In the spring of 1990, after he had helped the first George Bush reach the presidency, the political consultant Lee Atwater learned that he was dying. Atwater, who had just turned 39 and was the head of the Republican National Committee, had suffered a seizure while at a political fund-raising breakfast and had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. In a year he was dead.
Atwater put some of that year to use making amends. Throughout his meteoric political rise he had been known for both his effectiveness and his brutality. In South Carolina, where he grew up, he helped defeat a congressional candidate who had openly discussed his teenage struggles with depression by telling reporters that the man had once been “hooked up to jumper cables.” As the campaign manager for then–Vice President George H. W. Bush in 1988, when he defeated Michael Dukakis in the general election, Atwater leveraged the issue of race—a specialty for him—by means of the infamous “Willie Horton” TV ad. The explicit message of the commercial was that, as governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had been soft on crime by offering furloughs to convicted murderers; Horton ran away while on furlough and then committed new felonies, including rape. The implicit message was the menace posed by hulking, scowling black men—like the Willie Horton who was shown in the commercial.
Strother, 10 years older than Atwater, had been his Democratic competitor and counterpart, minus the gutter-fighting. During the early Reagan years, when Atwater worked in the White House, Strother joined the staff of the Democratic Party’s most promising and glamorous young figure, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado. Strother was Hart’s media consultant and frequent traveling companion during his run for the nomination in 1984, when he gave former Vice President Walter Mondale a scare. As the campaign for the 1988 nomination geared up, Strother planned to play a similar role.
In early 1987, the Hart campaign had an air of likelihood if not inevitability that is difficult to imagine in retrospect. After Mondale’s landslide defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1984, Hart had become the heir apparent and best hope to lead the party back to the White House. The presumed Republican nominee was Bush, Reagan’s vice president, who was seen at the time, like many vice presidents before him, as a lackluster understudy. Since the FDR–Truman era, no party had won three straight presidential elections, which the Republicans would obviously have to do if Bush were to succeed Reagan.
Gary Hart had a nationwide organization and had made himself a recognized expert on military and defense policy. I first met him in those days, and wrote about him in Atlantic articles that led to my 1981 book, National Defense. (I’ve stayed in touch with him since then and have respected his work and his views.) Early polls are notoriously unreliable, but after the 1986 midterms, and then–New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s announcement that he would not run, many national surveys showed Hart with a lead in the Democratic field and also over Bush. Hart’s principal vulnerability was the press’s suggestion that something about him was hidden, excessively private, or “unknowable.” Among other things, this was a way of alluding to suspicions of extramarital affairs—a theme in most accounts of that campaign, including Matt Bai’s 2014 All the Truth Is Out. Still, as Bai wrote in his book, “Everyone agreed: it was Hart’s race to lose.”
Strother and Atwater had the mutually respectful camaraderie of highly skilled rivals. “Lee and I were friends,” Strother told me when I spoke with him by phone recently. “We’d meet after campaigns and have coffee, talk about why I did what I did and why he did what he did.” One of the campaigns they met to discuss afterward was that 1988 presidential race, which Atwater (with Bush) had of course ended up winning, and from which Hart had dropped out. But later, during what Atwater realized would be the final weeks of his life, Atwater phoned Strother to discuss one more detail of that campaign.
In late March 1987, Hart spent a weekend on a Miami-based yacht called Monkey Business. Two young women joined the boat when it sailed to Bimini. While the boat was docked there, one of the women took a picture of Hart sitting on the pier, with the other, Donna Rice, in his lap. A month after this trip, in early May, the man who had originally invited Hart onto the boat brought the same two women to Washington. The Miami Herald had received a tip about the upcoming visit and was staking out the front of Hart’s house. (A famous profile of Hart by E. J. Dionne in The New York Times Magazine, in which Hart invited the press to “follow me around,” came out after this stakeout—not before, contrary to common belief.) A Herald reporter saw Rice and Hart going into the house through the front door and, not realizing that there was a back door, assumed—when he didn’t see her again—that she had spent the night.
Amid the resulting flap about Hart’s “character” and honesty, he quickly suspended his campaign (within a week), which effectively ended it. Several weeks later came the part of the episode now best remembered: the photo of Hart and Rice together in Bimini, on the cover of the National Enquirer.
Was Gary Hart Set Up?
What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987? In The Atlantic’s November issue, James Fallows asked what alternate courses history might have taken.
My name is James Savage and I was the Miami Herald’s investigations editor who helped report and edit the 1987 stories that uncovered Gary Hart’s relationship with Donna Rice and prompted him to quit his presidential campaign
I believe from my personal knowledge of the facts that The Atlantic’s article contains serious factual errors.
The article’s conspiracy theory suggests that William Broadhurst deliberately maneuvered Hart into potentially damaging press exposure by arranging for him to spend time on the yacht Monkey Business and have his picture taken with Donna Rice sitting on his lap.
The truth is the late Mr. Broadhurst did everything short of violence trying to prevent the Herald’s investigations team from publishing the first story about the scandal.
Reporters Tom Fiedler, Jim McGee, and I were preparing that story on deadline after interviewing Hart about his relationship with the young woman from Miami when Broadhurst phoned our hotel room in Washington.
Broadhurst insisted that he had invited the Miami woman and a friend to Washington and any story we wrote would unfairly portray Hart’s relationship. He refused to name the woman who was later identified as Donna Rice.
