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For political theater, candidates can't beat a movie

For political theater, candidates can't beat a movie

Talk about a political upset.

The best part of the campaign season in Santa Fe had nothing to do with any rally or candidate. A movie stole the show.

The Front Runner, a dramatization of presidential contender Gary Hart’s implosion during one strange week in 1987, provides more insights than any of the high-profile candidates in our midst. And it’s not even close.

From reel life to real life, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham plays the part of a pauper. She always pleads for money and always has a looming deadline to get it or, she claims, her television ads will vanish. Wouldn’t that be a pity?

Her opponent, Republican Steve Pearce, spent months running to the center, away from his hard-right record. Now he is emphasizing his party’s old standby of crime and punishment. Pearce tells of drug gangs trying to turn New Mexico into Chicago, wh atever that means. Then he drawls, “Not on my watch,” as though he were running for sheriff.

Their race has featured plenty of poll-tested advertising themes and genuine nastiness. We’ve seen it all before.

In contrast, The Front Runner examines how little tolerance America once had for a candidate whose character flaws were exposed. It also reminds us how much deceit is allowed and even celebrated by voters in the era of Donald Trump.

The Front Runner doesn’t go into national release until next month, but it was screened during the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. It’s a more honest account of a politician’s downfall than All the President’s Men.

Hart, who had been a two-term U.S. senator from Colorado, was the best-known and most feared of the Democrats who were angling for the presidency in the 1988 election. He mimicked the mannerisms of John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Hart also had good looks, plenty of hair and a reputation as a womanizer.

I dealt with Hart when I was a young city editor in Colorado. He wore tailored suits with cowboy boots and preferred intellectual discussions to sound bites.

Hart lived with his wife, Lee, in a canyon west of Denver. It was called Troublesome Gulch. The name was a fitting description for what was to come.

One of the the Miami Herald’s political reporters received a tip about Hart carrying on a romance with a younger woman from Miami. The tipster said the woman would fly to Washington for a weekend rendezvous with Hart.

At least some of the tip turned out to be true. Herald staff members staked out Hart’s townhouse, then confronted him about the blond model who had flown up to see him. Intent on making the Sunday edition and warding off Hart’s spin, the newspapermen rushed a choppy story into print.

Hart, then 50, and the woman, 29-year-old Donna Rice, denied they had a sexual relationship. Few believ ed them.

Hart miscalculated the changing times. He had told a reporter for the New York Times Magazine that those skeptical of his fidelity should put a tail on him. Advance copies of the Times’ story had circulated as the Herald was preparing its surveillance of Hart.

After being confronted by the Miami reporters, Hart was rattled but still thought he could become president.

“This campaign is about the future, not about rumors, not about sleaze,” his character says in the movie.

Hart might have survived today. But in 1987 his candidacy was destroyed in six days.

Reporters had long ignored the sexual affairs of politicians and candidates. All of that changed with Hart.

His honesty and character came into question when the Herald published its story.

The Front Runner, like any feature movie, truncates characters, alters certain events and blurs others. That is the nature of boiling down parts of a life story into two hours of screen time.

But the movie accurately captures the time and the candidate. All the President’s Men succeeded at the box office by twisting the truth about the confidential Watergate source called Deep Throat. The Front Runner is more faithful to real-life events.

Hugh Jackman is so good as Hart that his superhero roles are forgotten. The weak links in the cast are Sara Paxton as Rice and tubby Alfred Molina doing no justice to the journalistic heavyweight he portrays, Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee.

At the film festival screening I attended, one man caught up in other comparisons shattered the theater’s etiquette by shouting, “What about Trump?”

That’s an easy question.

The voters of 1987 wanted answers. Today’s candidates can slide by with generalities, sound bites and outright lies.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simon ich at or 505-986-3080.

Milan Simonich

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