JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– Gary Hart has had quite an eventful life. “Oh, boy!” he laughed. “Yes, I think that may be the understatement of the day. Much, much more eventful than I ever anticipated.”
And when correspondent Rita Braver met up with the former senator in Evergreen, Colorado, just a few miles from his home in Kittredge, they talked about some of the most tumultuous events, as depicted in a new film, “The Front Runner,” which looks back to May 1987, when Gary Hart’s presidential campaign was infamously derailed.
Braver asked, “What’s it been like for you to have all this focus on that time?”
“Very strange,” Hart replied. “Imagine out of the blue, somebody came to you and said, ‘There’s good news and bad news: We want to make a movie about you, but we want to make it about the worst week of your life.'”
It was the week that reporters from the Miami Herald, acting on a tip, staked out Hart’s Washington, D.C., home and saw him meeting with a young woman named Donna Rice, while his wife was out of town.
Hart (played in the movie by Hugh Jackman) spotted the reporters and confronted them.
That Sunday, the Herald would publish a story which also reported that Hart and Rice had previously been together in Bimini, on a boat called Monkey Business.
Both Hart and Rice have always denied any sexual relationship. But the frenzy of media coverage forced Hart to withdraw from the race.
He told the assembled press, “I refuse to submit my family and my friends and innocent people and myself to further rumors and gossip.”
Hart recalled to Braver, “I also said, ‘If we go down the path we’ve started this week, we will get the kind of leaders we deserve.'”
“Yes. You can’t have rules that were applied to me applied to American politics and get people of quality.”
Gary Hart grew up in Ottawa, Kansas; graduated Yale Law School; and settled in Colorado with his wife, Lee. But drawn to public service by President Kennedy, he ended up managing George McGovern’s losing 1972 presidential race.
Hart went back to Colorado, won a U.S. Senate seat, and built a distinguished career.
In 1983, saying that the nation did not need “caution,” Hart ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. He lost to former Vice President Walter Mondale, but became the Democratic front runner for 1988 in large part because of his visionary ideas.
“I saw as early as anyone else the shift of the economic base of America from manufacturing to information and technology – symbolically from Detroit to Silicon Valley,” he said.
“You were actually worried that we were heading toward a war in the Persian Gulf and that nobody was trying to diffuse the situation, especially vis-à-vis terrorism,” said Braver.
“Yes, or reduce our dependence on oil. So, it meant conservation, it meant alternatives, renewables and programs such as that.”
Hart was considered brilliant, but also a bit aloof. “I was not a traditional politician,” he said.
“You didn’t like having to be charming?” asked Braver.
“Because I found it very difficult!” he laughed. “I wasn’t born with charm the way Bill Clinton was!”
“You essentially thought that your private life was your private life, and that nobody had a right to look into it.”
“But hadn’t that been the case in America for 200 years?” he said. “Hadn’t that been the case? Who changed the rules?”
There were long-running Washington rumors that Hart, who went through two separations from his wife, engaged in extramarital affairs. One reporter asked Hart if he’d ever been unfaithful in his marriage.
Hart said, “He was so far out of line, I couldn’t believe it. And I refused to answer the question. And I still do, of course. It’s nobody’s business. Look: Character, which got to be the key word, is demonstrated over a lifetime. And I’ll put my life up against anybody’s in terms of a sound character. That’s all I can say.”
And now there’s new debate over the events of May 1987. A story in the Atlantic this month claims that the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who had a reputation as a political dirty-trickster, made a deathbed confession: Admitting that he had set up a trap to lure Hart onto the Monkey Business, a setup Hart had long suspected.
Hart said, “Nothing that happened that weekend made any sense to me thereafter. But I had no proof of anything.”
Still, he acknowledges he made a big mistake. “I should have gotten on an airplane and gone back to Washington,” he admitted.
Braver said, “You’ve said it was a very painful time in your marriage.”
“That’s pretty obvious!”
“And you and your wife have now been together 60 years. Congratulations! What kept you together?”
“Love,” he replied.
Hart and his wife returned to Colorado. Their two adult children live here, too. But he was not in hiding. Over the past 30 years, Hart has built an impressive resume: Legal work, consulting, teaching, writing, and diplomacy, with expertise in terrorism. He even got a Ph.D. in political thought from Oxford. “I’ve tried to be active in public service, which is the reason I got into politics in the first place,” he said.
The story of Gary Hart’s fall is considered a turning point, the moment when the press started examining the private lives, as well as the political ideas of candidates.
In 1987 Hart warned, “We’re all going to have to seriously question a system for selecting our national leaders that reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted.”
Still, it is not lost on Hart that both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were elected after allegations of affairs.
“I think all the rules have changed,” Hart said. “If Donald Trump can have a fan base of 30-40% despite everything he’s done in life, all the bets are off. Anybody can be president regardless.”
Hart is about to turn 82, and he admits that he still wonders if he could have changed the course of history.
Braver asked, “Does that haunt you a little bit that you didn’t get the chance?”
“Of course,” Hart responded. “It’s haunted me for 30 years. Lost opportunities, for what turned out to be not very much satisfaction of one newspaper with a sensational story, and was it worth it?”