In the White House, we have a president who was caught on videotape bragging about what he and other powerful men could do to women: “Grab ’em by the p----! You can do anything!” He won election over an opponent whose husband, a former president, was impeached (though not convicted) for engaging in sex acts with a White House intern half his age.
And, however unwillingly, we know every detail of it all — and so much more sexual gossip, from so many senators and congressmen and governors — because reporters yap about it round the clock on TV and the internet and in your daily newspaper (including, of course, this story).
How much of this is your fault, Tom Fiedler?
“Wow,” says the Miami Herald’s former executive editor (now head of the Boston University communication department) with a wistful sigh. “You’re really going to charge me with all that?”
A new movie will — more or less, anyway. The Front Runner, an account of how Fiedler and a team of Herald journalists wrecked a presidential campaign in 1987 by pursuing a tip that the candidate was having an affair with an Aventura woman, opens Nov. 21. And it promises to revive a fierce, decades-old debate about where journalists should draw the line in reporting on the personal lives of politicians.
Like the 2014 book it’s based on, journalist Matt Bai’s All the Truth Is Out, the film argues that Fiedler and the Herald changed the ground rules of journalism in a fundamentally awful way by staking out the Capitol Hill home of former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart to see if he was spending a cozy and wifeless weekend with a woman who would soon be identified as 29-year-old model and bit-part actor Donna Rice.
When the Herald team caught the pair emerging from the townhouse, Hart could give only a fumbling explanation of who Rice was or what they were doing there. The resulting furor forced him to abandon his campaign. The uproar among journalists was only slightly less raucous.
“I did not become a newspaperman to hide outside a politician’s house trying to find out whether he was in bed with somebody,” snapped New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal. But, argued Bai in his book, that was exactly what the new face of journalism would be, a skulky tabloid more interested in bimbos and boobs than tax rates or trade tariffs.
“The finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become another form of celebrity-driven entertainment,” wrote Bai, “while simultaneously disdaining the kind of reporting that such a thirst for entertainment made necessary.”
And certainly the Herald story was soon followed by an impressive avalanche of sleaze. In 1989, the Washington Post, certain that new president George H.W. Bush had been carrying on a lengthy affair with his longtime aide, Jennifer Fitzgerald, but unable to prove it, published a story that started with this insinuation-riddled sentence:
“Jennifer Fitzgerald, who has served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions, most recently running the vice presidential Senate offices, is expected to be named deputy chief of protocol in the new administration, sources said yesterday.”
From there it was on to Al Gore’s alleged groping of massage-parlor workers, John McCain’s maybe-or-not affair with a lobbyist, John Edwards’ cheating on his cancer-riddled wife, Eliot Spitzer’s expensive taste in hookers and Anthony Weiner’s belief that much of the world’s female population craved pictures of his genitals.
“That was a tough call the Miami Herald made,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. “And there’s no question it changed things in terms of what gets reported and how.”
When he wrote a book about some of President John F. Kennedy’s reckless behavior, Hersh learned that the details about Kennedy’s sex life captivated readers the most.
Hersh faced his own big call on reporting politicians’ sex lives in 1997, when he published a harshly critical biography of Kennedy, The Dark Side of Camelot. Hersh, who among other things has uncovered the My Lai massacre and CIA domestic spying programs, undertook the book because of his interest in what he saw as Kennedy’s irresponsible behavior during the Cuban missile crisis.
“I never write about sex. Ever,” he said. “I was interested in how Kennedy drew this line in the sand during the Cuban missile crisis. He told [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev, ‘Send any more weapons across this line and we go to war.’ And I always thought that was crazy because essentially you’re letting Khrushchev decide if there’s going to be a war that kills a huge number of Americans.”
When Hersh began asking his sources inside U.S. intelligence if there was something he didn’t understand about Kennedy, one of them suggested he talk to the president’s old Secret Service detail. What spilled out were voluminous tales of Kennedy’s sexual adventurism — with female actors, with White House staffers, with prostitutes; in hotels, alongside the White House swimming pool, even at a party at the Palm Springs home of Bing Crosby.
One of the objects of the president’s affection (or lust) was a young woman named Judith Campbell Exner, who was also sleeping with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana. Another was an East German hooker named Ellen Rometsch, widely suspected (though never proven) to be a Communist spy.
“The Secret Service guys thought Kennedy’s cowboy foreign policy was related to his sex life,” recalled Hersh. “He was just a risk-taker. One of them told me that his first day on the job, in Seattle in 1961, this local sheriff came walking in with two women who were obvious hookers. The agent says, sorry, you can’t bring them in here, this is sealed off for the president. And the sheriff answered, ‘These women are for the president, he’s expecting them.’ ”
As more and more agents went on the record about Kennedy’s partying and their belief that Kennedy was a daredevil in everything he did, the riskier the better, Hersh felt he had no choice but to use it in the book. “I had all kinds of stuff about the Bay of Pigs, Castro, the Mafia, but people were only interested in one chapter, the one on sex,” he recalled. “And in large part, that’s because nobody ever reported this kind of stuff before ... Even though they knew all about it.”
