Welcome back to POLI-TBT-ICS, a recurring column where we take a look back at the weird political moments of our past that are still relevant to the present day.
In the spring of 1987, Gary Hart looked like the next Democratic nominee for president. The Colorado senator, who was the runner-up in the '84 primaries, had just won the New Hampshire primary and was widely expected to sail onward to the general election later that year.
Hart was the reformist answer to a Democratic party that didn’t quite know what to do with itself in the post-60s era and was desperate to defeat the GOP after two terms of Ronald Reagan. He had been intensely opposed to the Vietnam War, critical of Richard Nixon, and an advocate for military disarmament. As a presidential candidate, he positioned himself as an economic and foreign policy wonk. This went over well with the public: He enjoyed higher support from Democrats than any other candidate and was polling well over 50 percent in a presumed match-up against Vice President George H.W Bush. "The new Democratic conventional wisdom often seems to have been built from planks in the ’84 Hart platform,” lauded a New York Times Magazine cover story from 1987.
That came crashing down in May 1987, when reporters from the Miami Herald revealed that Hart had just taken a yacht named Monkey Business overnight to the Bimini chain of islands. There were several young women on board, including a 29-year-old blonde pharmaceutical rep and part-time model named Donna Rice with whom he was having an affair. A picture soon surfaced of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, with him wearing a “Monkey Business crew” T-shirt. The pair looked tan, windswept, and very much in lust. His wife of nearly three decades, needless to say, was not on board.
In hindsight, the Hart scandal looks downright wholesome compared to our current living nightmare, in which a porn star’s attempt to unseat the president barely registers as shocking. A politician having an affair with a consenting adult? Would that even make Mike Pence bat an eyelash?
That 31-year-old scandal, however, marked an indelible shift in American politics and how the media covers politicians—our current pussy-grabbing,-golden-showering state of politics might not exist without Monkey Business paving the way .
Hart was one of the first major politicians to have his personal life scrutinized in the public eye to the degree that we now consider normal. By 1987, political journalism had shifted considerably from a tightly guarded, access-trading business to the post-Watergate era where an adversarial press had fully realized the newsworthiness of scandal. Just over a decade prior, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had become the most famous journalists in the country for taking down a corrupt president by exposing what started out as a minor lie. No longer would a dutiful press corps politely look the other way when it came to a president’s improprieties, whether that was sexual dalliances, alcoholism, or a little break-in at a Washington DC office building.
"For most of the 20th century, adultery as a practice — at least for men — was rarely discussed but widely accepted," Matt Bai wrote in a 2014 profile of Hart in the New York Times magazine. "'This is the last time a candidate will be able to treat women as bimbos,' is how the feminist Betty Friedan put it after Hart’s withdrawal."
The unspoken wall between personal and public selves for politicians was crumbling. This shift in how the press covered politicians coincided with an expanding media landscape; cable news was beginning, “New Journalism” was at its peak, and the political press was no longer limited to a handful of national newspapers and wire services.
That shift might explain why Hart seemed to handle his scandal astonishingly badly. After a team of intrepid Miami Herald reporters flew to DC following a tip from an anonymous caller to try and catch him having an affair, they caught Hart walking through his alleyway with Donna Rice. The senator (who had served overseas in the Cold War and knew how to spot when he was being surveilled) caught sight of them and whisked her out the back door—never to see Rice again. The reporters quickly approached Hart, who actually engaged them in a conversation about his sex life. When asked if he had taken Rice on a yacht, as the reporters' tipster had claimed, Hart replied, “I don’t remember” but denied there was a woman sleeping in house or that he was having an affair with her. In the following days, Hart continued to deny the affair and even dared the New York Times to "follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored.”
The media did not get bored. A day or so later, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, the Washington Post’s Paul Taylor asked Hart directly, “Have you ever committed adultery?”
Hart responded in a stammer: “Ahh... I do not think that’s a fair question.”
This exchange might seem excessively cordial these days, but it was historic at the time. “To Hart and his aides and to the older reporters in the room who would always remember it as a watershed moment, Taylor might as well have asked him to disrobe right there and submit to a cavity search,” Bai wrote in his book about Gary Hart, All the Truth Is Out. “No reporter had ever asked a presidential candidate that kind of personal, sexual, broad question.”
