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  • Mike Martinez

Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Gary Hart and Donna Rice

It was yet another scandalous story, almost a cliché, of a powerful man who throws away his political career (apparently) in pursuit of sex with a younger woman. In 1987, Gary Hart was a United States senator from Colorado, a two-time presidential candidate whose good looks, formidable intellect, and widespread name recognition temporarily assured him front-runner status in a crowded field of lackluster Democratic hopefuls for the 1988 season. As a candidate, he seemed too good to be true—and, as it turned out, he was. I discuss this episode in my upcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.

Tales of Hart’s relentless womanizing circulated regularly, tarnishing his otherwise impeccable credentials. He was a serious, articulate man with serious, well-expressed ideas, exactly the sober-minded, pragmatic, thoughtful candidate the Democratic Party needed as an antidote to the Reagan era. Yet no matter what he said or did, Hart could not escape his reputation as a fifty-something Lothario. Apparently, the senator, frustrated at the media’s continued interest in his private life, thought he could put the rumors to bed, pun intended, by challenging the press corps to dig up evidence on his alleged sexual escapades. Unbeknownst to the candidate when he uttered the remark, intrepid reporters had already done that, hoisting him on his own petard and, in the process, transforming Gary Hart into a symbol of hubris, hypocrisy, and horniness.

Despite his later reputation as a high-flying playboy, Hart was a product of a Midwestern, conservative household. As a young man, he entertained thoughts of a career in the ministry. His early life was prosaic and unremarkable. He was born Gary Warren Hartpense in Ottawa, Kansas, on November 28, 1936. His father was a farm equipment salesman. No stranger to hard work, young Gary labored on the railroad.

Raised as an evangelical Christian in the Church of the Nazarene, Hartpence won a scholarship to attend a church-affiliated college, Bethany Nazarene College (later renamed Southern Nazarene University) in Bethany, Oklahoma. He graduated with a philosophy degree in 1958. While in college, he met Oletha “Lee” Ludwig, the woman who would become his wife. The couple married after he graduated from college. Afterward, they headed off to Connecticut so that Gary could attend divinity school at Yale University. He earned his B.D. degree in 1961, the same year that he shortened his name to “Hart” because it was easier for others to remember than “Hartpence.”

Even as he completed his divinity degree, the young man decided that he would not become a minister. Perhaps he decided that “Hartpence” was a suitable name for a minister, but he needed something snappier and more memorable if he pursued a career in public service. Gary Hart moved over to Yale’s law school in 1961, and he earned his LL.B. three years later.

After graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C. It was an exciting time to be a young Washington-based lawyer. Hart joined the United States Department of Justice in 1964 just as DOJ was aggressively enforcing civil rights laws enacted by Congress. After a year, he moved over to the Department of the Interior, where he served as a special assistant to the Interior solicitor. These formative experiences did much to shape the young man’s devotion to progressive Democratic politics.

Having served his time in government, in 1967 Hart accepted a position with the law firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs in Denver, Colorado. The Centennial State would become his home and political base in the decades that followed. In his newly adopted state, he searched for a new way to use his talents. Practicing law was financially lucrative, but Hart was attracted to politics.

He first came to national prominence when South Dakota Senator George McGovern, running for president in the 1972 Democratic primaries, hired Hart to serve as his national campaign director. New rules for selecting the party’s presidential nominee allowed for greater emphasis on primary elections, which benefited an outsider like McGovern. In previous presidential contests, party bosses were far more influential in selecting delegates than they were in 1972. Hart and another staffer, Rick Stearns, realized they could use the rule change to McGovern’s advantage. They focused their efforts on winning 28 states with caucuses, where a candidate could meet potential delegates and make a direct case for his candidacy without filtering his message through party leaders. The strategy paid handsome dividends for McGovern, helping him to secure the nomination. He went on to lose the general election to the incumbent president, Richard M. Nixon, in a landslide.

