Gary Hart (1936 –) is a former US Senator from Colorado, serving from 1975 to 1987, and two-time presidential hopeful who became embroiled in one of the first modern political sex scandals. The so-called “Monkey Business” scandal set the tone for future media coverage of politicians’ personal lives and ended Hart’s career in elected office almost overnight. Since October 21, 2014, Hart has served as the United States’ Special Envoy for Northern Ireland. He is also an active political author, and his career serves as a cautionary tale for those who live their lives in the public eye.
Born in Ottawa, Kansas, Gary Hart grew up in Colorado under a strict Nazarene philosophy that prohibited dancing, movies, and alcohol. Planning a career in the ministry, Hart attended Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma. There he met his future wife, Lee. In 1958 they moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where Hart entered Yale Divinity School during its “golden age” when the school saw about half of its students pursue nontraditional careers in foreign missions or grassroots civil rights work. At Yale, Hart explored alternative ways to effect social change.
After graduating from Yale Divinity School in 1961 and from Yale Law School in 1964, Hart became an attorney for the United States Department of Justice. He passed the Colorado and District of Columbia bars in 1965. Thereafter, Hart served as a special assistant to the solicitor of the United States Department of the Interior until 1967. He then pursued a private law practice in Denver with the firm Davis Graham & Stubbs.
Hart and McGovern
In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, US Senator George McGovern of South Dakota co-chaired a commission that sought revisions to the nomination process for candidates at the party level. The new structure would weaken the influence of old-style party “bosses” such as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who were once able to hand-pick national convention delegates and dictate the way they voted. Hart served as McGovern’s campaign manager in the 1972 presidential campaign. Alongside Rick Stearns, the pair decided to focus on the twenty-eight states holding caucuses instead of primary elections, feeling that the structure of caucuses made them easier and less costly to win. Their strategy proved successful in winning the nomination, but McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race in one of the most lopsided elections in US history.
Early Senate Career
In 1974 Hart ran for the United States Senate by challenging two-term incumbent Republican Peter Dominick. Aided by the state’s move toward Democrats during the early 1970s, as well as Dominick’s continued support of President Richard Nixon and concerns about the aging senator’s health, Hart won in the general election by a wide margin. Hart served on the Armed Services Committee, where he was an early supporter of reforming military contract bidding and advocated for the use of smaller, more mobile weapons and equipment. In addition, he was a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. From 1975 to 1976 Hart was a member of a subcommittee under the “Church Committee” investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and he was the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Nuclear Regulation.
Hart narrowly won reelection in 1980, beating his opponent, Colorado Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan, by a margin of 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.
In 1983 Hart stood on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol to announce his candidacy for president. Opponents from his own party asserted that Hart lacked money, supporters, and political clout, and that former Vice President Walter Mondale was already the clear Democratic front runner. Political pros scoffed at his viability as a candidate, but his accomplishments attracted voters. Hart presented himself as an ordinary citizen of Middle America who, with perseverance and intelligence, entered the Ivy League.
As a presidential candidate, Hart eschewed traditional forms of funding such as money from Political Action Committees (PACs) or special interest groups. Although born before World War II, Hart seemed to personify the Baby Boomer population that comprised almost half of eligible voters at the time. Still, some commentators judged him as aloof and pointed out that he jealously guarded his personal life. He disliked the networking and ingratiating inherent in the world of politics. In person, some reporters found him distant and unwilling to discuss anything except for hard-core issues, while others attributed his reticence to shyness. On television he proposed new ideas that appealed to the sizable younger generation and differed from Mondale’s more traditional Democratic tenets or President Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies. Hart’s Senate record indicated that he voted for his principles, actively opposing bills not consistent with his beliefs.
To the astonishment of everyone following the campaign, Hart won the New Hampshire primary. After a poor showing in Illinois, Mondale pulled ahead in the polls. In June suggestions surfaced that Hart should become Mondale’s running mate, but neither candidate acquiesced. The margin was narrow, but eventually the Democratic National Convention chose Mondale as its nominee.
