A movie that hit theaters this month tells the story of Gary Hart’s downfall, but “The Front Runner,” starring Hugh Jackman, also bring to life the moment when American politics changed forever — when the Colorado senator who almost became president was undone by a press corps that decided to give politicians the tabloid treatment.
“I think we're at the ultimate manifestation of what began in 1987, which is the collision of entertainment and politics that creates a different kind of process, where you treat leaders like celebrities,” said Matt Bai, one of the film’s screenwriters and the journalist who wrote “All the Truth is Out,” the book the script is based on.
“And then you treat leaders like celebrities, you get celebrity leaders.”
The gripping Sony Pictures release covers the final weeks of Hart’s presidential run in the spring of 1987, when rumors about the front-runner’s extramarital relationships engulfed the campaign. It culminates in an alley in Washington, D.C., when the cerebral Democrat confronts Miami Herald reporters who had been staking out Hart’s townhouse after receiving an anonymous tip that Hart was having an affair with a woman — later identified as Donna Rice — after the two met on a boat called Monkey Business.
In the end, Hart drops out of the race after refusing to answer a reporter’s question whether he’d ever cheated on his wife.
The film’s creators — Bai, director Jason Reitman and their fellow screenwriter Jay Carson — chatted recently with Trail Mix about that moment and the shadow it’s cast across the decades.
“We talk about politics as entertainment these days,” Reitman said. “We don't talk about the episode of ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad’; we talk about the Kavanaugh hearings or the midterms or the latest press conference.”
Carson, a longtime political consultant — he was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign — has witnessed first-hand the changing relationship between politicians and the press, and its aftermath.
“Whenever you're living in a moment, it's easy to forget that things used to be different,” he said. “The idea that candidates and journalists used to socialize … there was still a little bit of that left on my first presidential campaign, in 2000, which is where I met Matt. So there was clearly still some fraternizing with the press.
"But I watched that bleed away over eight very quick years, from 2000 to 2008. The treating of each other as human beings in the process is largely gone, and that's really unfortunate. The more we bleed humanity out of this process, the worse it gets.”
It isn’t hard to draw a direct line from what happened with Hart’s campaign to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate committee hearings, which captivated the country for days, Bai said.
“Kavanaugh triumphs through that process not because he says, 'You have no right to delve into my high school years, I'm not bringing my wife in front of the camera.' He triumphs because he gives a tremendous theatrical moment; he performs in that hearing room, and that performance put him over the top.”
Bai added: “I think we have a performance-based politics, and that is a direct result of the forces that collided in 1987, and I think for that reason, it's as relevant as ever.”
We can’t turn back the clock, but it wouldn’t take a lot to improve the process, Carson said, noting with a chuckle that he still considers himself an optimist, even after spending 15 years in national politics.
“When I say that,” he added with a smile, “it's a little bit like, when you're at stage 4 cancer, stage 3 cancer is better. I think we're in a deeply cancerous process right now. But if we can put some humanity back in the process — the press corps can treat the candidate and the candidate can treat the press corps, and the staff can treat both with more humanity and realize that we're all human beings doing this and not one-dimensional, deeply hate-able caricatures — then that'll help a lot.”
It won’t take much to improve things, Carson said, because it doesn’t take much to make things immeasurably worse.
“One toxic candidate can push a troubled process into total toxicity,” he said. “One deeply thoughtful, resonant candidate can pull a process back from that level of toxicity. Not improve the whole thing, not change Washington forever, not all this [BS] that people promise, but improve the process.”
Bai added that voters and consumers of news play a crucial role in determining the climate but put the responsibility squarely on politicians and the press.
“Every day when you go to work, when I go to work, people make decisions about what to cover, when to cover it, how much of the page it's worth, what to publish, when to publish it, how long to leave it up. We are, in our industry, we are gatekeepers. We do have a responsibility to curate and prioritize,” he said.
“I think the public has a role to play in getting the best out of the process that they can get, but neither political leaders nor journalists, when they're doing their jobs, leave all the prioritizing and road-mapping to the public. You have a responsibility to make decisions.”
Reitman said that after making the film, he’s convinced that viewers have the power.
“It really comes back to the rest of us. Do we care, and why do we care? Two people met on a boat and had chemistry, and he invited her back to his townhouse in Capitol Hill.”
“What is our curiosity and how does our curiosity affect the trajectory of the country, and do we ever stop to think about it? That seems to be all the more relevant in the clickable era of news in which, as readers, we are telling newspapers what we want to read every time we click. And the message we seem to be sending is, give us more gossip, give us more entertainment. I'm not sure how healthy that is.”