Although McGovern suffered a devastating loss, Hart emerged as a national figure as the Democratic Party sought to rebuild its brand. After the American people learned details about Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in, Democrats were poised to capture numerous local, state, and federal elective offices around the country in 1974. Recognizing an opportunity to change Colorado politics and advance his career, Hart challenged two-term Republican United States Senator Peter Dominick for his seat. Hart had several factors in his favor. Colorado was leaning Democratic, Dominick had been an ardent Nixon supporter, and the 37-year-old Democrat was an able and attractive candidate. In November 1974, Hart won 52.7 percent of the vote to Dominick’s 39.5 percent.

When he swore his oath of office in Washington, D.C. in January 1975, Hart’s reputation preceded him. Many Democratic leaders viewed him as a rising star. Comparisons to John F. Kennedy—in positive ways as well as negative—would be a hallmark of the senator’s later career, but even in the early days he was cast as the new JFK. He won a plum assignment on the Senate Armed Services Committee as well positions on the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Intelligence Committee.

Hart’s reputation proved that a politician’s strengths simultaneously can be his weaknesses. He was obviously whip-smart, intellectually curious, and hard-working. Aside from those impressive qualities, his admirers frequently mentioned his cool demeanor, a calmness under pressure that suggested he would be a steady leader if he ran for the White House and won. He seldom displayed emotion in public. Hart was a policy wonk who was comfortable discussing data and the intricacies of policy formulation and implementation but seemed disinterested in courting voters.

In 1980, he stood for reelection. Considering his high-profile successes in crafting public policy, the senator was surprised when he faced more than token opposition. His Republican opponent, Colorado Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan, was a moderate, but she fiercely attacked Hart for supporting President Jimmy Carter’s administration on several controversial issues, notably the treaties relinquishing American control of the Panama Canal. Buchanan repeatedly linked Hart to the unpopular Carter, noting that he voted with the president 80 percent of the time. It was a clever strategy, and it almost worked. Hart won the election, but it was a close-fought contest. He barely eked out 50.2 percent of the vote.

Hart returned to Washington, D.C., in January 1981, but Jimmy Carter did not. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan had handily defeated Carter. Senator Hart soon found himself confronting a presidential administration that was diametrically opposed to his understanding of proper governance. Although Hart had always prided himself on his willingness to cut wasteful government spending, which often put him out of step with liberals in his party, he nonetheless believed that government could and should exercise a positive effect on citizens’ lives. Reagan, by contrast, viewed government—especially the big, fat bloated federal government—as the problem, not the solution, to people’s problems. Where the Carter administration tried to reform government to improve its performance, the new administration pushed for cuts to government programs, except for defense, merely for the sake of trimming government. The Reagan administration championed increases in defense expenditures while reducing or eliminating social welfare programs.

The Colorado senator was increasingly outraged by Reagan’s agenda. As the 1984 election season approached, Hart contemplated running for president to counteract what he saw as the willingness of most Republicans to cut government programs that helped America’s less fortunate citizens. He had not distinguished himself in the Senate as a legislator of the first rank, but neither had he disgraced himself. His good looks and fondness for expressing bold ideas impressed enough Democratic voters that Hart was convinced he might win. He threw his hat into the ring. Jimmy Carter’s former vice president, Walter F. Mondale, eventually won the nomination, but Hart, with lower name recognition and far fewer financial resources, came in a close second. It was a promising beginning for a novice presidential candidate.

Mondale was probably the strongest nominee the Democrats could field that year, but Reagan nonetheless defeated him in the general election by a landslide. In retrospect, it was unlikely that any Democrat would have defeated Reagan in 1984. Hart’s loss to Mondale in the Democratic primary was a mixed blessing. With his new-found name recognition, Hart could look forward to 1988, when Reagan would retire from the presidency, leaving an open seat and no other Democrat who could match the Colorado senator’s standing in the party. He represented a new generation of leaders—younger, more energetic, and brimming with new ideas and optimism.

