(CNN)On December 15, 1986, the elevator door in the Kremlin slowly opened, and then-Senator Gary Hart of Colorado gave me a gentle push. Together with his daughter, Andrea, we rode up to the private offices of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who would be the last leader of the Soviet Union.
We departed Moscow two days later, on what was supposed to be a regularly-scheduled Aeroflot flight to Vienna. Instead, our plane was empty of all other passengers except for a lone woman in the back: Rimma Bravve, a Russian-Jewish refusenik suffering from cancer. Now, in response to Hart’s appeal on her behalf, she was headed for medical treatment in the West — a clear gesture of Gorbachev’s respect for the American senator and sense that bigger things were ahead for him.
The following month, another sign followed. Inna Meiman — a cancer-stricken, Russian-Jewish human rights activist, whose freedom Hart had also long been advocating — was released and given permission to travel to the US for medical treatment.
Four months later, however, Hart, who had announced his candidacy for president just weeks prior, would withdraw from the race. He had been the clear front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination before controversy erupted, the result of a barrage of press coverage alleging improper behavior with Donna Rice, a woman who was not his wife.
Those of us who had been at the center of his Senate work and presidential campaign teams were now tumbling along with him and his family in the center of a political and media centrifuge — one which had no precedent, which we could not control, and which ultimately spit all of us out unceremoniously.
That was 31 years ago — before iPhones, before Twitter, before 24/7 cable news cycles, before sexting, before the re-election of indicted politicians, before presidential payoffs to porn stars, before all the hate and fear that got us to where we are today. In light of all that, some now call our May 1987 week from hell “quaint.” It is now also the subject of a major motion picture, “The Front Runner,” which opens nationwide this week.
Like the Hart campaign itself, “The Front Runner” is written and directed by — and cast with — men and women who don’t follow the conventional wisdom of their craft, who frame issues in terms which are hard to fit on bumper stickers and who frustrate those who insist that audiences be told in no uncertain terms who is the hero and who is the villain. Some of us who worked with Hart are characters in the movie. Director Jason Reitman invited us to preview it before taking it on the film festival circuit.
Gathered together for the first time in decades, we were terrified of re-living one of the worst periods of our lives and frightened about what we were about to see on the screen. The film is no whitewash. It was hard to watch. But as the lights went up and a very nervous Jason Reitman entered the small Denver screening room, Hart’s daughter, Andrea — who 31 years ago had to hide under a blanket in a truck bed to leave her home and escape the press hordes — stood, looked directly at Jason and said simply: “Fantastic. Thank You.”
For thirty-one years, Gary Hart has been like an insect in amber, frozen forever in the aftermath of May 1987. What Reitman, Hugh Jackman (who magnificently captures Gary Hart), Matt Bai (who wrote the book “All the Truth Is Out,” on which the film is based), Jay Carson (co-screenwriter with Bai and Reitman) and this film ensemble have done is provide an opportunity to break through the amber to go beyond the one-dimensional. They provide an opportunity to climb out of a 30-year echo chamber, which has defined a man’s entire life solely by a single set of events, and decide whether he and the press that covered those events are forever heroes or villains.
Recovering from political scandal
“The Front Runner,” to my surprise, freed me as well from more than one echo chamber. As someone who, at the then-young age of 36, took notes at a historic and visionary discussion between a Russian who knew his country had to change and an American who knew that change could be an opportunity and not a threat, I was devastated when the promise of that discussion came to an abrupt and angry end.
For years, many of us on the young campaign staff saw Donna Rice only as an interloper, part of the chaos and heartbreak which consumed our lives that week. But my then-colleague Sue Casey — the major Hart female staffer on the front lines during the events of that week and portrayed on screen by Molly Ephriam — understood 30 years ago what many of us didn’t: The amber of stereotype in which women continue to be trapped. I was lucky enough to meet Ephriam, along with Sara Paxton, who plays Donna Rice. I saluted their work and expressed my regret that, unlike Sue Casey, I had not done what they and the film had done: Extend humanity to Rice.
Hundreds of young men and women came to work for Gary Hart in the 1980s, not because he was the horse-of-the-moment to ride to the White House, but because he represented something different in politics. He inspired a belief that citizens can be involved and make a difference; that giving back to the country is not abstract, but personal; that public service is more than just clinging to a seat in Congress or a job in an administration; that we can approach the future by more objectively and factually anticipating the positive and negative ways in which it is likely to affect us — in the process, figuring out how to master change and not end up victims of it.
Gary Hart had much to offer this country. After his withdrawal from the presidential race, despite a few very notable contributions — including co-chairing the Hart-Rudman commission on national security for the 21st century, created to study critical national security issues, and serving as personal representative of Secretary of State John Kerry in Northern Ireland — he was largely frozen out of public life. (As for Rice, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of South Carolina, she became president and chairman of “Enough is Enough,” an NGO that has been working to make the internet safer for families and children, in 2002.)
The poster for “The Front Runner” shows a campaign bus going over a cliff. A more appropriate poster would show a tub with both bathwater and baby tossed out.
The campaign indeed went over the cliff. But the bus, carrying so many of those who were inspired by Hart to go into public service, sailed right over. Hart’s aide-de-camp Billy Shore and his sister, Debbie, co-founded Share Our Strength, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to eliminate child hunger. Campaign worker Alan Khazei became the founder of City Year, the template on which AmeriCorps (developed by late former Hart advisor Eli Segal) is modeled.
Jeanne Shaheen, who ran Hart’s ’84 breakout New Hampshire campaign, later became the first woman in US history to serve as both governor and senator of her state. Martin O’Malley, a young road warrior, became mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland. John Emerson, the lawyer who ran our ’84 California campaign, became US ambassador to Germany. Kathy Calvin, Hart’s ’84 press secretary, now runs the UN Foundation. And Scott Berkowitz, who at 15 was our youngest staff fundraiser in 1984, became the founder of RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence NGO. There are many more like them around the country.
Gary Hart’s lifetime legacy is much more than the 1987 week from hell. And it includes a living legacy of men and women who wondered if they could make a difference. He said yes. And they did.