Front Runner

 

 

            1988.  Gary Hart is the front-running Democratic candidate for President.  He's a Senator from Colorado---handsome, articulate, and ahead in the polls.  He'd lost the nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984, but now the Party was ready for change, and the popular incumbent President, Ronald Reagan, had served his two terms, so the field looked wide open.

            This is where the movie picks up, with Hart's campaign steaming on all cylinders.  Campaign workers are young, sharp, and very dedicated.  The dialogue is fast and furious, peppered with frequent scatological references.  Though people were overwhelmingly busy, they were also optimistic.  Their candidate's star was on the rise.  And then came the dramatic fall.

            Gary Hart decided to go on a vacation, a pleasure cruise to Bimini offered by a wealthy donor.  There were party girls on that boat, appropriately named “Monkey Business,” and Mr. Hart becomes very interested in one of them, Donna Rice, a model and aspiring actress.  He then invites her to his Washington, D.C., townhouse to visit.  This, after Mr. Hart had specifically challenged a reporter who was asking about his personal life, “Follow me around if you want to.  You won't find anything interesting.”

            What Gary Hart didn't realize is that the political landscape had changed dramatically.  No longer would reporters collectively nod and wink and say nothing, as they did during John Kennedy's now-infamous dalliance with Marilyn Monroe.  And LBJ had apparently asked reporters for the same consideration of silence.  But that was before Watergate, when the clay feet of Presidents became all too publicly apparent.  The “big name” newspapers, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, used to think it beneath their dignity to publish lurid tabloid stories, but public appetites dictated otherwise.  Reporters from the “Washington Herald” actually followed Senator Hart, spotted Donna Rice coming in and out of the Georgetown apartment, and questioned Mr. Hart about it.  His response was that it was none of their business.  He told them their questions were out of line, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.  Apparently it didn't occur to him to be ashamed of himself, except to his wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga).  He apologized to her, in private, but he never did offer an apology to the public, claiming that most people didn't care about candidates' personal lives. 

            If that was true at one time, it wasn't any more.    Gary Hart soon had to drop out of the race, and the nomination went to Michael Dukakis, who was soundly defeated.  We'll never know what would have happened if....

            Hugh Jackman makes a believable Gary Hart.  Director Jason Reitman chooses not to get luridly specific about the affair, but instead emphasizes the way the event stopped the momentum of the Hart campaign, and quickly derailed his Presidential aspirations.  We wonder, these days, if the rules have changed yet again about what, exactly, would constitute political suicide.  And what wouldn't.  In the aftermath of the 2018 mid-terms, we're still waiting for the smoke to clear to see exactly how the landscape has changed.  And woe to the 2020 candidate who fails to recognize the paradigm shifts.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association