It seems like a lifetime ago that Gary Hart’s fledgling presidential campaign was snuffed out by a scandal involving a woman who was not his wife. In 1987, even before Hart, a Democratic senator from Colorado, had announced his candidacy — promising the “highest possible standards of integrity and ethics” — he was presumed to be his party’s pick to face Republican George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election. But just three weeks after entering the race, Hart was abruptly out. Amid rumors of womanizing, reporters from the Miami Herald staked out Hart’s D.C townhouse and confronted the candidate about his relationship with a young woman named Donna Rice. The newspaper published a story a few days later, effectively ending Hart’s bid to become the 41st president.
It all seems pretty hazy now. What actually happened and what, if anything, did we learn from the experience? Those are a few of the questions posed by “The Front Runner,” director Jason Reitman’s new film about the events surrounding Hart’s short-lived campaign. The movie, which opens Nov. 16, stars Hugh Jackman as Hart, Vera Farmiga as the candidate’s wife, Lee, and Sara Paxton as Rice.
During a recent stop in Boston, Reitman, whose credits include “Thank You for Smoking” (2005), “Juno” (2007), and “Up in the Air” (2009), said he was unfamiliar with the story of Hart’s fall from grace until a few years ago. Watching “The Front Runner,” it’s hard to believe that Hart was vanquished from the scene so quickly while a man accused of far more serious misdeeds now occupies the White House. We spoke to Reitman at the Bristol Lounge.
Q. To what extent do you think this story is well known?
A. I didn’t know it. I was 10 when it happened. Somewhere in my head I knew the names Gary Hart and Donna Rice, but it really wasn’t until three years ago when I heard a “Radiolab” piece about it. That was my introduction. I couldn’t believe it happened. I couldn’t believe there was this moment where the presumed next president of the United States was in an alley in the middle of the night with reporters, and no one knew what to do and no one had ever been in that position before. It sounded like a movie.
Q. I’m surprised a movie wasn’t made before.
A. What I found, when I told people I was doing the story of Gary Hart, was they’d say three things: “Monkey Business” [the name of a boat on Hart’s T-shirt when he and Rice were photographed together], “Oh, that girl, what was her name?” and “Follow me.” [In response to a question about his alleged philandering, Hart famously told New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne Jr.: “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.”] I realized that the perception of the story was that it was kind of a joke. Having only learned of the story, it didn’t seem like a joke to me. It seemed really relevant. It seemed to have all this connective tissue with 2018.
Q. Since Gary Hart and Donna Rice, we’ve had Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky; and Donald Trump and porn stars. The Hart story seems almost quaint now.
A. The question for me is not the details of the story. The question for me is what’s on our minds. We’re asking ourselves on a daily basis what flaws are we willing to put up with, what kind of human being do we want to elect as president or appoint to the Supreme Court. We are in a daily debate about what kind of human being do we want as a leader. [Hart] was a guy who, in every way, was a perfect candidate: Handsome and well-spoken, with ideas that were prescient and strong, and he was well ahead of the pack. And we made a decision in less than a week that this is not a candidate we wanted. In retrospect, how do we feel about that and how does it make us think about our decisions today?
Q. The film has a narrow focus.
A. We decided to make a movie where we’re following a dozen people, all of them trying to figure out this enigma at the center.
Q. Gary Hart being the enigma, or the scandal?
A. I suppose both. Hart was a brilliant guy with big ideas. He could seemingly see around every corner and was prescient about so many political ideas, and yet at the same time he had no sense that the world was shifting and his private life had come to matter.
Q. And he was so insistent that it didn’t matter, which is crazy.
A. This is the question I’m interested in. I’m not sure if he’s crazy. I’m also not sure if he’s right. That’s the question we’re still debating. That’s what makes the movie relevant today.
Q. How was the script written?
A. Matt Bai, who used to write for The New York Times Magazine, had written an article about Hart about a dozen years ago. It kind of regurgitated a lot of the old ideas, restated facts and restated untruths, and re-posited the Monkey Business photo and the “Follow me” line in the old narrative. Someone took him aside and said, “What are you doing?” And Matt really took himself to task and wrote an entire book on Gary Hart. When we went to write the script, it was Matt and Jay Carson, who’d worked for Howard Dean and was press secretary for Hillary Clinton in 2008. It was the three of us in a room, and we watched “The Candidate” (1972), the Michael Ritchie film, and we knew we wanted it to feel like that. Matt brought stories of what it meant to be a journalist and Jay brought stories of what it meant to be a campaign operative.
Q. Did you speak with the principal players?
A. Matt had interviewed pretty much everyone in the process of writing his book, and he gave me access to his tapes. I also spoke to many members of the campaign team and I spoke to Gary and I spoke to Donna. I had lunch with Gary in Colorado and I went back and showed Gary and Lee the movie.
A. It went over well, I think. It was complicated. It was also scary.
Q. He always seemed a little humorless.
A. He’s intimidating. But he’s also funny. He would make me laugh. I brought the movie to Denver and showed the campaign team. The next morning, Gary and Lee came to the same theater and we turned the movie on and I sat outside the theater for an hour and 40 minutes and then we all went for hot chocolate.
Q. Was his participation helpful?
A. He didn’t really participate. He didn’t read the script. I went and I met him. I was curious to meet the guy, and I felt a certain responsibility. I’d never made a movie about a real person, let alone a person who’s alive and was going to see it.
Q. He didn’t express any misgivings about you doing this?
A. Before I went to make it, he looked at me and said, “Do the right thing.” That was it. And at one point he sent us some of his ties, and we copied his ties.
Q. I will say Jackman’s haircut is good. Hart’s hair was always weirdly ordinary and yet unmistakably Gary Hart.
A. I appreciate that. We worked very hard on that. It was a lot of work.
Q. And Donna Rice’s reaction?
A. She was the first among the people portrayed to see it. She came to the Sony lot and we had coffee. She walked out of the movie theater and she said the first thing that all of them say after they see the movie: “Gosh, Hugh Jackman is such a good actor.” I forget they’re seeing a movie. In my head, they’re about to go through this emotional roller coaster. I don’t want to speak for her. I’m sure at some point she’ll share her thoughts publicly, but what she said is she appreciates that the movie has empathy for her.
Q. The scene in the alley, where Hart confronts the reporters, Jackman does really sound like Hart.
A. Hugh’s kind of known for being an extraordinary researcher. There was an early day where he had a thick notebook, and I said, “Are you really going to read all of that?” And he said, “This is book one of five.” He knew speeches. He had talking points of Hart’s that were nowhere in the script. For an Australian it was kind of insane how ready he was to speak about 1980s American politics.
Q. Did the media’s treatment of Gary Hart change anything?
A. Well, during the primary process, citizens are trying to choose a candidate among a dozen people they really don’t know, so the responsibility falls on the shoulders of journalists to tell us who these people are. And that’s really complicated. How do you describe someone? What information is important? I’m interested in what we want to know as an electorate. That seems to be a moving target. I’m like anyone else: How the hell did we get here? Gary Hart is a story that we misremember and it was a seed that grew into something we’re dealing with today.
Q. What do we misremember?
A. Just the facts. People remember a guy saying “Follow me” to a reporter when, in fact, the press was already staking out his townhouse. People remember a photograph that actually came out many months after he’d left the race.
Q. When he left, he really left. Hart’s been in the wilderness forever.
A. To be fair, that’s by choice. You almost have to tip your hat to the guy. Think of all the politicians who get an MSNBC show for a couple years in the hopes of becoming relevant again. He didn’t do that.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.