Adam Garfinkle, for The American Interest: Gary, when did you first find out about Matt Bai’s intention to make a movie about the events of May 1987? Did the screenwriters, directors, or producers come to you at an early stage, or did you find out about it some other way? Did they ask for your advice, or consult you in any way? Have you met or spoken with the producer and co-screenplay writer Matt Bai?
Gary Hart: I believe I first learned of this project in mid-to-late summer 2017. Mutual friends heard about it from Matt Bai, relayed the information to my son John, who informed me. The director, Jason Reitman, came to Evergreen in early August and we discussed the project over lunch. At that time he said he wanted to do the movie to answer his friends’ anguished questions: How did we get Trump?
I never saw the screenplay nor was I consulted at any point. I got to know Mr. Bai when he interviewed me for his 2014 book, All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid. But I did not speak to him during the filming.
TAI: How did you feel when you first found out about the intention to make Front Runner? I mean, it was hard enough the first time. (Even I cringed from a distance, and I barely knew you at the time, before Hart-Rudman Commission days.) Who wants to have to relive something like that? And maybe worse, have to watch your wife and family relive it?
GH: I’m not good at the “feel” questions. I thought that, 30 years on, it was a bit bizarre, but I certainly bought the early premise that my experience ultimately led down the line to Trump. My stepping away from politics speech later that week (still on YouTube) had the memorable line that was preserved in the movie: “If we continue down the road begun this week, to paraphrase Jefferson, I tremble for my country to think of the kind of leaders we will deserve.” The message to the press was: You can’t have it both ways—intrusion into privacy and quality leadership. I believe I was right.
TAI: How did you first see the movie—a private screener, or what? Has your wife seen it; did she see it with you? Her reaction?
GH: My wife Lee, our son John, and I saw it at a private screening a week or two before its limited release. Lee was non-committal. She did not like seeing herself portrayed on screen and did not enjoy reliving the trauma.
TAI: I thought the storyline felt like a pretty accurate depiction of what seemed to be happening at the time; I thought the disheveled habits of the predatory press were well depicted, as was the standard alcohol consumption levels. The “main” character depictions seemed pretty accurate, too, with one exception. There is a scene in which you (Hugh Jackman, actually) are shouting at your campaign manager, clearly having lost your temper at him. That strikes me as very unlike you. Can you remember ever losing your temper and shouting at anyone working for you during this ordeal?
GH: The movie is a dramatization, not a documentary. Many scenes, especially between Lee and me, never happened. And, of course, all the dialogue is invented. My main concern was for Lee’s depiction and Vera Farmiga did an outstanding job capturing her reserved strength. Otherwise, right: I do not shout, especially at friends.
TAI: Are you left-handed? Hugh Jackman is in the movie.
GH: I’m right-handed, but Hugh wore my neckties and belt, and tried to get my hair.
TAI: Ah, the hair. There’s a line in the movie where some campaign aides are discussing you as they watch you standing at a podium, and one of them says something about your being handsome and really “having the hair.” I found this pretty hilarious since, as you know, we have shared the same barber. Your picture is still on the wall right next to Demetris’ work throne there on 21st Street, NW—vintage about 1980, 1982 maybe, I’d guess. And I have to say, that Hugh Jackman doesn’t come close, certainly not with the hair. I don’t suppose you’d like to venture a view about that?
GH: If you have to be portrayed on film, you can’t do any better than Hugh Jackman. We’ve become good friends.
TAI: Obviously, the deeper theme of the movie is the transformation of the media in its relationship to American politics. This is something I’ve thought about lately, because I agree that this transformation leads in at least a jagged and dotted line from May 1987, if not before, to the mess we have today, with the media having become a significant part of the problem. There is nothing new about the basic observation, of course; as Tom Stoppard said many years ago, “the press is a stalking horse masquerading as a sacred cow.” But the underlying questions are when and how did this happen.
Speculation about the answers is capacious. Maybe the original arrangement, where reporters cut politicians a break in return for access, was corrupt and never should have developed. The “gotcha” adversarialism trend clearly goes back to Vietnam and Nixon, but that had nothing to do with sex. On the other hand, the incentives for media to treat everything as a “who’s up/who’s down” superficial tabloid plot, and all but ignore the issues, seems more of a marketing decision shaped by the dumbing down of political discourse. That started with the television age’s domination of images over words, but has really galloped in recent years with the ubiquity of IT technology. That clickbait and only clickbait makes money in media now is the culmination, I think, of trends decades in the making.
