This week Sony Pictures released “The Front Runner,” a docudrama starring Hugh Jackman as Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) and Steve Zissis as Tom Fiedler, one of the Miami Herald reporters who broke the story of Hart’s extramarital affair and, according to the film’s trailer, “changed everything” about American politics. Based on the book by Yahoo News columnist Matt Bai, “The Front Runner” depicts Hart’s downfall as a turning point — the fall from grace that produced hostile relations between politicians and the press, suffocated the last embers of idealism in American life and ushered in the toxic politics of personal destruction.
That premise could hardly be more wrong. Of course, a Hollywood film deserves some poetic license, and “The Front Runner” takes it. But even granting the film producers some leeway, “The Front Runner” inaccurately portrays Hart as a martyr in a new political era, one in which private affairs become public liabilities overnight.
Sure, Hart may have been a victim of this new politics. But he was also one of its architects.
Hart launched his political career as the director for George McGovern’s insurgent 1972 campaign. He helped the obscure senator from South Dakota win the presidential nomination by capitalizing on a new selection process and a new adversarial press that had developed in response to Richard Nixon. From inside this campaign, he helped to introduce the very forces that brought about his undoing 15 years later.
In the 1972 Democratic primary, the anti-Vietnam War Sen. McGovern shocked everyone when he won the nomination. His strategy, designed and implemented by Hart and two other key aides, depended on mobilizing a cadre of grass roots activists. McGovern recruited Hart, a Denver lawyer and former divinity student with scant political experience, because of Hart’s conviction that college student volunteers could transform the electoral landscape in a primary campaign.
It worked. McGovern’s nomination victory highlighted a major change in American national politics: the weakening of party organizations and the declining influence of party bosses. As late as 1968, the race for the White House included only 15 primaries, which selected just a fraction of the delegates needed to win a party’s presidential nomination. That’s why the Democratic Party standard bearer in 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, didn’t need to compete in any primaries. He had support of the party bosses, so he won the nomination easily.
This changed after the turmoil of the 1968 election. Democrats led the way with the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which made sure that delegates to the national convention included larger proportions of women, young people and racial minorities — the so-called “New Politics” constituencies suspicious of the traditional, bread-and-butter politics of men like Humphrey. They also mandated that delegates be selected in open processes, not smoke-filled rooms.
Hart both embodied and accelerated this generational shift in the Democratic Party. While more seasoned operatives thought McGovern should divert resources from New Hampshire because of its close proximity to the home state of establishment favorite in 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, Hart understood that a strong second place showing would derail Muskie’s express path to the nomination. Hart also recognized that New England’s many colleges made it easy for the campaign to deploy thousands of students to knock on doors.
Under Hart’s leadership, the McGovern campaign transformed unpaid volunteers into small-scale organizers. In Wisconsin, where McGovern scored his first primary victory, the campaign asked each operative to raise donations from friends, paste an assigned number of bumper stickers onto cars and escort their quota of McGovern voters to the polls. Following Hart’s lead, the McGovern campaign highlighted the power of activists, who became key to generating momentum for the candidate during these long primary campaigns.
The Republicans soon followed suit.
In 1976, the GOP establishment delivered the nomination to the incumbent Gerald Ford, barely fending off the challenge of Ronald Reagan. Four years later, however, Reagan swept to victory in an open process: for conservatives who had toiled their whole lives in the wilderness, Reagan’s victory seemed almost miraculous.
The 1972 campaign featured a then-record 21 primaries; by 1980, there were 37, and they had become decisive.
But how would primary voters make informed decisions? For a new generation of political reporters, the post-1968 landscape shifted responsibility for scrutinizing presidential candidates from the party establishment to the press. And the experience of Watergate had reinforced the value of investigative journalism. “We were the post-1968 generation, the Watergate generation,” Fiedler recently reflected. “With the party bosses on the sidelines, the press became responsible for making sure the voters had the information they needed.”
And so, a decade before the disclosure of Gary Hart’s affair, the press began subjecting politicians to stricter scrutiny. Aggressive reporting included exposés of sex scandals that might have previously remained under the radar: House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills’s tryst with a stripper in 1974, Rep. Wayne Hays’s decision to employ his mistress as a secretary in 1976, Rep. Gerry Studds’s sexual relationships with congressional pages in 1983.
The media treated politicians as adversaries not simply because of these structural changes. Journalists had also endured the Nixon administration that simultaneously sought to undermine and control the media.
Of course, presidents since John Adams had complained about reporters and newspapers had printed sexual innuendo since James Callendar revealed the extramarital liaisons of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
But Nixon raised the stakes in two ways. On the one hand, Nixon found new ways to bypass the press by deploying the techniques of the entertainment industry to control the media narrative. He called it his “razzle-dazzle strategy,” which included appearing on talk shows and buying television time for celebrity telethons. Nixon even declared “Sock it to me” on the hit television show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Employing a “hit-and-run” approach — constant, short, but not substantial appearances — the media team brought Nixon into American living rooms without the press as intermediaries.
But this was only half the story. He also mounted an effort to undermine the authority of the press and turn the media into the “enemy.” In an effort spearheaded by Nixon’s attack dog vice president, Spiro Agnew, the administration laid out a detailed critique of the media, with Agnew famously castigating the press as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Attacking the press had political value: Nixon saw it a reliable way to stir up the conservative faithful and to deflect attention from policies the right disliked, such as his opening to “Red China.” The administration also hoped that journalists would soften their criticism and give more favorable coverage in response to the rebukes.
And it may have worked in the short term. Many television stations ran scared because they depended on government licenses for their continued existence. In the long term, however, especially after investigative reporters helped expose Nixon’s wrongdoing and bring down his presidency, Nixon’s assault hardened the adversarial relationship between elected officials and the press.
Together with the changing presidential selection process, Nixon concocted a witch’s brew that made exposure of scandal — sexual, financial and otherwise — a central feature of relations between politicians and the media. Nixon’s attacks on the press (which made journalists reluctant to criticize policy and politics), the acclaim investigative journalists won for unraveling Watergate (which rewarded reporters for exposure of misconduct — bribery and adultery are ideologically neutral topics) and expanded options for direct communication with the public (which made politicians less dependent on cultivating cordial relations with reporters) made exposure fair game.
Hart understood these new dynamics from the start. In 1972, Hart saw up close how the exposure of Sen. Thomas Eagleton’s medical history forced him to withdraw as McGovern’s running mate. Two years later, when Hart ousted Colorado Sen. Pete Dominick, he did so by being the Democrat most willing to hammer Dominick for his role in a scandal. Despite Hart’s holier-than-thou attitude and the overheated outrage of “The Front Runner,” Hart should have understood the political landscape he had helped to create.