Marion Barry was the scandal-plagued mayor who would eventually get caught with a hooker and some cocaine in a hotel room. Oliver North was making headlines in the Iran-Contra scandal while his secretary, Fawn Hall, was sneaking classified documents out of the Pentagon for him in her bra and boots. A preacher named Jimmy Swaggart was publicly crying over his sins in a sex scandal with a prostitute. Another televangelist, Jim Bakker, paid hush money to his secretary, Jessica Hahn, for allegedly raping her, as his overly made-up wife Tammy Faye made regular, weepy appearances on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.” Meanwhile, the town’s NFL team was headed for a Super Bowl with the first black quarterback to helm a team to victory in the big game.
Like I said, there was a plethora of material to choose from every day. This was long before the internet made show prep so much easier, but I got more than enough information by merely by reading and discussing whatever was on the front page of the Washington Post, including the fast-moving dissolve of one presidential campaign.
After two terms of Ronald Reagan in the White House, the Democrats looked like they might just take it back thanks to a smart, good-looking Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart. In 1987, once Mario Cuomo announced he wouldn’t run for the presidency, Hart was the prohibitive front runner, ten points ahead of then-vice-president George Bush (we weren’t using his middle initials then because his son wasn’t anywhere in the picture yet), and twenty-five points ahead of everyone else in his own party, including Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, and Al Gore. Hart was more than knowledgeable on the issues, but he also had the look, the patter, the sense of a man whose time had come. But he also had a weakness.
Like so many other successful politicians, women wanted to be with him — and the feeling was mutual. When rumors started swirling about his womanizing ways, he brushed them aside, telling one reporter, “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.” Those words came back to haunt him when reporters from the Miami Herald, following an anonymous tip, tailed Hart and a woman named Donna Rice to his DC townhouse, where they spent the night. They confronted him and wrote about his denials while he condemned them for sinking to a new journalistic low. After all, the press had always looked the other way when LBJ and JFK had extramarital affairs, but times were changing — not only in print, but on TV, with shows like “A Current Affair,” hosted by Maury Povich (who regularly called in to my radio show to discuss stories like this).
All of this is the basis for Jason Reitman’s terrific new movie, “The Front Runner,” which covers the very short period (a matter of weeks) in which Hart’s campaign came apart. Hugh Jackman gives his best performance in years, downplaying his own natural showmanship (on display last year in “The Greatest Showman”) to portray Hart as a very smart man who didn’t realize how reckless he was. Vera Farmiga is also excellent as Lee Hart (who remains married to him to this day). Another Reitman regular, JK Simmons, plays Hart’s irascible campaign manager, and Alfred Molina plays Post editor Ben Bradlee.
Reitman’s direction is as strong as ever, particularly in the opening scenes, when he borrows Robert Altman’s device of multiple overlapping conversations to portray the insanity of a high-pressure presidential campaign. He also gets a nicely vulnerable performance from Sara Paxton as Rice, as well as Molly Ephraim as Irene Kelly, a composite character tasked with taking care of Rice after the affair was exposed. There’s more good supporting work from Alex Karpovsky (“You’re The Worst”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Ari Graynor (“I’m Dying Up Here”), as well as Bill Burr as a Miami Herald reporter, Kevin Pollak as that paper’s publisher, Mike Judge as another editor, and Mamoudou Athie as AJ Parker of the Post.
Watching “The Front Runner” gave me some flashbacks of that era, three decades later, when stories like this were daily fodder for comedy and commentary on my radio show. I wondered how differently I’d cover them today in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but at the same time we have a president whose sexual indiscretions are baked into his personality yet irrelevant to too many cult-like Americans who revere him.
I was also reminded of a great line Hart could have used that my brother Seth came up with while serving as a top official of the Labor Department in both the Clinton and Obama administrations: “I can neither confirm nor deny what you’re asking me, and you should not take my lack of confirmation or denial as a confirmation or a denial.”
There’s no denying I enjoyed the heck out of “The Front Runner,” so I’m giving it an 8.5 out of 10 and saving a place for it on my Best Of 2018 list.