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What does it take to force a front runner to drop out of a presidential race?
In 1987, it was a Miami model and a luxury yacht named “Monkey Business.” Oh, and a resourceful pair of Miami Herald reporters who broke the story of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s alleged tryst with Donna Rice leading up to the ’88 presidential election.
A new documentary special set to air on MSNBC on Friday night explores how reporting by the Miami Herald leading up to the 1988 presidential election helped force Hart to drop out amid rumors of an extramarital affair with Rice and served as a turning point for media coverage of sex in politics.
“This Happened: Sex, Lies & the Candidate,” which will air from 10-11 p.m., features interviews with the Herald reporters who broke the news, journalists who covered the story for the Washington Post and the New York Times, and Hart’s former campaign manager, among others.
The proverbial smoking gun was discovered by Herald reporters Tom Fiedler and Jim McGee, who conducted an overnight stakeout of Hart’s D.C. townhouse after Fiedler received an anonymous tip that Rice would be flying up to the nation’s capital to meet with the politician. Rumors of Hart’s womanizing had circulated for several years, but they were largely unsubstantiated at that point.
In an interview with the New York Times in the spring of 1987, Hart uttered a now-infamous challenge of sorts to journalists on the hunt for his character flaws — and unwittingly foreshadowed his downfall.
“Follow me around, I don’t care,” he told Times reporter E.J. Dionne. “I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
Fiedler and McGee’s findings — punched into an old-time laptop inside McGee’s hotel room and printed on the Herald’s Sunday front page — soon spread across the country and sparked a debate among the public and the media about whether reporting on a candidate’s sex life was appropriate or ethical. Hart called the reporting “misleading and false,” denying he ever spent the night with Rice, who also denied the report.
“I think this has gotten out of hand,” William Dixon, Hart’s campaign manager, said at the time. “There’s a thin line between character questions and character assassination.”
A now-famous photograph published in the National Enquirer a month later, of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap in the Bahamas, backed up the link Herald reporters made between Hart and Rice.
Dionne said he felt the rules of engagement between journalists and politicians was changing “willy nilly” around him while he was doing his own reporting.
Evidence of the shifting ground beneath them came during Hart’s first press conference following the Herald story, at Darmouth College. A Washington Post reporter asked Hart, who had previously stated he wanted to be held to a high moral standard, if adultery was immoral. It was, he answered. So had he commited adultery?
“I do not have the answer to that question,” he responded.
In the decades since, reporting on character flaws of candidates for public office has become the norm, and the tolerance of the public to character flaws once seen as campaign killers has increased.
Roy Peter Clarke, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, said the elements of the Hart story “very much foreshadow all of the political sexual scandals of the current day,” including President Donald Trump’s alleged ties to adult film star Stormy Daniels and his admission on an “Access Hollywood” bus more than a decade ago that stars of his stature could force themselves on women with virtually no consequences.
“By the time we get to Bill Clinton, he will be impeached over discussions and arguments about where the line is on public versus private life,” Clarke said, “where people who defend him will say, ‘Yeah he lied, but he lied about sex.’”