“One good thing, I must say, though, about Trump, [is] he has broken down certain norms we’ve lived with for a long time and didn’t really make sense, like extramarital affairs. I was arguing about that in the Clinton days. It doesn’t really matter. That’s private. They used to say, ‘If he cheats on his wife, is he going to cheat on his country?’ No! You can cheat on your wife all day long and still be a good president.”
— Bill Maher, Real Time, Nov. 9, 2018
To pinpoint the origins of our country’s (and especially our media’s) obsession with politicians’ carnal misadventures, we need to turn back the clock well before Bill Clinton and the stained dress and the definition of “is.” But not too far back — not to the Caligulan levels of adultery committed by JFK, which were well-known among the Beltway press but left unreported at the time — out of quaint tact, or old-boys-club patriarchy, or some mixture of both.
Jason Reitman’s breezy, admirably conflicted The Front Runner makes the case that the turning point in tabloidification of American politics was somewhere between these more-famous cases — specifically T-minus May 1987, when Democratic primary candidate Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations came to an ignominious end amid damning allegations of infidelity.
The scandal started, as too many of them do, in South Florida, sending his party’s most serious challenge to the candidacy of George H.W. Bush careening. Hugh Jackman, in a welcome turn from popcorn blockbusters, embodies Hart as an earnest policy wonk with sensible ideas about the economy, jobs, the environment. Compared with his competition in the primary — Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, and, yes, David Duke — Hart was young, with a populist charisma and a 50-state strategy.
As his campaign manager, J.K. Simmons’ Bill Dixon, puts it, “he untangles the bullshit of politics so everyone can understand.” If he’s also a prickly egghead with little patience for the soft, staged-managed profiles of his family life pushed by his campaign staff, so be it. The voters don’t care about a candidate’s private life, right?
And then, on a brief sojourn in Miami Beach, he climbs aboard a yacht called Monkey Business (you can’t make this stuff up) and chats with a model enthusiastic about his campaign. One thing leads to another, and before long, a team of Miami Herald reporters has staked out Hart’s Washington, D.C. townhouse, monitoring its visitors’ comings and goings — and confronting Hart in an alley about what they just saw.
Reitman and his co-screenwriters, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, acknowledge the hardships Hart’s infidelities play on his family, whose residence quickly becomes encircled by vans full of graceless reporters. Vera Farmiga plays Lee Hart as a spouse with a tacit knowledge of her husband’s character flaws, and her performance is both doleful and commanding — she’s cracked but far from broken. Hart’s mistress, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) is likewise presented as a three-dimensional character, and not simply the objectified “other woman” that brought down the candidate.
There is little effort to probe the psychology of Hart’s philandering, but why should there be? Many politicians hence have been felled by animal urges, with power and opportunity obscuring their judgment. It’s so cut-and-dried as to be banal.
Indeed, The Front Runner is not really about Hart. It’s about media ethics and the birth of what would become clickbait, prompting us to question the press as much as the candidate. It posits the high-minded Washington Post (a congenial Alfred Molina is the latest actor to portray Ben Bradlee) as an initial bastion of patient resistance to the prevailing winds of scandal mongering, and the Miami Herald, under Kevin Pollak’s Bob Martindale, as traffickers of gutter journalism and slipshod scoops.
In the process, Reitman takes curious liberties with demonstrable facts, conflating an interview actually conducted by the New York Times with coverage from the Washington Post, and attributing a story written by a young E.J. Dionne as one penned by a fictional reporter played by Mauritanian-American actor Mamoudou Athie. But the questions it raises are potent all the same: Was the Hart story, which turned political reporting into a media circus, the death knell of idealistic journalism in Washington? Or, as one advocate for the wall-to-wall coverage asserts, are “personal character traits important” when considering our leaders? By wallowing in a candidate’s private failings, is the press doing a public service, or debasing the discourse?
As Bill Clinton and Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards could tell you, this debate is over, and one side won. We live in a political world in which The National Enquirer matters. Reitman doesn’t share the media’s delight of Hart’s downfall; rather, he presents convincing arguments on both sides, bringing an even hand and historical long view to a heated debate.
If Trump looms over the movie, it’s with the hindsight with which Bill Maher alluded earlier this month. Disarming the media’s ability to scold his amorality is one of many norms this president has exploded. Perhaps Gary Hart, and the other Democrats who couldn’t keep it zipped up, simply lacked the Teflon to persevere.
THE FRONT RUNNER. Director: Jason Reitman; Cast: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Kevin Pollak, Mamoudou Athie, Bill Burr; Distributor: Columbia; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton.