“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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"I'm delighted with the way I acted in the moment, and in my reflections thereafter," he says, referring to the question he put to Hart in New Hampshire. He says he felt he had had no choice; many sources had told him that Hart was reckless in his personal life, and even after the Herald published Fiedler and McGee's story, the candidate declared that he had always held himself "to a high standard of public and private conduct."

Hart, who declined to comment for this article, certainly did not intend this journalistic watershed to be his legacy. A lanky loner who kept his emotions to himself, he had determined in 1987 to seek the presidency on the issues. But even before he announced his candidacy, reporters had begun tapping their sources—including some ex-Hart advisers who had worked on his unsuccessful 1984 presidential bid—for off-the-record anecdotes about how he spent his free time. Indeed, Taylor and his Washington Post colleagues had debated how to cover the candidate more than a month before the Herald published its town house story.

"We kicked around the obvious questions," Taylor recalled in his 1990 book, See How They Run. "If a candidate for president is believed to be a womanizer, but there's no suggestion that his sexual activities have ever interfered with his public duties, is it even worth investigating, much less publishing? Is there a statute of limitations, or is screwing around in the past tense just as newsworthy as in the present? Is a series of one-night stands more reportable than a single long-term extramarital affair?" And, perhaps most important, "is Hart a special case, or if we begin looking into his mating habits, must we do the same with everyone else running for president?"

The mere fact of that newsroom debate was an indication that times were changing. A new generation of reporters, including a few women, was ascendant. And many men, having come of age amid the women's movement, were sensitized to the idea that women must be respected inside and outside of marriage and the belief that "the personal is political."

At the same time, thanks to party reforms crafted in 1969, candidates were no longer being anointed by bosses in smoke-filled rooms. Primary campaigns—and the press coverage of them—had become the arena in which candidates were vetted. And the lesson of Watergate and President Richard Nixon's resignation was that personal traits mattered—arguably more than a candidate's positions on issues.

As early as 1979, journalist Suzannah Lessard had articulated the new thinking in an article for the Washington Monthly: "A presidential candidate is asking for a much greater mandate from the citizenry, and so he must tolerate a much greater sacrifice of privacy," she wrote. With respect to philandering, "a politician's willingness to deceive in this matter does not encourage one about his honesty in others."

Many of those who recall the Hart imbroglio also recall the challenge he issued to the press in the form of a quotation that appeared in a profile about the candidate in the May 3 issue of the New York Times Magazine: "Follow me around. I don't care," he had told reporter E.J. Dionne Jr. "I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored."

But by the time Fiedler read that, he was already on a plane out of Miami, heading for Hart's town house on Capitol Hill.

Fiedler's tipster had told him that Hart would be entertaining a woman at his town house the night of Friday, May 1. (Lee Hart, the candidate's wife then and now, would be at the couple's home in Colorado.) In subsequent calls, the tipster provided details. The intended guest was her friend, an attractive woman in her late 20s who spoke with a Southern accent. The caller refused to identify her friend by name or to provide her own but said the friend was scheduled to fly out of Miami that Friday.

She didn't supply a flight number, and Fiedler didn't know Hart's address in Washington. McGee, Fiedler's colleague, raced to the airport, guessing that the mystery woman would take a 5:30 p.m. Eastern Airlines flight to the capital. Fiedler, who stayed behind to work the phones, eventually learned Hart's Washington address from a Senate aide.


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