Because he thought 1988 would be his year, Hart declined to campaign for a third term in the United States Senate in 1986. Freed from the day-to-day responsibilities of legislating, he had two years to travel the country, meeting key Democrats, and shoring up his base in the expectation that he would run for president. During this time, as he received heightened scrutiny, rumors circulated that Hart had cheated on his wife. Frustrated that the stories would not die, he ignored the topic, dismissing such talk as absurd and unworthy of comment.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo, widely regarded as a formidable candidate, announced in February 1987 that he would not run for president in 1988. With Cuomo’s decision to opt out of the race, Gary Hart was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. He formally announced his candidacy on April 13, 1987. On that same day, Newsweek magazine printed a story about the candidate’s two trial separations from his wife. It was an ominous sign of things to come.

In an earlier era, candidates and presidents could count on the media to ignore stories of serial infidelity. Reports of sexual escapades involving Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy were well known among the press corps, but they did not make their way into print until long after the men were dead. The press corps’ willingness to look the other way had eroded by the 1980s. A public figure could expect his or her private life to no longer be private.

Known for his prickly personality, Hart’s haughtiness would come to haunt him. On April 22, 1987, an anonymous telephone caller told the Miami Herald’s political editor, Tom Fiedler, that the rumors about Hart’s adultery were true, at least in one instance. Fiedler had written a front-page story in the Herald scolding reporters as “irresponsible” for publishing stories about Hart’s private life without corroborating evidence. The caller, later identified as Dana Weems, a model, said she knew for a fact that Hart had engaged in sexual relations with her friend. According to the caller, the friend was planning to meet with Hart at the candidate’s Washington, D.C., townhouse on May 1.

In an earlier era, the Miami Herald might have dismissed a salacious tip offered by an anonymous source, but the times they were a-changin.’ Fiedler dispatched a team of reporters to stake out the candidate’s townhouse. They observed Hart entering the premises with a young blonde woman who was not his wife. She apparently stayed the night and spent much of the next day with him. The Herald ran a story on May 3 detailing the team’s observations.

That same day, in what turned out to be exquisitely bad timing for the Hart campaign, the New York Times Magazine printed an interview that columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. had conducted with Hart. Responding to a question about his alleged sexual affairs, an exasperated Hart told Dionne, “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” A myth grew up around this comment. For many years, political commentators assumed that the Miami Herald reporters took him up on the offer and followed him around. In fact, they had already observed the mystery woman with the candidate by the time that Dionne’s column appeared.

On Monday, May 4, Hart appeared at a press conference, but he was unrepentant. He complained about the unfair press coverage and castigated reporters who had nothing better to do than follow him around. He refused to apologize, and insisted that the young woman, who by this time had been identified as Donna Rice, was a campaign aide and nothing more.

In the meantime, Donna Rice held her own press conference. She supported Hart’s story that they had not engaged in a sexual liaison. Had this been the only incident on an otherwise spotless record of a squeaky-clean candidate, the public might have been willing to accept the story at face value. As it was, “the facts floated on a sea of innuendo.”

Reporters scrambled around to find out as much as they could about Donna Rice. They learned that she was a 29-year-old former cheerleader at the University of South Carolina as well as a former Miss South Carolina in the Miss World Pageant. She had worked as a pharmaceutical company representative and a part-time actress, appearing on the soap opera One Life to Live as well as an episode of the popular television police show Miami Vice. Fairly or unfairly, the press repeatedly described her as a “party girl,” presumably implying that she was sexually promiscuous.

She met Gary Hart at a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen, Colorado, hosted by rock singer Don Henley. “I knew who he was, but almost everyone at the party was a celebrity, so I didn’t take much notice of Hart,” she later recalled. They did not talk again until she saw the senator at a yacht party in Miami on March 1, 1987. She was with friends and they stumbled into the party by happenstance. Suddenly, there was the senator she had met a few months earlier. She did not spend time alone with the senator, but she gave him her phone number. She was “very interested in getting into fundraising,” she told him.

Two days later, Billy Broadhurst, a friend of Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards—the governor was a notorious womanizer himself—scheduled a boat trip to cruise Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. Broadhurst knew Hart and invited him along. Donna Rice’s friend Lynn Armandt came with Rice, making the group a foursome. “It was Hart who called and asked me to go,” Rice remembered. The boat was named the Monkey Business.

