In a story spread across the top of its front page, the Miami Herald published a photograph of a young woman leaving former Sen. Gary Hart’s townhouse in Washington, D.C., on this day twenty-five years ago.
The Herald, which had been investigating reports of Hart’s alleged “womanizing” and following a tip that the Democratic presidential candidate — his party’s clear front-runner — had visited Bimini with a young woman who wasn’t his wife on an 83-foot luxury yacht called “Monkey Business,” followed up that bombshell a few days later by obtaining a photograph of 29-year-old model and actress Donna Rice sitting on Hart’s lap on a dock next to the yacht.
Hart, who had announced his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination only three weeks earlier, dropped out of the race within a week of the Miami paper’s revelations.
Incredibly, the scandal didn’t quite end Hart’s presidential ambitions that year. There is no cure for Potomac Fever.
Flanked by his wife and daughter, the former senator — hoping for the fastest political redemption in history — discombobulated the political world seven months later by re-entering the Democratic contest. “Let the people decide,” he declared on the steps of the state capitol in New Hampshire, the scene of his stunning upset against front-runner Walter Mondale four years earlier.
Though Hart’s re-entry seemed to surprise most pundits, Bill Dixon — Hart’s former campaign manager — had fueled speculation that the former two-term senator might re-join the race a few months earlier, telling a Madison, Wisconsin, radio station in August that he expected his ex-boss to re-enter the race within a month of two. Hart himself dropped all kinds of hints, including telling students at Brockport State College in New York a few months later that the Democratic field left a lot to be desired. “The people of this country want leadership,” he asserted, “they want direction and they want change, and they’re not hearing it.”
In rekindling his candidacy on December 15, Hart, who had no campaign staff and had amassed a huge campaign debt prior to dropping out of the race on May 8 — barely a week after the Miami Herald initially broke the Donna Rice story — promised a deliciously different type of presidential campaign.
Skipping Iowa’s caucus and pinning his hopes on New Hampshire’s first-in-the nation primary where rank-and-file Democrats would make their selection in the secrecy of the ballot box, Hart had little to lose in reviving his troubled bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The six other candidates in the race — Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Bruce Babbitt, the former governor of Arizona, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, with New York’s Mario Cuomo reportedly waiting in the wings, hoping for a brokered convention — had failed to generate much enthusiasm for their respective candidacies.
Though obviously buoyed by an “instant,” yet highly unreliable poll conducted for USA Today and CNN showing him favored by 29 percent of registered Democrats nationally, the disgraced former Colorado senator realized the odds were against him.
In an hour-long appearance on ABC-TV’s widely-watched “Nightline” some 11 1/2 hours after filing in New Hampshire, the 51-year-old Hart hinted that he would be willing to settle for something less than the White House, and that his real objective might simply have been to retain some minimal influence with his party.
“I’m not going to perpetuate a campaign that’s not going anywhere or doesn’t have any popular support or that doesn’t have at least the chance to take enough delegates to the convention to condition the platform and the policies of this party into the 1990s,” he told Ted Koppel’s viewing audience.
While most high-ranking Democrats were mortified by Hart’s dramatic and totally unexpected re-entry into the crowded contest, the Republicans could hardly contain their glee.
“It seems only fitting that during the Christmas season that the Democrats would be visited by the ghost of candidate past,” quipped Frank Fahrenkopf, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “What it really shows is the disarray of the Democratic Party going into 1988, when a man who in effect resigned from the race in disgrace feels that he can come back and win the nomination.”
Hart’s re-entry into the race proved to be painfully short-lived. After polling only 4 percent of the vote in New Hampshire and performing poorly on Super Tuesday on March 8, Hart quietly withdrew from the race for a second and final time.
Hart, who briefly considered seeking the Democratic presidential nomination again in 2004, founded the American Security Project in 2007 and remains active as a teacher, author and lecturer.