“The Front Runner,” Jason Reitman’s political docudrama about the disaster that befell Gary Hart’s 1988 campaign for the presidency (a perfect storm of private sin, public voyeurism, and journalistic hubris), is a movie that pulses with the twitchy electronic-nerve-ending hunger of mass media. Reitman, a director of up-front humanity and skill, has figured out a way to jam the contemporary American news circus into a movie, so that it buzzes with the sound of truth being sliced, diced, and packaged. “The Front Runner” has a tantalizing atmosphere of viral spin and information addiction. It’s the sort of thing I wanted more of from Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” Reitman, in striking the tone for his movie, has learned from the best — “The Candidate” and “All the President’s Men,” and also the films of Robert Altman, with their layered POVs and soundtracks of overlapping voices that seem to anticipate the nattering narcissism of the digital era.
As a viewing experience, “The Front Runner” is sharp, exciting, and abundantly accurate in its detail. Yet as a moral statement about the meaning of Gary Hart’s fall, it’s a little screwed up. It’s got its head buried in the sand of a misbegotten hindsight idealism.
The movie, of course, is about the moment the game changed, almost literally overnight, for politicians. Their private lives, notably their extramarital affairs, would no longer be off-limits to the press; political figures would no longer by “protected” with the kind of gentlemanly deference that had been shown to John F. Kennedy (and scores of others). In the movie, when Gary Hart’s relationship with Donna Rice becomes a headline news story all over the world, Hart, as Hugh Jackman plays him, reacts with a high-handed righteousness that the film more or less endorses. He denies the affair, claiming that Rice, when she visited his townhouse, slipped out the back door before the evening was through. (In other words, she didn’t spend the night with him.) But he also claims that the issue of what he does in his private life is of no relevance; it has nothing to do with politics.
Those two arguments are, of course, entirely contradictory. “I wasn’t having an affair, but if I did, it’s none of your damn business.” And that’s one reason why Hart, at the time, didn’t come off well. Like many politicians, he was a smart lawyer, and he tried to work the argumentative Jiu Jitsu of excoriating the press for its newfound sleaziness and, at the same time, using that self-righteousness to make a case for his own “innocence.” You might say that he was a Bill Clinton figure who came along four years too early.
Yet part of the lesson Clinton learned from Hart was that it’s better to keep cool about your bad behavior. Hart could never shake the perception that he was blaming others for his own transgressions. (He couldn’t shake it even if you did believe that the media had now gone too far.) And that’s one reason why his campaign never recovered from the scandal. The emotional subtext of Hart’s defensiveness was the humiliation he refused to own up to. He was shamed for having an affair, shamed for canoodling, and that must have felt harsh beyond all reason. Yet if he’d stood his ground and been willing to take it, who knows? Four years later, Bill Clinton — revealed, by the post-Gary Hart press, to be a serial adulterer who carried on many more affairs than Hart did — steadfastly refused to stand down, and he was elected anyway. (That said, a number of people who supported Clinton may now feel differently about him.)
It’s too easy to say that the American public does or does not care about a presidential candidate’s private behavior. It’s too easy to say that the media should or should not ignore it. The spirit and conduct of the media changed, fundamentally, during the Hart saga (a tectonic shift “The Front Runner” captures quite well), but the question of how the media should act isn’t black-or-white. It remains an ever-shifting grey zone. (Should the press not have reported on John Edwards’ affair? Or on the extramarital scandals of Donald Trump?)
Even if Gary Hart was “wronged” by seeing his affair outed by a cultural game change, the way he reacted to it wasn’t admirable — it was entitled. Yet those who are making a Hollywood docudrama about American political life may feel as if they can’t afford to have a petulant, dislikable hero. (I’m guessing that the Dick Cheney of Adam McKay’s upcoming “Vice” will be a scoundrel, but a strangely likable one.) So “The Front Runner,” in its way, tries to elevate who Gary Hart was. The movie captures all too accurately what went on during those three fateful weeks when the Hart campaign imploded in the face of a brave new world of tabloid-gone-mainstream media. Yet the film says that what changed during that pivotal moment wasn’t just media or politics but history itself. It says that the taking down of Hart was a tragedy that fundamentally influenced the course of America over the last 30 years.
The film wants us to think that if the Hart scandal had never occurred, the following events would have taken place. Hart would have won the Democratic nomination and would have defeated George H.W. Bush for the presidency. The Gulf War would never have happened. The presidency of George W. Bush would never have happened. The Iraq War would never have happened. And the programs believed in by Gary Hart — new ideas about the environment and technology that he insisted, like a mantra, on referring to ad nauseam as “new ideas” — would now be in place. All of which sounds just dandy, and all of which sounds like it came out of some domino theory of wish-fulfillment, like the political version of “Back to the Future.”
Jason Reitman was 10 years old when the Gary Hart scandal took place, but the breathless paradigm he presents of look at how it would all be different! is derived from an earlier politician, one who Gary Hart very consciously evoked: Robert F. Kennedy. Speculation will always be speculation, but there’s a great deal of power to the argument that if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated, history might now be different. Would he have been nominated and elected? We can’t say for sure, but given his singular and soulful Kennedy-in-shirt-sleeves charisma, the answer very likely seems yes. And that means that we wouldn’t have had the Nixon presidency and, along with it, Watergate and the dragging out of the Vietnam War. We can’t speak to the latter issue with certainty, since one of the key architects of the Vietnam War was Robert Kennedy’s brother, JFK. Yet in the case of RFK, to say that an assassin’s bullet changed the last half century of American life is to invoke a possibility that still seems hauntingly true.
But to say that about Gary Hart? Sorry, it won’t wash. Hart always came off as the handsome but slightly joyless technocrat cousin of the Kennedy clan. He had the tousled hair and the progressive intelligence and a certain Colorado outdoorsman cachet, and he certainly had a fervor for politics, but the aureole of his charisma didn’t shine all that brightly. And that, frankly, is because of a quality he had that was revealed, in full, by the Donna Rice scandal: He seemed overly self-directed. He certainly had a lot more magnetism than Michael Dukakis, who ended up running for the Democrats and losing, but Hart didn’t have the primal force of a game changer — he was more of a pragmatic problem solver. And when confronted with a problem so unprecedented that he’d never even dreamed of it happening (which is sort of the definition of the presidency), he couldn’t overcome it; it overcame him. The media took him down, but you could also say that Gary Hart’s pride got in the way. He fought tabloid nation to the end, but the real message of “The Front Runner” is — or should have been — that the way he fought it became just another lesson in how to survive it.