And yet media historians say that’s not exactly true.
“The notion of the press being so gingerly and respectful to politicians was kind of a 20th century development,” said professor David Greenberg, who teaches history and media studies at Rutgers and is the author of Nixon’s Shadow and Republic of Spin.
“In the late 19th century, America had a booming urban population, with an appetite for a sensationalist press, yellow press, and it turned into a race to the bottom. You saw newspapers looking into a lot of sensationalist stuff, especially about politics.”
The story by the Herald led to a frenzy of attention by reporters and, soon, the candidate’s exit from the presidential race.
In New York, newspapers went nearly crazy over New York Sen. Thomas Platt’s assignation with a lover in a hotel room while his rivals listened through the wall of an adjoining room. The state’s other senator, Roscoe Conkling, was also in the papers for having some extramarital fun with the wife of a former governor of Rhode Island, which turned even more fun (at least for the papers) when the cuckolded governor announced he was going to shoot Conkling.
Presidential candidate Grover Cleveland’s love affair with a widow he impregnated and then had committed to an insane asylum (the child was sent away for adoption) was so extensively covered in the press that crowds at his campaign rallies chanted, “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.”
That may not quite have the ring of “Lock her up!” but Brian Adams, author of Party Like a President, a compendium of presidential depravity, said his research suggested that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Reporters always seem to be finding stuff about [penises],” he said. “The most amazing one to me was President Warren G. Harding’s love letters to his mistress — which, naturally, got out. He nicknamed his penis Jerry and her vagina, Seashell.”
But around that time, public disapproval of sensationalism began to rise. Franklin Roosevelt’s secretarial harem (he was romantically involved with at least three of them) never made it into the newspapers. Neither did Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wartime affair with Kay Summersby, his Irish driver.
Lyndon Johnson’s sexual escapades were surely known to the Washington press corps (one of his affairs was with the wife of a Texas newspaper publisher, another with a Washington reporter for the Hearst newspapers), but readers wouldn’t learn of them until years after his death.
And yet, another change was brewing. In the 1970s, sexual misbehavior by politicians began to creep back into the media. In 1974, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, climbed up on the stage of a Boston vaudeville house with his secret girlfriend, stripper Fanne Fox (the Argentine Firecracker, as she was billed), and word got out to the press. Two years later, the secretary of Ohio congressman Wayne Hayes called the Washington Post to confess: “I can’t type. I can’t file. I can’t even answer the phone.” She had really been hired just to have sex with the congressman, she said.
“You can see, in retrospect, that the pendulum was swinging back well before the Herald’s confrontation with Gary Hart,” said Rutgers’ Greenberg. “I think it was an outgrowth of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, which toppled a lot of mores and norms. When people say the Hart episode was pivotal, well, I don’t really see that. It wasn’t a turn, it was a link in a chain.”
Which, not coincidentally, is the way the Herald editors and reporters see it, too. “We were not the first ones to bring up the subject of Gary Hart,” said Jim Savage, now retired but in 1987 the paper’s investigations editor. “Other papers had been writing about him for a couple weeks, mentioning the rumors in Washington that he was a womanizer.”
The rumors had actually been around much longer than that — they went back at least to 1984, when Hart made his first unsuccessful run for the presidency — but they were reaching print for the first time. Ironically, it was a column written by Fiedler, then the Herald’s political editor, condemning the rumor-mongering that brought in the tip about Hart.
“I had written that it was the job of the news media to deal in facts, not rumors,” Fiedler said. “And I get this call from a woman who had a little bit of a chip on her shoulder. ‘You got it all wrong,’ she said. ‘Hart is having an affair and I know who it’s with.’ ”
After arguing with Fiedler for a while and refusing to identify herself, the woman hung up. The Herald wouldn’t learn her name until much later. (Fiedler has never revealed it, though other news organizations have identified her as Dana Weems, a Broward clothing designer.) But she called back the next day, with more information, including the fact that the woman having the affair with Hart was flying up to Washington on Friday to spend the weekend with him.
As the days went by, Fiedler was able to verify more and more of what she said. When he learned that Hart was canceling a Kentucky Derby fundraising event to fly to Washington to “work on a speech,” as the candidate’s campaign office put it, Fiedler was sure the tipster was authentic. He huddled with Savage and investigative reporter Jim McGee; they decided McGee would go to Washington on the evening’s only nonstop flight from Miami while Fiedler stayed behind in hopes of hearing again from the mystery-woman tipster.
As McGee ran up to the gate for the Eastern Airlines flight, he was unknowingly right behind the woman he hoped to find in Washington: Donna Rice. “But later, when I saw her at Hart’s house, I knew it was her,” McGee said. “She was carrying this very distinctive large purse made out of silver lame. There was no way to mistake it.”
McGee quickly called back to the Herald newsroom to confirm she was there, and to suggest that Savage and Fiedler fly up on Saturday morning. “Jim was just shocked — none of us had really believed that we’d catch Hart, that they’d be so crazy as to carry on in public — and he wanted us to come up so nobody could say later that he had just gone nuts,” said a laughing Fiedler.
