By Kathleen Hom
Sunday, July 4, 2010; W06
About a year before the 1988 presidential election, news broke that Democratic front-runner Gary Hart was having an extramarital affair with a young blond model. Within a week, the senator from Colorado quit the race.
The media's intense spotlight focused on the model, Donna Rice, then 29. She says she tried to keep silent. Despite losing her job with a pharmaceutical company, she turned down many well-paying, kiss-and-tell opportunities, including one from Playboy offering her "a blank check" for a Q&A session, she says.
Now a 52-year-old wife, stepmother and Internet safety advocate, Donna Rice Hughes recalls those months as a painful time: "It felt like I was drowning in a sea of shark-infested waters. It took my full time to survive that year and a half."
She returned to her faith, she says, and tried to keep out of the limelight for seven years. Except for a brief stint in Los Angeles, she stayed in the Washington area. In the early '90s, she married a Northern Virginia man, Jack Hughes, gained two stepchildren and became communications director for the nonprofit group Enough Is Enough, which focused on fighting pornography and the sexual exploitation of children in print and on TV.
Hughes says she was hesitant to take the job in 1994 because she was still wary of the media. But she needed work, and something clicked when the interviewer mentioned date rape; Hughes says she had been a victim of date rape before she met Hart.
Hughes later expanded the group's mission to focus on Internet safety, which prompted her first major public appearance after the scandal: a speech in June 1995 in the U.S. Senate's packed caucus room, where she pleaded for Congress to protect children from illegal Internet pornography. "All of the sudden, we were front and center," Hughes says, recalling her group's role in the passage of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.
At first, no one seemed to connect Hughes to the woman whose infamous photo on Hart's lap had been plastered all over the news. But when the media blew her cover months later, she says, it didn't matter. She had regained her confidence and credibility.
In 1998, she wrote a book, "Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace." Four years later, she was named chairman and president of Enough Is Enough. This year, the group introduced Internet Safety 101, a training series for parents.
"I lost everything I put my identity in," Hughes says of the scandal. "But at the darkest hour, it was my greatest time to grow, learn and develop my character."