situation is to look at the writings of Rene Girard, in particular, “Casting the First Stone,”5 which illuminates what unfolds in The Front Runner.
Girard compares two episodes in the ancient world. First, Jesus confronts a group who want to stone an adulteress and utters an infamous challenge: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” We should keep these words in mind when we evaluate the press’s irrepressible urge to “go with the story.” Second, an incident in Greece in the second century when townspeople stone to death a man who is blamed (scapegoated) for a plague in the town:
Apollonius is supposed to have cured the entire city with one single trick which turns out to be the stoning of that poor beggar.
Girard continues, taking his account from The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by a third-century writer, Philostratus. A plague had raged in Ephesus. Apollonius was asked to remedy the situation. Calling together the Ephesians, he said: “Take courage, for I will today put a stop to the course of the disease.” He led the people to the theatre,
where the images of the Averting god had been set up. And there he saw what seemed an old mendicant artfully blinking his eyes as if blind, and he carried a wallet and a crust of bread in it; and he was clad in rags and was very squalid of countenance. Apollonius therefore ranged the Ephesians around him and said: “Pick up as many stones as you can and hurl them at this enemy of the gods.”
Initially, the Ephesians are shocked by Apollonius’s words. But he insisted and egged on the Ephesians to launch themselves on him, and some hit the beggar with the stones. Then a key moment occurs:
[t]he beggar who had seemed to blink and be blind, gave them all a sudden glance and showed that his eyes were full of fire. Then the Ephesians recognized that he was a demon, and they stoned him so thoroughly that their stones were heaped into a great cairn around him.
The stoning can be applied to the investigation and attack on Hart in several ways.
Many news outlets believe Hart is having an extramarital affair. They need corroboration before throwing the first stone. Hart excites interest when he tells reporters that they should follow him. The Herald takes up the challenge. A reporter and photographer keep an eye on Hart’s apartment. They’ve seen a women enter and, eventually, see Hart and Donna Rice leave by a back entrance. Even with prima facie evidence, their editor only reluctantly prints the story. He hopes other papers will follow. Newspapers want to publish the story. There is hesitancy, especially among the “giants.”
The Ephesus stoning mentions the eyes of the victim flaring and exciting a worse reaction from the mob. In describing Jesus’s handling of the mob, he is described as getting on one knee, drawing lines in the dirt, and, most importantly, avoiding eye contact with the mob. Analogously, Gary Hart initially avoided eye contact with the news media, adopting the seemingly naive view that his actions with Rice, whatever they were, were not important. Coming up, however, was an Economic Development Conference in New York City, and many of his advisers wanted him to cancel. This is where the term “blind spot” takes a double meaning. Hart can’t “see” what would hurt him by going there, because he’s prepared to address the issue. He doesn’t realize that what he will do is the equivalent of looking directly into the eyes of his potential persecutors. The other newspapers may not even actively desire to go after him. After he addresses the conference, in his mind taking care of the issue, the editor of the Miami Herald directly responds to Hart, and they go back and forth. Hart’s staring him down, staring down the entire news media, is taken by the news people as a critique of their self-declared duty to the public. This becomes the secular form of their recognizing “the demon.” Not a few days later, nobody, including the New York Times and Washington Post, can help themselves but join in.
Other papers and news outlets might rationalize: We cannot NOT be part of this! But holy dogshit, this is NEWS. We report the news. It seems laughable when they worry about the “truth” and “accuracy” of the accusations.6
Could the events that brought down Gary Hart have been avoided? Could the media/public rationalize along with Hart that his private actions did not affect his leadership qualities? Ben Bradlee thought so. Apparently, the supporters of our 45th president thought so. If Gary Hart had avoided “eye contact” with the Miami Herald and other news media at the New York City Economic conference, could his candidacy safely have walked toward the New Hampshire primary?
- Being Lied to
The subsequent stoning from the news media centered on the accusation that Hart lied about the nature of his affair with Donna Rice. “Being lied to” had been an important element in the impeachments of Nixon and Clinton. One might infer they would not have attacked them if the presidents were honest from the start. Did we (or anyone) know absolutely whether Hart lied? Was anyone going to side with Hart and not be mocked and dismissed from the room? The danger of defending a scapegoat is being made a scapegoat.
It seems too much stock has been invested in the intentions of the accusers. Starting with the presumption that they care about the truth. Likewise, the conceit of the public’s right to know is not an absolute value. The press didn’t always have this conceit, as the presence of Ben Bradlee in the film reminds us.
Now, Hart may have been doomed once his political opponents – either Democratic primary candidates or a potential Republican candidate – found out his secret activities. Clinton’s impeachment was directed by right-wing opponents, obsessed with taking down his presidency, ultimately rebooting the Paula Jones inquiry. Clinton’s (and Hart’s) guilt seems incidental to the malignant process that took them down.
