The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Politicians’ sex lives used to be off limits. One scandal changed everything.

Hugh Jackman stars as Gary Hart in “The Front Runner.” (Sony Pictures /Columbia Pictures)

Something changed for good, and perhaps for very bad, in a single day in May 1987, director Jason Reitman says.

Gary Hart, then the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination for 1988, was confronted in an alley behind his Washington townhouse by reporters from the Miami Herald. A day earlier, the Herald team, acting on an anonymous tip, had tracked a young woman to Washington, where they spotted her entering the former Colorado senator’s home. They didn’t see her leave that night.

Chaos ensued, briefly.

The Herald’s story (“Miami Woman Is Linked to Hart”) touched off a media conflagration. Within hours of the story’s publication, the news bubbled with stories about the presumed affair between the candidate and the unnamed woman, later identified as Donna Rice, an aspiring model and pharmaceutical saleswoman. The frenzy devoured Hart’s nascent presidential campaign.

That’s the rough outline of the story. The more important question — as Reitman explores in “The Front Runner,” his dramatized account of the Hart episode that opens nationally Nov. 16 is how and why it all came to that.

The Hart episode was the precursor to bigger, better remembered revelations about Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Donald Trump, and sundry other politicians and prominent people. It’s now a given that the personal lives and peccadillos of the people who would be president will be exposed by someone, be it The Washington Post or “Access Hollywood.”

But it wasn’t a given that spring night in 1987.

Which is why Reitman — working from “All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” co-screenwriter Matt Bai’s 2014 book about the Hart scandal — thinks the episode presents a kind of hinge of history, a critical moment in which the cultural, political and media tectonic plates abruptly shifted.

When he learned the details of the Hart scandal from Bai’s book, Reitman (who was 10 when Hart and Rice were briefly in the headlines) was surprised and intrigued.

“I couldn’t quite believe that there was a moment in our recent history where the presumed next president of the United States was in an alleyway in the middle of the night outside his house with a group of journalists, and no one knew what to do because no one had been in that position before,” he said. “I heard that story, and it felt like a movie.”

The Hart scandal has faded into history’s mists, possibly because the moment came and went so quickly, and possibly because it was succeeded by so many other media typhoons. Hart — played in the movie with glum piety by Hugh Jackman, in an uncharacteristic performance — dropped his presidential campaign six days after the Herald’s story was published and shortly after The Post told his campaign that it was investigating another liaison of his.

Hart tried to reenter the race before the first primaries in 1988, but by then his mortification-by-media was complete. He quit and never ran again. He went on to write several books, got a PhD in politics from Oxford and co-chaired a pre-9/11 commission that chillingly warned the new president, George W. Bush, about the prospect of a terrorist attack in the United States in 2001. Now 81, he remains married to his wife of 60 years, Lee.

In a brief exchange of emails, Hart said he was unable to talk about the film without permission from Sony Pictures. “It is their movie, so I leave it to their judgment,” he said. A studio executive, Danielle Misher, declined the request. “Unfortunately, Sen. Hart is not available for an interview at this time,” she wrote.

What people remember about Hart and Rice, if they remember anything at all, is that they had been seen together on an overnight cruise to Bimini on a yacht with a preposterously ironic name, “Monkey Business.” They might also remember that Hart had responded to rumors about his personal life by giving then-New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne a quote worthy of the Hubris Hall of Fame: “Follow me around. . . . If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.’’

Reitman says one particular detail about Hart and Rice is widely misremembered. The infamous photo of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap (in which he’s wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” T-shirt) didn’t drive him from the race; it was published by the National Enquirer about three weeks after he’d already dropped out.

But Reitman — whose eclectic body of work includes “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and the Washington political satire “Thank You for Smoking” — is less interested in these details than in the dawn-of-a-new-era themes that the Hart affair represents.

“You had a presidential candidate who was handsome and smart and had prescient ideas, and was the front-runner, and suddenly he disappeared from the landscape without really a thought of why,” he said. “There was a quick why, but not a more complex why.”