On Saturday morning, Hart emerged from his house to confront the reporters. But when they started asking questions, his answers were weak and confused. Was the woman still inside the house? “She may or may not be,” Hart replied. If she’s gone, how did she leave? “I don’t remember,” said Hart.
And the bottom line: Did you have sex with her?
“The answer is no,” Hart said. “I’m not going to get into all that.”
The story appeared in Sunday morning’s Herald. A tidal wave of corroboratory evidence would wash into the Herald and other news media over the next few weeks, including a picture of Rice sitting comfortably in Hart’s lap during a break from a journey aboard a yacht called, with piercing irony, Monkey Business (though that National Enquirer scoop was a few weeks after Hart had dropped out of the race).
That first Herald story contained a quote from Hart that would lead to great contention over the years. At some point during the week, the advance text of a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile of the candidate had come into the Herald. It included a line that would become his political epitaph.
“Follow me around, I don’t care,” he said in response to a question about womanizing. “I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.”
Nobody can remember now precisely when the New York Times story showed up on the Herald teletype machines. Savage thinks it came in relatively early in the week; Fiedler recalls an editor handing him the story as he left the office Friday night, but he didn’t read it until the next morning.
Bai, in his book, makes much of the discrepancy, saying that the Herald reporters didn’t see the Times story early enough for Hart’s quote to be an excuse for them to fly to Washington for the stakeout. But the Herald team says the quote had nothing to do with the decision to chase the story to Washington.
“We got a tip, we went out, we followed it,” said Savage. “We didn’t care what was in the New York Times. We were following our lead.”
The release of the movie on the Herald threesome’s reporting has unleashed a series of inside-the-Beltway-type think pieces, including one in The Atlantic by James Fallows asserting that Hart’s downfall was actually a dirty trick set in motion by Lee Atwater, a bare-knuckle Republican operator. Fallows says that Atwater admitted to a friend that he had stage-managed the whole Monkey Business weekend in Bimini, including the photo of Hart and Rice on the dock.
As a purveyor of low-road politics, Atwater had street cred. He was the force behind the infamous Willie Horton commercial, a racially incendiary ad that blamed Democratic presidential candidate Mike Dukakis for a rape committed by a convict released on a weekend furlough while Dukakis was Massachusetts governor.
The ad is credited by some with helping torpedo Dukakis’ candidacy, thus elevating George H.W. Bush to the White House.
Fallows posits that, had Hart not flamed out, there might have been no George H.W. Bush presidency, no defeat of Bush by Bill Clinton, no Bush/Cheney Iraq invasion, no pendulum swing to Obama, no backlash toward Trump ...
As Atwater’s supposed confession was delivered on his death bed, there is no way to prove or debunk Fallows’ theory.
The Herald editors and reporters say they were there during the Hart unraveling and they know what happened. They are critical of Bai’s book — Savage and McGee sharply so, Fiedler somewhat more mildly. They say it makes them look like uncaring, hyperambitious journalistic climbers, in search of a Pulitzer Prize, no matter what damage they did to the practice of journalism in the process.
“I’m very proud of the story,” said Savage. “And if there’s any lesson to be drawn from this, I’d say it’s that if you run for the presidency of the United States, and you’re asked about whether you’re a womanizer or not, you probably should not take a young woman from Miami out on a yacht called the Monkey Business.”
McGee recalls the Hart takedown as “one of the Herald’s finest hours.” And he thinks much of the criticism directed at the Herald afterward (“the volume and velocity was breathtaking”) came from journalists situated in the Washington-to-New York corridor who share way too much in common with the people they’re supposed to be covering.
“I believe one of the reasons we were able to break the story is that we were outside the world of Washington,” McGee said. “That’s the value the Miami Herald always added to national stories like Watergate and Iran-Contra. We aren’t sitting around socializing with the people who are involved with them.”
Bai politely but firmly declined to discuss the Hart case in any detail with the Herald.
“I stand by my reporting,” he said. “As I noted at the time, the facts in dispute have long been a matter of public record. I respect Tom Fielder and the other reporters involved in the Hart story, and I’ve never said I wouldn’t have made the same difficult decisions they did in the moment. I’ve always thought it was important for our industry, though, to reflect honestly on those decisions and where they led.”
Fiedler himself agrees that something changed in journalism and perhaps politics, too, after the Hart story.
“My two cents is that our story was part of an evolution in journalism, not a revolution,” he said. “There had been a number of stories leading up to ours that increasingly focused on what people called ‘the character question.’ For years, journalists didn’t really get into that. But now, as candidates were picked in primaries rather than by party bosses, it was up to us to make sure those voters were informed.”
There was no unanimity on where this “character” thing was headed, and Fiedler found himself invited to speak at a lot of journalism-and-politics conferences to offer his insights. One of them, in 1989, was held in Little Rock, Ark., and Fiedler was invited to meet the governor, Bill Clinton.
“He was very interested in all this,” Fiedler recalled. “And one of the questions he asked me is, ‘Is there a statute of limitations?’ — meaning, does past womanizing get forgiven after a while. “I thought that was a very, very interesting question, and I wondered to myself, where does this go, exactly? And a few years later, I realized. Exactly.”