The major issue with Hart’s downfall stems from the blind actions of a powerful institution and its inherent hubris regarding its operational mechanics (checking facts, multiple sources, etc.). This institution has never been loathe to exaggerate half-truths and hype the inconsequential to unprecedented significance. It has to make money. But there’s been increasing intolerance over its inability to admit to itself what it favors in public life – or, better, doesn’t realize how its approach toward its news subjects are inevitably inclined for or against that which they are really for and against. In other words, the quixotic pursuit of objectivity. If one is to make a case against Richard Nixon, it will be easier to do it if you are his persistent critic, even better if he hates what you stand for. What a president does wrong becomes entangled in the motivation for going after him. It’s not hypocrisy so much as being dishonest with yourself. Gary Hart was not Richard Nixon and his alleged affair no Watergate burglary. But he went down quickly and furiously.
Let’s return to The Front Runner’s tagline:
Gary Hart was going to be President. Instead he changed American Politics forever.
The second sentence should be examined closely. The film believes something has changed in American politics, to which I agree. It’s “how” things have changed that the film reveals but doesn’t realize that the revelation is different from what it dramatizes. Something has changed. A candidate for high office can be derailed by a tenuous accusation? Bill Clinton seems to have negated that possibility. Did Hart change politics forever? Only if he convinced the press and public that his affair with Donna Rice was not pertinent to his being a strong candidate. Something Bill Clinton accomplished. Although, I doubt if this changed American politics
I envision something larger happening, more disquieting and destructive. It’s in the film, but the film doesn’t understand what it grasps.
- Institutional Restraints
It goes to Ben Bradlee’s statement about repressing information about the sex escapades of Kennedy and Johnson. How does the film want us to feel? The Washington Post dropped the ball? It had a duty to tell us? There was also repression of Kennedy’s physical well-being, hearkening to the news media not dealing with Franklin Roosevelt’s health during the 1944 campaign, as well as the lack of photographic attention toward Roosevelt in a wheelchair. The repression or restraint to reveal all is institutional. Certain things were regarded as beyond interest. The media institution decided for the society. Doubts have eroded the institution’s confidence, and the public’s in it, in applying the older standards.
The crumbling of institutional restraint parallels growing individual irresponsibility. Specifically: the deterioration of the press/news media is more and more palpable. The presence of a rabid press corps, as mentioned above, was an adjacent evil to the virtue of keeping the public informed. The press was a palpable part of a greater civil entity that could contain its more dangerous inclinations. There existed a less perspicacious group of newspapers that indulged in scandal and scapegoating. A public existed to keep this form of journalism profitable, but it wasn’t taken seriously. Occasionally, the proud readers of “news that was fit to print” read the news not fit to print. A guilty pleasure. A dalliance as opposed to an adultery. Readers like this did not believe tabloids could be its truly wedded informational spouse.
Least of all would the major news media step into the inevitable if necessary (for many) cesspool of stories. Not even because the stories were largely untrue and vaguely sourced. They just didn’t do it. Couldn’t look at itself in the mirror if it did. The Gary Hart episode marks a change, one that couldn’t be unchanged.
Future events in political campaigns came to be much worse than the events of late 1987 proved to be. One might be inclined to scoff at Hart’s response given the way Clinton handled his own sex scandal during the 1992 campaign. We might even further believe that sex scandals are news resistant after the way Trump has handled his affairs. This would be missing the point. The institutional breakdown has allowed a larger crowd to follow and comment on the elected candidates. There seems no filter to what is reported. Opinions as being newsworthy fulfill Daniel Boorstin’s vision of pseudo-events.7 Non-events treated as news: including polling, interviews, tweets, etc. The filter has been removed. It’s nearly impossible to separate the blather from the what is important to know (not that the latter was ever easy when the noise was far in the background).
Perhaps the most significant, if not pathetic, scene in the film shows Hart watching a Johnny Carson monologue, in which there are several jokes about Hart and his trip to Bimini on the yacht Monkey Business. Significant because the “moment” represents the crystallization of public opinion and perception. It’s less a scandal than a big joke, and the former might be easier to overcome. Hart was stymied in 1984 when Walter Mondale asked him “where’s the beef?,” a meaningless advertising meme. Now, the public fixates on the reference to the boat. Pathetic because it represents (recalling Beatty’s insight) the permanent slide of American politics into the sphere of entertainment and titillation. The Clinton campaign proved it four years later.
We may walk away from the film thinking: what’s the big deal? Gary Hart didn’t deserve such treatment. A shame the media couldn’t control its worst instincts. And if this is how we think, we will never come close to understanding how we are ensconced in the current political circumstances. We stumble around as lost as Gary Hart was. His example will have meant nothing. Probably has meant nothing.
