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(Cheryl Carlin)

"Those Aren't Rumors"

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

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At the ticket counter McGee spied a woman who fit the tipster's description. He bought a ticket, shadowed her on the plane and watched as she was met in Washington—by another woman. He figured he had caught the wrong flight.

McGee then phoned a colleague in Washington, got Hart's address, took a cab to the neighborhood and stationed himself across the street. At 9:30 p.m., he saw the door swing open and Hart emerge—accompanied by the woman from the Eastern flight. McGee phoned Fiedler, who flew up the next morning (reading the New York Times Magazine profile en route), along with a photographer and an editor, and the surveillance continued.

After seeing the woman leave and reenter the town house on Saturday night, the Herald reporters confronted Hart outside. They later reported Hart's denials: "No one is staying in my house.... I have no personal relationship with the individual you are following." When the reporters asked to speak with the woman, Hart replied, "I don't have to produce anyone."

The Herald story, which ran the next morning, was widely read—and roundly criticized. The Capitol Hill surveillance had not been airtight, particularly during the wee hours of Saturday; the woman, later identified as Miami model-actress Donna Rice, might not have spent the night at the town house. At the same time, the Herald reporters were assailed by pundits and readers alike as peeping Toms.

But the story was taken seriously across town at the Washington Post, where Paul Taylor and his editors had already concluded that because Hart's private behavior raised broader questions about his judgment and honesty, it was fair game. That conclusion, and Hart's declaration that he held himself to a high moral standard, lay behind Taylor's question about adultery in New Hampshire.

Hart's refusal to answer it ("I'm not going to get into a theological definition of what constitutes adultery," he said) did nothing to make it go away. By then, he had come under fire for having vacationed with Rice in Bimini a month before, aboard a boat named, wouldn't you know, Monkey Business. Rice herself had volunteered this information to reporters on May 4. At no point during the fateful week after the Herald's story broke did Hart apologize to the electorate or concede any personal flaws; to the end, he insisted that he was the innocent victim of a censorious press.

Hart quit the race on May 8 (weeks before the National Enquirer published a photograph of him wearing a "Monkey Business Crew" T-shirt with Rice on his lap). His departure raised considerable alarm, even within the news business, that future political reporters would behave like vice detectives, scouring candidates' personal lives and clearing the field for only the most impeccably—or unrealistically—virtuous.

Nothing so drastic has happened. Most journalists generally shrink from that assignment.

At the same time, candidates are subjected to increased scrutiny. That is partly because politics has become more partisan over the past 20 years and partly because nontraditional media have moved into the political arena. "With bloggers and talk radio and the more partisan media in full flower, the norms of what's a story and what's not a story have been broadened," says Tom Rosenstiel, a former Los Angeles Times reporter who covered media and politics in the early 1990s and who now directs the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. "...It is a given now that everything is fair game."

In 1992, the supermarket tabloids—with help from Bill Clinton's opponents in Arkansas—reported allegations that the Democratic presidential candidate had had a long affair with a lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers. In 1998, as the House debated whether to impeach Clinton for lying about his indiscretions, House Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston resigned after Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt got a tip that Livingston had conducted extramarital affairs. In 2004, Matt Drudge, the self-styled muckraker who runs drudgereport.com, trumpeted a rumor that presidential candidate John Kerry had committed "an alleged infidelity" with a Senate intern.

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