Some of this, too, may have to do the consultant-driven politics-of-intimacy trope—inauthentic authenticity, in other words. When candidates try to persuade voters that they’re “just one of the guys,” not leaders with special skills and roles to play, it amounts to an open invitation to probe into private lives. So many factors possibly at play. . . What’s your analysis of how all this came to be?
GH: After more than 25 years of listening to the base canard that “we only followed him because he dared or challenged us to,” Matt Bai finally got E.J. Dionne to admit that this is not what was meant when I invited him to join me openly in my extremely complicated daily rounds. Since then, the media has quit relying on that myth to justify the first instance in American history where a media organization placed a leading candidate for the presidency under surreptitious surveillance, the mark of dictatorships worldwide.
After hell week, editorial writers everywhere justified this unprecedented intrusive behavior on the grounds that the press had a duty to examine the character of leaders. So much for FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and a host of others even after May 1987.
Character is displayed over a lifetime. I had been in public view for 15 years, had won two statewide races, won 25 primaries and caucuses in an 18-month national campaign, and issues of my character had never been raised.
TAI: The movie makes it seem like you were slow on the uptake to recognize the change in media habits. If true, you weren’t alone, because it’s natural to resist crediting a trend that runs directly opposite to an idealistic view of American politics. I wonder, however, if growing up in the Church of the Nazarene had anything to do with your developing a sense of special guardedness about privacy, as happens sometimes in small faith communities outside the cultural mainstream.
GH: No connection whatsoever. If anything, I was completely trusting of virtually everyone, including reporters. I had nothing to hide. Living a guarded life is beyond me.
No doubt media behavior reflects cultural trends, but, at least in my experience, the change in media habits happened in a five-day period in May 1987. And the issue of media habits may have been marginal to what was really going on at the time: Read the James Fallows piece in the November issue of The Atlantic—“Was Gary Hart Set Up?” There is credible evidence that Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, arranged the entire Miami weekend and beyond. The media has so far refused to honestly appraise Fallows’s evidence. Atwater may well have gotten away with eliminating George H.W. Bush’s main competitor and distracting from the Iran-Contra hearings beginning that Monday. Intricate timing is never accidental.
TAI: I’ll read it.1
No doubt many friends and associates have come up to you, or spoken or written to you, since the movie came out, just in the normal course of things—and some probably have seen the movie. Do people tend to mention it, or avoid it? Some of both? Can you sense any ambient awkwardness? Can you please share an anecdote or two, assuming there are some, about your private life since Front Runner?
GH: Everyday people among whom we live have been great—low key, positive, Hugh Jackman jokes here and there. A few have quietly said: The movie shows us what has been lost.
TAI: Last question, Gary. We all know that life imitates art, except that this movie, as a dramatization that deliberately lives very near something that actually happened, is an example of art trying to imitate life—with a recursive potential for other lives to in turn imitate it down the line. I just hope your own earned memories of all this have not been distorted beyond recall by the movie images. But more important, it’s now a bit more than 30 years later: Have any long-maturing lessons emerged, lessons different from those of the immediate aftermath?
GH: Most of what I learned 30 years ago and since has not been positive. Rupert Murdoch has his President who follows his orders. America is not the better for that experience. I don’t grieve for myself; I grieve for this country. Once again, the press cannot have it both ways: We cannot have loss of privacy and high-quality leaders. Sensationalism may sell newspapers, but it drives away thoughtful potential public servants.
The media has hated the movie, and the main newspaper in question is still whining about how it was depicted. There’s no sense of irony there, no effort at a real reckoning—and no willingness, yet anyway, to take the Fallows account seriously. I wonder if it has ever crossed their minds that they may have depicted me elaborately, but wrongly.
TAI: Thanks for agreeing to talk about this with me. Much appreciated.
GH: You’re welcome, Adam.
1AG note: I did read it after this conversation took place, and if Fallows’s argument is true, it changes everything we thought we knew about what happened. If true, it makes The Front Runner as obsolete as an artistic artifact as our heretofore common understanding of the facts. Fallows never claims that his account is true, for he admits that circumstances make it all but improvable; he only claims that it is plausible. And, indeed, it is plausible.