The Front Runner – Gary Hart’s campaign implosion and the fall out on the women around him – has much changed in 30 years?

A couple of weeks ago, BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme included a segment discussing whether the misdemeanours of artists and actors can be separated from the quality of their work and performances. The panel discussed figures like singer Michael Jackson, actor Kevin Spacey and director Roman Polanski. They quickly highlighted that lines appear to be drawn in different places, quite inconsistently, depending on the individual being judged and the depth of roots their creative work has put down before their wrongdoing is discovered.

It’s a wonder none of the listeners phoned in to mention that many Christians have a similar problem with their Bible ‘heroes’ who have similarly clay feet: Abraham’s mistreatment of his wife’s handmaid Hagar, and King David’s leering Bathsheba bathing, adultery and set up her husband to die in battle.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izDhW4Ez2gQ

Politicians too have their share of clay feet. At Westminster, my impression is that MPs resign from Cabinet positions, and sometimes even resign their seat in the Commons and force a byelection, whenever they become a prolonged and embarrassing distraction to their party’s messaging – a secondary reason – rather than a resolve to address the primary concerns.

In Northern Ireland in recent months, a spotlight has been shone on the travel expenses and lobbying of Ian Paisley MP, as well as a number of councillors caught by the police for drink driving. Two and a half years ago, after a lengthy investigation by the NI Assembly Commissioner for Standards – whose Appendices of evidence I still find a disturbing read – the Committee for Standards and Privileges did not uphold any of the complaints of bullying and sexual misconduct levelled against NI21 leader Basil McCrea.

Escaping police attention for breaking the law is not up for discussion. But under what circumstances is there a real public interest in the moral failures of public figures?

When is an extra-marital affair a matter of sadness for loved ones and when does someone deserve to be dragged through the Sunday newspaper hedge along with their family and perhaps innocent bystanders? When is it truly consensual, and when is it an abuse of power? And could it ever be a set-up?

The Front Runner looks back at Gary Hart’s campaign to become the Democratic presidential nominee in 1988. He lost out to Walter Mondale in 1984 but returned to the next campaign with a strong lead in opinion polls.

Director Jason Reitman bases his film on Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid which documents how Miami Herald reporters were tipped off about the disconnect between Hart’s call for good morals in high public office and his habitual womanising and infidelity. The result of the imbroglio was that his campaign turned and began to bury itself in the ground like a giant tunnelling machine at the end of its life.

The political film begins with lots of mumbled dialogue and women making coffee in the 46-year old’s campaign office. Some of his team want voters to “get to know” Hart and his family, but apparently “‘personal’ is not a comfort zone”.

The candidate wants to be the “voice of a new generation” and launches his latest bid for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the Rocky Mountains, dragging reports and TV crews up a hill. But the neither the new generation of reporters nor voters are willing to overlook previously ignored personal peccadilloes.

Hugh Jackman is engaging as a politician who is bubbling with new ideas. Quite a showman, but definitely not the greatest! He makes the rule-breaking and schmoozing look natural rather than sleazy, and displays a facial reluctance to react to the sky that begins to fall on top of him and his family.

The moral debate happens in the offices of the Miami Herald, whose reporters stake out Hart’s Washington DC town house and confront the political hopeful, and the Washington Post which at first saw itself above reporting tittle tattle before realising that society, and their industry, was moving ahead of them. In the end, it is Hart’s inability to be honest about his own character that is his downfall rather than any specific incident of infidelity.

Vera Farmiga depicts the complexity in the character of Lee Hart, a woman who is well aware of the loose zip in her husband’s trousers, but has invested decades in the marriage and continues to play a role in his campaigning while insisting that “the one thing I ever asked is that you don’t embarrass me”.

Molly Ephraim plays a duplicitous (and fictional) campaign advisor who hides Donna Rice (the alleged mistress, played by Sara Paxton, who has never confirmed that there was anything more than a friendship) from the public eye before knowingly abandoning her to the fray of the baying press. (Today, Rice works as an Internet safety advocate.)

The ripple effect of one man’s misjudgement on these women becomes the takeaway from the film, a reminder that it’s often women who carry the long-lasting demonisation while men shrug off the “gossip”. (The former US Senator may never have made it to the White House, but he was appointed as US Envoy to Northern Ireland in 2014, a position that no longer exists under the present US administration.)

While the replay of the 1987 editorial and political conversations are interesting, and the mobile phone and early Apple Macintosh props are fun to revisit, it’s the invasion of privacy of young women involved with married politicians and the seeming continued absence of editorial protection that are perhaps most disturbing to watch thirty years later.

The Front Runner is still playing at some Movie House cinemas.