Return to the Senate
Returning to Washington, Hart cosponsored the Semiconductor Chip Protection Act of 1984 with Senator Charles Mathias. The act created a new category of intellectual property rights for computer chips, protecting Silicon Valley from cheaper foreign imitations. The act led to Hart being called the leader of the “Atari Democrats.” Hart also continued voting for bills that protected Colorado’s wilderness areas and water rights. He and Colorado’s Republican Senator, William Armstrong, negotiated with oil shale companies to clean up toxic waste dumps, and agreed on a measure to designate 1.4 million acres of Colorado public land as wilderness. In November, Mondale lost the presidential election to Republican incumbent Ronald Reagan.
Second Bid for President
Encouraged by the favorable response to his first campaign and still motivated to carry out his principles in higher office, Hart decided to run for president on the 1988 ticket. Lingering debts from his first campaign failed to dissuade him. On April 13, 1987, at Red Rocks Amphitheater, Hart again declared his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. He asserted that “traditional politics must take second place in 1988 because we are going to select not only a leader; we are going to select a future.” The 1988 campaign fed the public’s desire for innovative solutions to pervasive domestic concerns. He addressed the issues of oil import fees, taxes, AIDS, nuclear weapons, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Hart called for education reform, confident that by funneling more money to school systems, requiring testing for present and new teachers, and increasing the teacher-student ratio in public schools, the United States would become more competitive internationally.
“Monkey Business” Scandal
Five days into his campaign, Newsweek and the Washington Post speculated that vague but persistent rumors of Hart’s philandering could mar his bid for the Oval Office. He responded casually to these reports and continued to rally financial support and gather volunteers. On May 3, 1987, the New York Times Magazine printed Hart’s famous challenge that reporters used to justify their intense pursuit of his personal life: “Follow me around. I’m serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’d be very bored.” Miami Herald reporters were already following Hart. Based on an anonymous tip they had staked out Hart’s house the day before the Times story. The Sunday edition of the Herald broke the story: a twenty-nine-year-old woman, identified as model/actress Donna Rice, entered Hart’s townhouse Friday night and did not leave until Saturday evening.
The story hit newsstands nationwide on Monday, May 4. Instantly, other newspapers cross-examined Herald reporters and discovered discrepancies in their surveillance tactics—namely in their total lack of surveillance on the residence’s back door. Nonetheless, the comments about Hart’s private life grew into week-long front page stories. The lingering question about his 1984 campaign debts was forgotten, as were the substantive policy issues of his campaign. He had not been proven guilty of any impropriety, but the question was raised and the voters had to decide how to process it. Hart attempted to renew his campaign in New Hampshire, but every event he held was derailed by questions concerning his alleged infidelity.
On Friday, May 8, game shows and soap operas around the country were interrupted as television networks broadcasted Hart’s live nine-minute speech from Denver. Less than a month after offering balloons and visionary ideas to excited voters at the threshold of the presidential race, and a mere week after the townhouse episode, he withdrew from the race. On May 25, a photo of Donna Rice seated on Hart’s lap aboard a chartered yacht named the Monkey Business was emblazoned across the cover of the National Enquirer beneath a headline reading, “Gary Hart Asked Me to Marry Him.” The photo further humiliated Hart and his supporters. He responded by writing a letter of apology to his backers, a letter significantly more subdued than his angry departure speech.
Media coverage of Hart’s personal life represents a watershed in the history of US presidential campaigns. Though Hart is verifiably not the first public official whose personal life raised public questions, his campaign may have been the first time in the media age that the press deliberately pursued a major candidate for information that would make for scandalous front-page stories. His campaign raised issues about adultery, an elected official’s right to privacy, and the role of the press in scrutinizing a candidate’s personal life. As Hart told his staffers when he initially quit the race, “Even though this is the shortest presidential campaign in history, we made an impact that will not be taken lightly or forgotten by the American people.” Reflecting some years later in George magazine (April 1998) on how his time in the political and media spotlight changed him personally, Hart said, “after I was elected to the Senate in 1984, the whole atmosphere changed. I felt much more in a cage, very closed in … And after that business happened in 1987, I became distrustful of people in general. Not just the press, but other people. Distrustful of their motives, and what their angles might be.”
After “Monkey Business”
Following the scandal, Hart remained relatively active in politics. He serves on the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the biggest political think tanks in the United States, and is also a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post. In 2006 Hart became an endowed professor at the University of Colorado at Denver and has served as a visiting lecturer at several other universities. In 2014 President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appointed Hart as the US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland.
Adapted from Ariana Harner, “The Watershed Campaign of Gary Hart,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 19, no.1 (1999).