Monkey Business, 1987

In early 1987, Gary Hart, the former senator from Colorado was the frontrunner for the democratic presidential nomination. Although the election was still 18 months away, Hart’s position as a “New” Democrat — a fiscal conservative and social liberal who talked about the rise of stateless terrorism, the need to convert the industrial economy into an information-and-technology one, and his desire to invite Mikhail Gorbachev to his inauguration — appealed to many young people, especially after the values of the “old school style” New Deal politics were resounding rejected by Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984.

Hart was almost the democratic nominee in 1984. He had come out from nowhere to stalemate Walter Mondale and challenge the aging Democratic establishment then, and proved his vigor in a photo-op in New Hampshire where the flannel-clad Hart managed to bury an ax in a tree from a distance of 40 feet. In 1987, he was the front-runner, a Kennedy-like figure on a fast track to the presidency.

There was only one problem: The senator was plagued by his troubled 28-year marriage and rumors of infidelity. In late April 1987, the Miami Herald received an anonymous tip that Hart was having an affair with a friend, a 29-year-old model named Donna Rice. The senator had first met her in 1983 during a New Year’s Day party at the Aspen vacation home of rock singer Don Henley.

As the result of the tip, Herald reporters followed Donna Rice on a flight from Miami to Washington, D.C., then staked out Hart’s townhouse that evening and the following day, and observed a young woman and Hart together. When the Herald reporters confronted Hart, he claimed that he had been set up. The Herald nonethless published a story on May 3 that Hart had spent the weekend with a young woman in his Washington, D.C. townhouse. On that same day, in an interview in The New York Times, Hart, responding to the rumors of his womanizing, said: “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 few days later, The Herald published a front-page article on the events.

The 7,000-plus-word investigative article consciously or unconsciously imitated, in its clinical voice and staccato cadence, Woodward and Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men.”:

“McGee rushed toward a pay telephone a block away to call editors in Miami. It was 9:33 p.m.”

Original caption in The Miami Herald, May 4, 1987: Presidential Candidate Gary Hart walks away from Herald Report Jim McGee Saturday night behind Hart’s townhouse. Photo by Brian Smith

Donna Rice gave a press conference denying any sexual relationship with Hart but as a New York Times article put it, “the facts floated on a sea of innuendo.” On May 8, 1987, a week after the story first broke, Hart suspended his campaign. He was worried about a Washington Post story that would have made his wife and daughter similar subjects of interest for tabloid journalists. A Post reporter had pointedly asked him, “Have you ever committed adultery?” Hart refused to answer the question and the Post identified another woman with whom Hart had had a long-standing relationship.

The most enduring image of that time, of course, is the infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap. The photo was taken Lynn Armandt, Rice’s jealous friend who first tipped off the Herald. Hart’s T-shirt bore the inappropriate name of the yacht that had ferried the couple to Bimini from Miami: “Monkey Business”. Armandt sold the photo to The National Enquirer. The photo provided irrefutable evidence of the affair but it didn’t surface until nearly three weeks after Hart suspended his candidacy.

Hart would later re-enter the race, but his moment had passed. He wrote in his autobiography that if the press and nation would have a “small margin of tolerance” for messy relationships, then maybe we’d get better leaders. Hart affair was indeed a watershed moment in American politics. Before those days, private lives of politicians were rarely examined. In his 1978 memoir, Theodore White, an influential journalist of presidential politics, wrote that he was sure that of all the candidates he had covered, only three — Harry Truman, George Romney and Jimmy Carter — didn’t have “casual partners.” Three Democratic presidents that Hart admired, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, were all adulterers. In 1963, at the beginning of his presidency, Johnson warned the reporters: “One more thing, boys. You may see me coming in and out of a few women’s bedrooms while I am in the White House, but, just remember that is none of your business.”

And even at the height of the scandal, 60-70% of the public was against such a surveillance of a politician’s private life by the media. In one poll, two-thirds said the media treatment of Hart was “unfair”, and 53% said marital infidelity had little to do with a president’s ability to govern. A Time magazine poll showed 67% disapproved of the media writing about a candidate’s sex life, and 60% stated that Hart’s relationship with Rice was irrelevant to the presidency.

Yet the sensationalist media turned it around. With Watergate still fresh in institutional memory of reporters and news room around the country, a new focus on private morality was injected into American politics by the journalists who wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein.

 

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7 thoughts on “Monkey Business, 1987

  1. I’ll always remember the version that Berkeley Breathed put in Bloom County of George H.W. Bush with Opus on his lap.

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