Hart’s downfall was not the cheating, but rather “a pathological deficit in Hart’s character.”
It didn’t take much longer for the Monkey Business affair to engulf the Hart campaign. After a week of denials, Hart abruptly quit the race, primarily blaming the tabloid media ecosystem that “reduces the press of this nation to hunters and Presidential candidates to being hunted. That has reporters in bushes; false and inaccurate stories printed; photographers peeking in our windows; swarms of helicopters hovering over our roof.” The media’s fixation on his personal shortcomings, he said, caused, “too much static, and you can't communicate.” He then retreated back home for months, leaving a campaign debt of $1.5 million behind for others to deal with. And just like that, the great hope of the Democratic party disappeared. Six months later, George H.W. Bush was elected president.
But sex scandals are often less about sex than the sins surrounding the sex: the lies, the selfishness, politicians' belief that they can get away with what other people can't. Hart had been a deeply flawed candidate long before Monkey Business finally ended his career. As Gail Sheehy wrote in Vanity Fair, Hart’s downfall was not the cheating, but rather “a pathological deficit in Hart’s character.” He was famously bad with people and had a deep discomfort with showing himself to others—a major problem for a public figure. He was described repeatedly as having a “reclusive, off-putting personality” and being “distant and cerebral,” essentially unknowable. In an attempt to remedy this, Hart gave a series of personal interviews in advance of his campaign, which did not solve the problem. “I can see this: ‘Hart insists that he is very normal. In a wide-ranging and lengthy interview, Hart insists that he is not weird,’” he said to the Times.
When it came to absolving himself of what the press called “the character issue,” Hart was his own worst enemy. When he first ran for president in 1984, it emerged that he had changed his name from Gary Hartpence and lied about his age by a few years, two sketchy things made even more sketchy by the candidate’s inability to understand that this type of behavior is unappealing to voters. His campaign identified the main problem as Hart’s “Gatsby issue”—meaning he was a small-town kid who lied about his backstory on his way to greatness. This, in the view of the Hart camp, didn't even warrant an apology.
“I am who I am, take it or leave it,” Hart declared in his speech, dropping out of the race. “And, frankly, I'm pretty happy with who I am.”
But by trying to convince people he was not weird—which is itself inherently weird—Hart appeared deeply ambivalent about the job he was campaigning for. "Only half of me wants to be president," he said, according to another Times article. "The other half wants to go write novels in Ireland.”
He tried to frame this as a virtue: The public should care about what the president says or does, not who the person was. But voters are naturally drawn to people they like. Donald Trump, beyond the extramarital affairs, is nearly Hart's polar opposite—he demonstrated next to no command of the issues during his campaign, but weathered scandal after scandal because he was able to make the Republican base feel that it could trust him, despite his documented history of saying things that weren't true. Hart created no such bond of trust.
"Everyone thought Hart was weird," Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen told Rolling Stone in 1988. "Define it how you want. We don't know how to write that… so you wait for the incident."
If you want to be a politician, chances are you have a vast internal emptiness that you seek to fill with external validation: In public, this might manifest in your running for president. But in private, that fundamental need plays out in more prurient, even sinister ways. Hart was not the first and certainly not the last male politician to burn the candle at both ends; his flaw was that his public character and charisma couldn't make up for his private shortcomings. That’s why Gary Hart’s lying and cheating brought him down in less than a week, whereas other politicians were able to get away with far worse scandals. Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, for all their sliminess, have the ability to charm, attract, and connect with people in a way Hart never could.
Hart wasn’t wrong that the public should value policies over a candidate's private life. But he failed to understand why Monkey Business would be such a big deal. People didn’t care because Hart was cheating. People cared because it finally confirmed—in glaring, embarrassing details—Hart’s gaping character flaws. Twenty years ago, the public wasn’t in the mood to look past those deficits in a presidential candidate, especially when the candidate didn’t appear to want the job that much. Times have changed.
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