- A Second Stone
The Front Runner’s “media” villain is dutifully depicted negatively, perhaps not as mordantly as I have done. Taking this position against the press, the film ignores another shadow coming from the events in 1987. It is related to the media but in reverse: candidate Hart is not so much done in by news media as by its increasingly entertainment dimension. The merging of entertainment and news occurred in the late 1960s, early 1970s. This is to say,8 reporting the news became extremely profitable. And when it wasn’t, cuts were made to news staffs around the world, hobbling newspeople’s efforts to accomplish their mission, informing us what’s happening in the world (maintaining the illusion of informing us).
Perhaps the most savage if not influential attack on Gary Hart appeared in a Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy. She brought to her critique a singular thesis: Hart’s demise was a failure of character. Thoroughly researched, she lays out an overwhelming argument that Gary Hart was a very flawed man. The article implicitly denies the notion that Hart was an idealist done in by naivete and idealism.
It seems odd that The Front Runner obliterates all trace of Sheehy’s thesis and the details of his many questionable actions, including his inclination to the entertainment (dark) side of politics. A brief summary includes:
- When Gary Hart did break out into the worldly world, he gravitated toward its furthest extreme, using hedonists and fixers to find him girls.
- With a lust for danger, he plunged into the world of Donna Rice, a world even her father feared to look at too closely.
- With the utter surrender of a sword-swallower at the circus, Hart internalized JFK’s values and attitudes, then tried to conjure up the same charisma by copying his gestures and even the Bostonian twang.
- Warren Beatty introduced Hart to the glamour of Hollywood, and Hart could offer him political credibility – a magnificent symbiosis.9
Gary Hart may have been sacrificed on a “media altar,” and there’s no rule against victims deserving their own demise. Challenging his potential tormentors doesn’t absolve journalists and editors from blame. There is an opportunity to look deeply into Hart’s heart. What can be identified as his motivation? This isn’t a biopic. We’re expected to look into a small frame of his life and conclude, with the filmmakers, that we lost a wonderful chance to elect a competently intellectual president, a man of the issues, a man above smear campaigns and negative advertising. This thesis comes under another guise in public discourse: the op-ed lament that the best people avoid the political life for a more lucrative, less frustrating profession. Simply put, only compromised politicians – controlled ubiquitous “special interests” – seek high office. As if: Politics once overflowed with great men and women.
The Front Runner pins the blame for our pathetic politics on the current print and broadcast media. They kept Gary Hart from being elected because scandal sells more than ideas. I suppose it wouldn’t have been good business to criticize your audience. What did the filmmakers have to lose? Few people saw it. One might infer that perhaps Gary Hart wasn’t worth our laments, at least in the form of a motion picture.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film.
- Alexander Hamilton believed that his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds had no connection to public policy, despite the conveniently overlooked fact that Hamilton used Treasury money to buy the husband’s silence. Hamilton apparently didn’t follow his own principle when he attacked Aaron Burr. Not his actions or hypocrisy invalidate his principle. [↩]
- Added to the mix is Bill Clinton’s charisma, a vague but palpable personal power that also helped his ability to come back from the political dead. A testimony to this is the approval ratings he received from female voters despite the apparent aberrant behavior. The Republican/conservative gang could never quite understand Clinton’s appeal and continued to attack him for the very quality that made him appealing. Not an efficient way to supplant the opposition. [↩]
- Not long ago, the film Chappaquiddick (2018) depicted Edward Kennedy with the death of a staff worker, Mary Jo Kopechne, in circumstances dwarfing most political scandals in U. S. History. The Kennedys, in 1969, still had enough good standing among the media outlets to hold off the rabid press mob, which loomed large for Hart’s and Clinton’s missteps. They would need the good standing because the death raised the stakes higher. [↩]
- Otherwise, we become lost in the labyrinth trying to suss out “what really happened.” Interestingly, Hart and Donna Rice have claimed that they never had sexual relations. Here we either follow a trail that will verify their accounts and absolve them, or we rigorously doubt their truthfulness and conclude that Hart should’ve stepped away (but not facing up to the question: how did his leaving the race for president help the United States?). [↩]
- https://mimetictheory.com/articles/casting-the-first-stone-by-rene-girard/ [↩]
- They are inherently part of the scavenging mob. For example: the NY Times, as well as some disgraced journalists – Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose – dogged Hillary Clinton about her using a personal email account while secretary of state. They will harass a liberal or conservative candidate, it doesn’t matter. [↩]
- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: the Making of Pseudo Events in America. New York: Vintage, 1969/1992. [↩]
- I was influenced by a remark by Chris Wallace, son of Mike Wallace, on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, when he asserts that 60 Minutes began the descent of the news media to finding a way to get the highest profits. [↩]
- https://www.vanityfair.com/news/1987/09/gary-hart-failed-presidential-campaign?gclid=CjwKCAjw9LSSBhBsEiwAKtf0n97QLdcbMnvVMLGWJrd1B75j1ujXdNn-FS8X9L4_R2bKpbHh9asr1hoCLywQAvD_BwE [↩]