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Listen: ‘The Front Runner’ Shows How Personal Scandal Started to Pervade Political Coverage

WASHINGTON — When Gary Hart, beset with media coverage of his relationship to Donna Rice, dropped out of the 1987 presidential race, he said, “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserved.”

Jason Reitman’s new movie “The Front Runner” is a fly-on-the-wall look at that fleeting one-week campaign, its impact on Hart (Hugh Jackman), his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga), and Donna Rice (Sarah Paxton), but most of all on the questions facing the media in how they covered presidential candidates.

Since then, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump have survived scandal to win elective office, but it’s a bit too simplistic to say that the public has learned how shrug it off and ignore issues of personal character.

Matt Bai, who wrote the movie along with Reitman and Jay Carson, tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM that after the Hart-Rice scandal, “The definition of leadership gets much more entwined with, an idea of, how do you survive scandal, what are you willing to do, what are you willing to sacrifice, what privacy are you not willing to give up and can you exist in an atmosphere with no shame? I don’t think it is about the public getting more desensitized. I think it is more about the process rewarding different skills and different ethics.”

The movie is based on Bai’s book, “All the Truth Is Out: The Week that Politics Went Tabloid,” which shows how the Hart-Rice scandal was a pivot point in media reporting on politicians’ personal lives.

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Hart believed that his personal life was none of the media’s business, as he tried to focus on his forward-thinking ideas for the presidency (among other things, he predicted the stateless age of Islamist terror, and a shift toward an internet based economy).

Yet as Hart was beset by rumors of womanizing, the Miami Herald sent reporters to follow Rice from Miami to Washington just after the start of his campaign, staking out Hart’s Georgetown townhouse and watching Rice enter one evening. It was never proven that they had an affair, and they both denied it, but the stories on the visit engulfed Hart’s presidential ambitions.

The movie also is a reminder of how much of the incident has been mis-remembered over the years, including the fact that an infamous picture of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on board a cruise to Bimini was actually published by the National Enquirer about a month after Hart dropped out of the race.

Reitman was just 10 years old in 1987, but said that after Bai’s book came out, he thought, “This sounds like a movie. It felt like a thriller, and it brought up all kinds of questions that we are still trying to tackle today.”

“The story raised a lot of questions but also had a beginning, a middle and an end, and you don’t always find that,” he said.

An inspiration for the movie was Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate,” not just in feel but in how it leaves the viewer asking questions about the process, and doesn’t form a judgment on whether the fixation on questions of personal character have been good or bad for democracy.

Listen to the interview with Reitman, Bai and Jay Carson below:

“PopPolitics,” hosted by Variety’s Ted Johnson, airs on SiriusXM’s political channel POTUS. It also is available on demand. 

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