Rice always insisted that he plan was to enjoy a short boat trip, but eventually the group wound up in Bimini. The customs office was closed when they arrived, and so they had to spend the night. According to Rice, the boat did not live up to its name. The women slept on the Monkey Business, but the men spent the night on another vessel that Broadhurst had moored on the island.

At no time did Gary Hart try to seduce her, Rice reported. He was a perfect gentleman. If she had felt there was something more to his intentions, she would have been upset. In her view, they were not sexually attracted to each other.

For someone who was not attracted to the senator, Donna Rice’s decision to visit Hart at his Washington townhouse seemed curious. Once again, she offered an innocent explanation. The same four people were present on Friday evening, May 1. They stayed at Hart’s townhouse briefly before heading to Broadhurst’s house to eat steaks. Afterward, they returned to Hart’s townhouse so that Rice could retrieve an address book she had inadvertently left behind. Broadhurst, Armandt, and Rice left at some point. (The Miami Herald article insisted that Rice did not leave with the others.) In the morning, Rice returned with a manila envelope that Aramandt asked her to deliver. Broadhurst and Armandt arrived shortly thereafter. The group went for a drive to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home in nearby Virginia.

According to Rice, the remainder of the day was essentially the same sort of G-rated entertainment that had preceded it. At no time did she and the front-runner for the American presidency engage in intimate physical touching, much less sexual intercourse. The explanation, of course, satisfied no one. The list of Hart’s sexual dalliances was simply too long for a skeptical public and press corps to accept an innocent story of friends enjoying each other’s company.

Despite public support, Hart could not recast the debate. The scandal drowned out his campaign messaging. Realizing that he could no longer run for the presidency and address crucial public policy problems in the face of the ongoing scandal, Senator Hart suspended his campaign on May 8, 1987.

At a feisty press conference, he again refused to accept responsibility for the brouhaha. “I said that I bend, but I don’t break, and believe me, I’m not broken,” he defiantly told the media. “If someone’s able to throw up a smokescreen and keep it up there long enough, you can’t get your message across. You can’t raise the money to finance a campaign; there’s too much static, and you can’t communicate. Clearly, under the present circumstances, this campaign cannot go on. I refuse to submit my family and my friends and innocent people and myself to further rumors and gossip. It’s simply an intolerable situation.” Paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, he growled, “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

Not long after Hart folded his campaign, a photograph surfaced of the senator wearing a t-shirt with the words “Monkey Business Crew” printed on the front and Donna Rice seated on his lap. They are pictured on a dock holding drinking glasses. The smiles on their faces suggest they have indeed been up to monkey business. Perhaps they were just friends, as they both insisted, but the photograph suggests otherwise. The tabloid National Enquirer plastered the evocative shot on its June 2, 1987, cover beside the words “Gary Hart Asked Me to Marry Him.” Hart had already suspended his campaign, but the photograph caused a new round of snickering and eye-rolling. He may have been a serious man with serious ideas, but the photograph intimated that he occasionally entertained other ideas as well.

Amidst all the brouhaha, Hart retreated to Ireland to avoid the glare of unwanted publicity. He remained in seclusion, but he also stayed in touch with this campaign staff and left open the possibility that he would return. To everyone who spoke with him during that time, he appeared strangely ambivalent about the race. Sometimes he talked about returning, and on other occasions he empathically denied such intentions. When he left Ireland at the end of August, he was still uncertain.

On December 15, 1987, Hart announced that he had changed his mind. He was returning to the campaign trail. He had been the front-runner in May, but seven months later much of his support had eroded. He was yesterday’s news. It was a long shot, and he knew it. “This will not be like any campaign you have ever seen because I am going directly to the people,” Hart said in announcing his return. “I don’t have a national headquarters or staff. I don’t have any money. I don’t have pollsters or consultants or media advisers or political endorsements. But I have something even better. I have the power of ideas, and I can govern this country.”

