“Those Aren’t Rumors”

Two decades ago an anonymous telephone call sank Gary Hart’s presidential campaign—and rewrote the rules of political reporting

(Cheryl Carlin)
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When Tom Fiedler's phone rang the evening of April 27, 1987, he thought it might be another crank call, the kind political reporters get all the time. But Fiedler, a veteran campaign chronicler for the Miami Herald, couldn't ignore the caller's message: "Gary Hart is having an affair with a friend of mine."

At the time, Hart, a married U.S. senator from Colorado, was the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. In announcing his candidacy two weeks earlier, he had vowed to hew to "the very highest standards of integrity and ethics," but he had since been besieged by rumors—all unsubstantiated—that he was a philanderer. Some of the innuendo had appeared in coverage by the mainstream media. Fiedler had deplored that practice in print, concluding in that morning's Herald: "In a harsh light, the media reports themselves are rumor-mongering, pure and simple."

"Those aren't rumors," Fiedler's caller told him that April evening.

Fiedler began investigating. Within days he found himself staking out Hart's town house in Washington, D.C.—and thinking, he recalls today, "This is nuts. What am I doing? This is not what a political journalist does."

Up until then, it wasn't. But the Hart saga would change the rules of the game.

Before the 1988 presidential campaign, American political reporters generally observed an unwritten rule: a politician's private life was private, absent compelling evidence that personal conduct was affecting public performance. It was considered no breach of duty when the press corps turned a blind eye to President John F. Kennedy's extramarital adventures—and left it to Senate investigators to discover, 12 years after his death, that the 35th president had shared one of his mistresses with a mob boss.

That all changed on Sunday, May 3, 1987, when Fiedler and his colleague Jim McGee told Herald readers: "Gary Hart, the Democratic presidential candidate who has dismissed allegations of womanizing, spent Friday night and most of Saturday in his Capitol Hill town house with a young woman who flew from Miami and met him." Three days later, on May 6, Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor asked the candidate point-blank at a New Hampshire news conference: "Have you ever committed adultery?" "I do not think that's a fair question," Hart replied. But two days later, following a tsunami of news coverage, he quit the race, excoriating a process that "reduces the press of this nation to hunters and presidential candidates to being hunted." By then a raucous debate over the propriety of reporting on candidates' personal lives had already begun.

Fiedler was pilloried by many of his colleagues for invading the candidate's personal terrain, but he says he has no regrets. "It all played out exactly the way it had to," says Fiedler, now a fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "We were in a position, in the media, of playing the role of truth-testers." There was a significant gap, he says, between Hart's words and his actions, "and we thought we had an obligation to do something about it."

Taylor, now executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington, says the Hart story "was a milestone in the evolution of our cultural norms, and our press norms. Today, for better or worse, there is more [scrutiny of candidates' private lives] than there used to be."

The Washington Post's Taylor also took considerable heat for crossing a threshold two decades ago. Columnist Edwin Yoder inveighed against what he called "totalitarian journalism"; other commentators warned that future generations of political reporters would be emboldened to probe candidates' private lives as a matter of routine. Taylor, also, says he had no qualms then and has none today.


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