“The Front Runner,” a film about a race for U.S. President. Starring Hugh Jackman, Vera Farminga and J.K. Simmons. Directed by Jason Reitman. Based on the book by Matt Bai, “All the Truth is Out: The week Politics went Tabloid.” A Columbia Pictures production, 113 minutes. As seen at the Town Center AMC, Leawood, Kan.
by Murrel Bland
It was the fall of 1953. I was a seventh grader at Ottawa (Kan.) Junior High School. It was a new experience—coming from a one-room country school of about 20 students in the north-central area of Franklin County to a junior and senior high school with more than 700 pupils.
Little did I know that one of my schoolmates was destined to run for the president of the United States. His 1987 campaign changed the way mainstream media would cover politics.
Gary Warren Hartpence was born on Nov. 28, 1936, in Ottawa. His parents were Carl Riley Hartpence and Nina Pritchard Hartpence. His family changed its last name to Hart in 1961 because it was easier to remember.
Ottawa was a town of about 10,000 people in the 1950s. It had a prosperous downtown with numerous Main Street merchants. Nearby farms in Franklin County created a successful agricultural industry. The town was known for its strong support of churches including Methodist and Baptist congregations and conservative Republican politics. It was also famous for defeating school bond issues.
Hart was the “All American boy.” He was a member of the football, basketball and track teams. He also was vice president of his junior class and a delegate to Boys State—a mock government workshop sponsored by the Kansas American Legion.
Florence M. Robinson, a career journalism teacher at Ottawa High School, chose Hart as managing editor of the school newspaper, The Ottawa Record. It was that same teacher that would influence my career in journalism.
Hart attended what then was Bethany (Okla.) Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University); he graduated in 1958 with plans to become a clergyman. He met his wife, Oletha (Lee) Ludwig at Bethany. He then received a Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale University at New Haven, Conn., in 1961. He then received a law degree from Yale in 1964. He practiced law in Washington, D.C., and Denver.
Lee Ludwig is the sister to Martha Ludwig Keys who served in Congress from what was the Second District in Kansas in the 1970s. That district included part of Wyandotte County.
In 1972, I was visiting with a high school and college classmate at a reception for a former journalism professor.
“Do you remember Gary Hartpence?” the friend asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, he is the national director for the McGovern for President campaign,” my friend said. “But his name now is Gary Hart.” Hart had volunteered for the campaigns of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. McGovern won the Democratic party’s nomination, but lost in the General Election to Richard Nixon in one of the most lopsided elections in U.S. history.
Hart was elected U.S. Senator from Colorado in 1974 and again in 1980. He first ran for president in 1984. Despite a slow start, he became the main challenger to Walter Mondale. Hart ran again for president, becoming the Democratic front runner in 1987. This is where the film concentrates its coverage; much of the film is in a semi-documentary style.
In April 1987, reporters and a photographer from The Miami Herald followed Donna Rice from Miami to a Washington, D.C., town house where she met with Hart. The scandal spread through the national media along with another damaging story that Hart had incurred a $1.3 million campaign debt.
In May that year, Hart called a news conference and announced the end of his campaign.
“I refuse to submit my family and my friends and innocent people and myself to further rumors and gossip,” Hart said. Hart then paraphrased President Thomas Jefferson who said he trembled for his country when he thought we may get the kind of leaders we deserve. Hart said his situation will provoke a needed debate on whether the system has gone out of control. Gossipy articles about who is sleeping with whom, previously restricted to The National Enquirer and its ilk, was now in the mainstream media.
The film does an excellent job of portraying the inside, gut-wrenching details of American politics. Hart is portrayed by Hugh Jackman, an Australian actor known for his role as Wolfman in the X-Men film series. Other excellent performances are turned in by Vera Farminga who portrays the long-suffering Lee Hart and J.K. Simmons who is the cynical yet savvy veteran campaign manager, Bill Dixon. Farminga stared in Sundance award-winning films including “Down to the Bone” and “Love in the Time of Man.” Simmons is probably best known as the professor in Farmers’ Insurance television commercials.
There certainly is a strong message in this film—that the media is more concerned with sexual misdeeds than more important issues such as world trade and the environment. But there is also a matter of character; the film speaks to that matter in the way Hart treated women.
Hart wrote an article for The New York Times in 2004. He admitted to being a sinner. He said he was asking for the same degree of forgiveness from his many critics that they were willing to grant George W. Bush for his transgressions.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is a 1959 graduate of Ottawa High School.