Incredibly, against the odds, Hart’s popularity rose. Soon, he was second only to Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the polls. It seemed to be a remarkable comeback story. Unfortunately for Hart, it did not last. The same old negative stories circulated again. He had changed his name from “Hartpence.” He had lied about which year he was born, changing it from 1936 to 1937 for reasons that were unclear. (Hart said that it was a simple error in his campaign materials.) He had not paid his campaign debts from 1984. He was a serial womanizer. The stories that had driven him from the race in May remained as topical as ever for some people in December. Gary Hart, in short, was inauthentic, a poseur, a phony.

Skipping the Iowa caucuses, Hart campaigned vigorously in the New Hampshire primary in February 1988, an early test of a candidate’s viability. He received 4,888 votes, or about four percent of the total. Less than a month later, during the Super Tuesday contests in March, Hart captured approximately five percent of the vote. It was clear that he would not be the Democratic Party nominee. He withdrew from the race a second time, never to return. Governor Dukakis eventually won the Democratic nomination before losing to Republican George H. W. Bush in the November 1988 general election.

No longer a member of the United States Senate, and with his presidential aspirations dashed, Hart returned to the private practice of law. Still vitally interested in public policy, he remained a man of strong convictions and progressive ideals, always on the periphery of politics even as he refused to run for elective office. In the ensuing years, he focused on America’s standing in the world as well as new developments, such as terrorism. In 1998, President Bill Clinton asked Hart to serve on the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century (USCNS/21), a blue-ribbon panel created by Defense Secretary William Cohen to provide a comprehensive review of American national security requirements in the coming century. Hart co-chaired the bipartisan commission with former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman, a Republican. The commission expressed concerns about the state of homeland security and offered a series of recommendations to prepare for potential terrorist attacks. In fact, Hart became a shrill critic of American national security policy, urging officials to devote more resources and attention to terrorism. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks underscored the importance of his message, and they made him appear prescient.

In 2002, Hart began thinking about another presidential campaign. It had been long enough since his earlier problems that perhaps a new generation of voters would look beyond the sins of the past. He launched a blog during the spring of 2003, the first potential candidate to test the waters for 2004. When his plans generated a lukewarm response, he declined to run.

Donna Rice initially did not fare well from the scandal fallout. Recalling the intense media scrutiny of 1988, she said that “I was blindsided and thrown into a media feeding frenzy. I kept saying, ‘I just wanna go home.’” Stories about her life denigrated her as a ditzy “party girl” and emphasized her looks, portraying her as promiscuous and opportunistic. For months after the story broke, everywhere she went she encountered rapacious reporters anxious to expand on the story. “I felt I was put on trial,” Rice lamented. “The media fixated on me for the next 18 months. My reputation was destroyed worldwide.”

She eventually moved on with her career. In 1994, she married Jack Hughes, a businessman. That same year, she began working at Enough is Enough, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting against online pornography to make the Internet safer for families and children. In 2002, she became president and chair of the organization. As the years progressed and she disappeared from the headlines, Donna Rice Hughes settled into a satisfying life.

She briefly returned to public attention in 2018 when director Jason Reitman’s film The Front Runner appeared on theaters. Based on the 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid by journalist Matt Bai, the film recounted the 1987 scandal for a new generation of Americans. Starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart and a relative unknown, Sara Paxton, as Donna Rice, The Front Runner received mixed reviews and suffered poor box office results.

By the twenty-first century, the Gary Hart-Donna Rice scandal paled in comparison to subsequent scandals. In an era when one president of the United States engaged in sexual acts with a White House intern and another president paid a pornographic film actress to remain silent about their affair, a photograph of a woman sitting on a presidential candidate’s lap hardly excites the prurient interest of many Americans. Yet the Hart-Rice episode represented a turning point in American political history. The days when a candidate could engage in extramarital affairs—or, if the two participants are to be believed, appeared to engage in such acts—while the press corps turned a blind eye were over. After 1987, there were no private lives for elected officials, especially those running for the presidency. Intense media scrutiny of a candidate’s life from cradle to grave, public and private, was fair game. The consequences were historic, and severe.

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