We included Broadhurst’s defense of Hart in that first story. After filing our story, at Broadhurst’s suggestion, we met with him at an all-night restaurant where he continued to argue on Hart’s behalf.
Broadhurst died recently and can’t defend himself.
I believe the Atlantic story also implies that Donna Rice was somehow involved in a conspiracy to embarrass Hart. I am convinced from my firsthand knowledge of how the Herald learned about Hart’s plan to meet with Ms. Rice that she did not have any involvement in any plan to embarrass Hart.
I believe The Atlantic should publish a correction and an apology to Ms. Rice. I would be happy to discuss further details.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
James Fallows replies:
The details of the Miami Herald’s handling of the Gary Hart-Donna Rice case were explicitly not the topic of my article. The literature on the topic is too vast and contradictory to set out, even in a magazine article many times longer than the one I wrote.
In brief (as I said in giving a summary of the crucial episodes in my article): Over the decades, many of those involved in the Herald’s decision to send reporters for a stakeout of Gary Hart’s house in Washington have stoutly defended the public and journalistic interests they believed they served in doing so, and the care they took in choosing this course. Mr. Savage, who was involved in those decisions, defends them in his note. A fuller account of the Herald’s decisions, by James Savage and his Herald colleagues Jim McGee and Tom Fielder, appeared in that paper just a week after the stakeout. You can read it here.
Over the decades, many people not involved in the choices have debated these same aspects: whether the Herald exercised sufficient care in pursuing the tip it received and what the consequences were of the way it (and, separately, the Washington Post) then handled the “scandal” of Hart’s possible affairs. Back in 1987, the journalist John Judis offered a skeptical and negative assessment of the Herald’s and Post’s approaches in the Columbia Journalism Review. Matt Bai’s 2014 book about the episode, All the Truth is Out, is about the way that coverage of Hart became the moment when “politics went tabloid” and changed both politics and journalism for the worse.
Read them all. See the forthcoming movie based on Bai’s book, The Front Runner. Judge for yourself.
But wherever you come out, what the Herald did was not the topic I was discussing. The news my article conveyed is what might have happened before anyone at any newspaper got involved.
It was about the circumstances in which Hart, Donna Rice, another woman named Lynn Armandt, and a lobbyist named Billy Broadhurst got together on a boat in the first place, which led to the tip the Herald later received. Broadhurst, a lobbyist and fixer, was by all accounts a man of many faces. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Savage’s report of the Herald’s dealings with him. Other people who dealt with him firsthand, and have spoken with me about him, have offered much less positive perspectives.
As most readers noted from my story, and as Mr. Savage might see if he looks at it again, the story was careful to present new information as a possibility—as another way of thinking about a consequential moment in modern political history. The headline of the story was not “Gary Hart Was Set Up.” Instead it asked, “Was Gary Hart Set Up?” There is a proper journalistic bias against using questions in headlines. But doing so was appropriate in this case, for an article whose point was in fact a question: What if Lee Atwater’s deathbed admission to his colleague and competitor, Raymond Strother, was actually true? What if the Monkey Business disaster were not just a catastrophic error by Hart but a set-up plan?
As the article points out, Strother himself realized that this claim would forever be unprovable, since Lee Atwater died soon after he revealed this information over the phone (according to Strother) back in 1991. Strother told me that this very unprovability was part of the reason he kept the information to himself for so many years—doing so, in fact, until he spoke with Hart early this year, in what he thought might be one of their final meetings.
Can I prove that Lee Atwater actually made this confession to Raymond Strother 27 years ago, as Strother said to me in several conversations this year? Of course not. But Strother has a long record as a campaign strategist and press spokesman, which to the best of my knowledge offers no grounds to be skeptical of his honesty—especially on this topic, and at this stage of his life. Could Strother himself, back at the time, prove that Atwater was telling him the truth? Also, of course not. And Atwater’s short record in public life contained ample grounds for doubts about his honesty. But in his final weeks, Atwater was offering a lot of public apologies for other campaign dirty tricks, which are known to have occurred. Would he have simply invented this additional trick (without actually having been responsible for it) so that he could privately apologize to his former rival Raymond Strother? Anything’s possible, but that seems far-fetched.
No one can know whether Gary Hart would have gone on to the nomination or the presidency if this scandal hadn’t erupted when it did; or whether some other scandal might have ensued if this one hadn’t; or whether Hart, like Bill Clinton after him, to say nothing of Donald Trump, might have ridden out the scandal coverage if he’d decided just to brazen his way through; or whether Michael Dukakis might have risen to the nomination even if Hart stayed in the race; or whether George H.W. Bush was destined for election anyway; or a thousand other imponderables. The point of the story was: History is full of counterfactual what ifs, which by definition are unknowable, and the Atwater-Strother-Hart series of conversations adds another unknowable but provocative what if to the list.
Mr. Savage concludes by saying that I that owe Donna Rice Hughes an apology. I disagree. First, the article does not say what Mr. Savage thinks it does. Lee Atwater told Raymond Strother (according to Strother) that he, Atwater, was behind the whole episode. Necessarily Billy Broadhurst would have to have been involved as well. Who else might have been, and what witting or unwitting roles the other main figures (including Donna Rice) might have played, Atwater did not tell Strother, and Strother did not claim to me.
Donna Rice Hughes presumably knows more than other still-living figures about this incident. I sent her many messages asking for a chance to talk, and explaining what I wanted to ask. I know that she received at least some of them. She chose not to reply to repeated requests, which is her right and is entirely understandable. But it is not the occasion for an apology on my side.