Gary Hart, the media and the story behind The Front Runner

A new biopic about Gary Hart's failed 1988 presidential bid is based on a real-life story that was followed closely on both sides of the border.
Two U.S. columnists discuss the media's treatment of Gary Hart. 2:33
A movie poster for The Front Runner shows a cartoon of Gary Hart's campaign bus going off a cliff as a group of pursuing reporters watches the disaster unfold from the edge of the same cliff.
A movie poster for The Front Runner is seen in this image. (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

The story of the Colorado senator's failed bid to be the Democratic presidential nominee for the 1988 U.S. election is told in the film, which is directed by Jason Reitman. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and is now playing in various Canadian theatres.

When Hart's presidential campaign went off a metaphorical cliff in real life, however, CBC News was interested in the story, just as the rest of the media was.

The National reported on Hart's presidential ambitions as early as August of 1983, when he was seeking the Democratic nomination for the following year.

Hart didn't get the nomination — it went to Walter Mondale, who would lose to Ronald Reagan at the polls in 1984.

But Hart sought to be the nominee again the next time around and he was competitive, with polls showing him ahead of U.S. Vice President George Bush.

'Hunters' and 'the hunted'

In the spring of 1987, however, Hart's campaign unravelled amid allegations about his involvement with a model named Donna Rice, who was two decades younger. 

Hart, who was married, and Rice both denied having a relationship, but that didn't stop the story, which kept on rolling like the out-of-control bus in the movie poster. Reporters even staked out his townhouse in Washington. Numerous images of Rice accompanied the media coverage — including on CBC-TV.

The chase for the story and the questions posed to Hart led to a wider debate about the manner in which the media covers campaigns.

Gary Hart is seen during a press conference announcing his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race in Denver, in May of 1987. (Jack Smith/AP)

The questions thrown at Hart got sharper as the story unfolded — like when he was asked at a news conference if his marriage had been monogamous.

"Um — I do not need to answer that question," said Hart.

When news broke that Hart was planning to end his campaign, that story led The National — as did his news conference on his decision the following day.

"We're all going to have to seriously question the system for selecting our national leaders that reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted," said Hart.

'They'll have to watch their steps'

When The National's Knowlton Nash asked the CBC's Joe Schlesinger for his take on the scandal, the veteran foreign correspondent saw a two-sided fight — one in which a candidate dared the media to follow him around and some journalists who exceeded the bounds of good taste in their pursuit of the story.

Knowlton Nash and Joe Schlesinger discuss the Gary Hart scandal. 1:09

Schlesinger also said the game had changed for all the people seeking to be president, whether Democrat or Republican.

"They'll certainly have to watch their steps because right now the press is sort of painted into a corner, where it'll have to watch for this sort of thing, lest it be accused of favouritism," said Schlesinger.

'Soap opera' too dignified a term?

Other journalists, like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, felt the media had already gone too far with its coverage of Hart.

"I think it's quite serious when American, United States reporters stand up at a press conference and ask a candidate for president of the United States: 'Have you ever committed adultery?'" said Lewis told CBC's The Journal.

"To me, that is so shockingly outrageous, so contemptuous of the process and of the profession that I'm in that I hesitate to dignify it by the word 'soap opera.'"