Given the current state of American politics, it’s hard to believe that at one point in time certain parts of politician’s lives were off-limits to the media. But, this pivotal point in history isn’t just the consequence of social media. Instead, as the new film The Front Runner (in theaters November 21) explains, it was an ‘80s scandal involving then-top Democratic presidential nominee Gary Hart and a much younger woman named Donna Rice that shifted political conversations from just professional to personal.
In May 1987, the Miami Herald reported that Rice (played by Sara Paxton in the film) had spent the night at Hart’s (Hugh Jackman) townhouse in Washington, D.C. while his wife was away, after receiving an anonymous tip. Both the former Colorado senator and Rice denied that anything had taken place, but as political and tabloid news merged for the first time, Hart was forced to drop out of the race and the journalism industry was forever changed.
Rice, the young woman at the center of the scandal, was born in Delacroix, LA. She lived in Tallahassee, FL until she was 13, when her family moved to Irmo, SC. From there she went on to attend the University of South Carolina where she was a cheerleader, majored in biology, and graduated magna cum laude in 1980. Soon after Rice was crowned Miss South Carolina World and moved to New York to pursue a modeling and acting career before eventually relocating to Miami. There she landed small parts on TV shows including Miami Vice and One Life to Live.
In 1986, Rice, then 29, reportedly attended a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen hosted by rock singer Don Henley where she met Hart, then 50. According to Rice, she didn’t see him again until March 1, 1987, when she and her friends strolled upon a yacht party where he was also in attendance. The two chatted, and Rice said she gave him her number as she mentioned she was “very interested in getting into fundraising.”
Their budding connection had the makings of a strictly professional one until they were photographed together on a boat named “Monkey Business” two days later. That’s when the drama unfolded. Women Rice believed to be her friends began feeding tips and selling photos of her from this day – the most infamous one shows her sitting on Hart’s lap – to the press.
A media frenzy was set into motion, as the news of Rice and Hart’s alleged affair spread like wildfire. As Rice recalled in a recent interview that her “reputation was destroyed worldwide.” And from this point on the private lives of those running for public office became fair game to reporters. This forced candidates and anyone in the public eye to rethink what they did and said behind closed doors (though one can argue that some politicians still don’t care) and to hire real-life Olivia Pope’s for damage control.
Nonetheless, to this day Rice and Hart’s names are still synonymous with the sex scandal, though they both remain mum on what really happened between them. Were they just friends or was there something more going on? And should it have ended Hart’s presidential campaign? These are questions we’ll most likely never get answers to.
Following the scandal, Rice married businessman Jack Hughes in 1994. She has since become an advocate for the internet safety of children and families, serving as president and CEO of the nonprofit Enough Is Enough. She is also among those who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election and credits her faith for helping her heal from the media scrutiny.