The Front Runner was a TIFF movie starring Hugh Jackman as the 1984 and 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee, Colorado resident Gary Hart. Early on Hart was the front runner as the State primaries were beginning. The film is directed by Canadian Jason Reitman, who also directed Up in the Air, Juno and Thank You for Smoking. Gary Hart was to be the first successful Democratic nominee to win the Presidency from a western State. Think about who was before him. Hart was a smart, policy-focused candidate who believed in the “three Es – Economy, Education and Environment”. He gained wide support as a surprise upcoming nominee in 1984, when Walter Mondale won the nomination (and defeated soundly by Ronald Reagan) and then became the favourite fours years later. His campaign, and how it ended in scandal, became a turning point in Presidential politics. Hart was involved in an affair with Donna Rice, a pretty blonde and infamously was on a yacht called “Monkey Business” where pictures of them circulated. The press hid out after being challenged by Hart to follow him, and found him in a flat in Washington with Rice.
Before this candidacy, the press and the American public seemed to be not all that concerned with the personal lives of their candidates. The seedy underside of background was not as important as the policies and charisma of the leader. America looked the other way on Kennedy’s indiscretions, and pasts of others, but not always as we saw with Chappaquiddik. Hart was a married man, but the relationship was a complicated one. Married since 1958 to Lee (played by Vera Farmiga) and also in Up in the Air, they were separated in 1988 at the time of the apparent indiscretion.
Hart took the high road as the scandal broke focusing on his platform. He felt that it was “not relevant” nor anyone’s business and revealed little about his ability to be the President. His staff felt that the known newspapers (like the NY Times or Washington Post) would avoid the gossip and report on the issues. But we see Ben Bradlee and Bob Woodward in the offices of the Washington Post (who broke Watergate in the early 1970s) debating this story, and how they didn’t want to be accused of sitting on the sidelines when the story broke. So what began as two guys from The Florida Herald lurking in the bushes became covered broadly. And even though Americans on news TV felt that Hart didn’t do anything wrong, it still took him down. But how far have we come? From losing a nomination and the support of constituents because of this relationship, to becoming President despite paying off porn stars after having sex with them or talking about grabbing women in the [soft areas] during sponsored beauty pageants. Hart’s position was that this type of reporting kept the potential quality candidates from coming forward because of the intense scrutiny it takes on every aspect of their personal lives. You are no longer a private citizen. You become public property, and with the endless debate of the talking heads on 24 hour TV.
The movie is an interesting one, and doesn’t touch upon the life of Donna Rice after her name becomes public. Her life, as she knew it, was over. She has later talked about her sympathy for Monica Lewinsky. Both women have become leaders in the women’s rights movements and bringing forth the horrors of what happens to people thrown into the spotlight by dealing with powerful political men.
Meanwhile Gary Hart and his wife are still married. They are out of the public eye for the most part. He talks periodically about issues as they arise. But this was the turning point in following candidates and shows the flaws in a system where not every quality leader (or candidate) can be able to survive the public scrutiny and holier-than-thou attitudes of those digging. And paradoxically we have a sitting President seemingly impervious to real life flaws (three times married and endlessly philandering it seems). So this movie reflects the times then, and shows the differences of where we are today. There is part of me that thinks that the Trump years will be long forgotten and looked upon bleakly by those 100 years from now, in the same way that Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) or Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). At least one can always hope.