The Herald’s decision to stake out Hart and publish its story broke an unspoken code among the gatekeepers in the press, at least those in the modern era (scandalmongers of yore dogged Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson). “Character” issues had always been news, but only if they were out in the open and had obviously affected a politician’s judgment. By and large, respectable reporters didn’t report on private indiscretions, such as those of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

They most certainly didn’t “hide in the bushes” to do so, as Hart and the panicked protagonists in “The Front Runner” describe the Herald’s team. For the record, the five journalists involved in the stakeout watched the townhouse from parked cars, not the shrubbery. Also for the record: One of those reporters, Jim McGee, disputes the sequence presented in the movie and book: The Herald began following Hart, McGee said, several days after learning of Hart’s “follow-me-around” quote. They did not, as the movie suggests, discover the quote as they were writing their story.

At any rate, after Hart, private lives became fair game, forcing candidates to retreat further behind the protective walls of consultants and image makers, note Bai and his co-screenwriter Jay Carson, himself a former Democratic operative. They argue that journalism was the poorer for it, and so was the electorate. “When’s the last time a candidate didn’t have 16 staff people around them, when journalists weren’t kept 50 feet away at all times?” says Carson, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “A lot of that is to avoid that alley scene.”

It’s debatable, however, whether the days of giving politicians such a wide zone of privacy were so great in the first place. Did voters not want to know that Kennedy allegedly had an affair with Judith Exner, who was connected to Mafia figures? Did they not want to know about Bill Clinton’s indiscretions or Donald Trump’s alleged sexual relationship with a porn star before casting votes for them?

It’s notable, too, that Clinton and Trump survived far worse scandals, but Hart was more or less ruined by his. The reason might have been Hart’s failure to recognize that the rules had changed and that he looked hypocritical and sanctimonious in insisting otherwise.

Reitman says “The Front Runner” tries hard not to say where the line between private behavior and the public disclosure should be. Rather, he said, the movie tries to show how it applied to Hart and to capture the moment that engulfed him.

Perhaps naively, or maybe arrogantly, Hart thought he could ride out the billowing media storm precipitated by the Herald. As his team scrambled to concoct plausible excuses, such as that the reporters didn’t see Rice (played empathetically by Sara Paxton in the movie) leave by the back door, he attacked the press in a speech to newspaper publishers.

Later in the film, in a circuslike news conference in New Hampshire, Jackman-as-Hart keeps fighting back, citing polling indicating that 64 percent of the public thinks the press has been too intrusive. He’s blown back by a Post reporter (Mamoudou Athie), who asks a question previously thought un-askable: “Have you ever committed adultery?”

As Bai’s book documents (and the movie fleetingly suggests), Hart was blindsided by a convergence of larger forces: the rise of the women’s movement on the left and the Moral Majority on the right, both intolerant of adultery; the advent of satellite technology and the ravenous demands of the 24-hour news cycle; and the post-Watergate cynicism of scandal-hunting reporters.

Just as important was the continued blurring of news and entertainment. Many of the reporters chasing after Hart in the wake of the Herald’s story weren’t traditional political reporters. They were the antecedents of an even more scurrilous breed that would soon blossom on the Internet. In the movie, among the satellite trucks that all but imprison Hart’s wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) inside the family’s Colorado home is one for a new tabloid TV show, “A Current Affair.”

One more thing, perhaps a footnote: In hindsight, the true nature of Hart’s relationship with Rice was never entirely clear. Did they actually have an affair?

Bai, both in his book and in an interview, doesn’t supply an answer to that question. In doing the research for his book, he says he couldn’t bring himself to ask the question that was at the heart of the Hart story.

Nor does Reitman in “The Front Runner,” although the movie strongly suggests an answer. In one of its most powerful and emotional scenes, Lee Hart confronts her husband about her pain and humiliation in the wake of all the news reports. It ends before Hart admits anything conclusive.

The real-life Hart and Rice have never acknowledged anything. “There are only two people who know that, and neither has ever said,” Reitman says.

The fact is, many people, and most assuredly much of the news media, had their minds made up at the time. Hart certainly had given them reasons to be suspicious.

In 1987, and ever since, that’s been enough to get a frenzy going.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the actor portraying a Washington Post reporter. It was Mamoudou Athie, not Nyasha Hatendi.

The Front Runner (R, 113 minutes) opens Friday at area theaters.