In a bit of trivia that will fascinate historians of presidential politics, journalism and tawdry sex scandals, the New York Times has named a South Florida woman it says was the source of a Miami Herald story 27 years ago that wrecked the candidacy of Democrat Gary Hart.
Hart, a U.S. senator from Colorado, was the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when the Herald published a story detailing his dalliance with a sleek Miami model and bit actress named Donna Rice.
The story sent Hart’s campaign into a tailspin that ended with his withdrawal a week later. It also began a new era of political journalism in which politicians’ private lives, which had been mostly exempt from media scrutiny, were now considered measurements of “character” and thus fair game for reporters.
The Herald’s report was triggered by an anonymous source who had seen the married Hart partying with Rice aboard a yacht (named, with unspeakable irony, the Monkey Business) anchored at Turnberry Isle. The Herald has never identified her.
But now the New York Times, in an account of the scandal published in its Sunday magazine, is saying it has her name: Dana Weems, a Broward County clothing designer. Weems, reached at her Hollywood home Saturday evening, confirmed she’s the woman mentioned in the Times story but wouldn’t discuss it further.
“I’m on the phone with my nurse,” said Weems, who is in ill health. “We’ll have to talk another time.”
Tom Fiedler, the Herald political reporter (he would rise to become the paper’s executive editor and is now dean of Boston University’s College of Communications) politely refused to confirm the Times story.
“I haven’t gone back to the source, in all these years, to ask to be released from a confidentiality promise which I made at the time of our initial conversation,” he said. “So I would rather not talk about her identity.”
This is not the first time Weems’ name has come up in connection with the scandal. In 1987, the Atlanta Constitution reported that Rice believed she was the tipster. Weems flatly denied it: “No, I did not call the Miami Herald.”
Weems has worked over the years as a costume designer and a stylist for models. In 1987, she was a bikini model and designer who ran with the fast-lane Turnberry Isle crowd that included her friends Rice and boutique owner Lynn Armandt.
In the wake of the Herald story about Rice and Hart, it didn’t take other reporters long to run across Weems and Armandt. Weems was quoted in a 1987 People magazine story saying she was appalled by Rice’s empty-headed chatter after her trip to Bimini with Hart aboard the Monkey Business.
“Here's this woman who was deluding herself that she was going to have a relationship with Gary, not just spend the night with him,” Weems told the magazine. “We were just amazed that he would call and whisper these sweet nothings to her.”
Armandt was even more deeply involved. She confessed that she had been on the trip to Bimini, too. And she made some money selling the tabloids pictures of Rice and Hart together. Many people suspected she was the Herald’s original source.
But Armandt was innocent according to the Times story, written by Yahoo! News correspondent Matt Bai, the author of a forthcoming book — All The Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid — that argues the Hart scandal generated cataclysmic changes in politics and journalism.
He quotes Weems as admitting she called the Herald, prompted by a story Fiedler wrote about how many newspapers were reporting rumors that Hart was a womanizer without making any effort to find out if they were true.
Weems knew they were true, she told the Times. She had been at a party at Turnberry Isle where a drunken Hart had first hit on her and then, when that wasn’t getting anywhere, on Rice. The two of them went to Bimini, and after that, Rice would not shut up or stop showing off her pictures. Weems thought Hart was “an idiot” and “a moron” for thinking he could get away with something like this, she told the Times, but also apologetic.
“I’m sorry to ruin his life,” she said. “I was young. I didn’t know it would be that way.”
So were many journalists. Though there were exceptions — in the 1880s, President Grover Cleveland was so dogged by reports he had an illegitimate child that protesters gathered at his appearances to chant “Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” — the personal lives of politicians had generally been considered off-limits by reporters. President John F. Kennedy could even carry a tempestuous affair with Marilyn Monroe, the most famous actress in the world, without a word of it leaking into print in his lifetime.
That was the standards a lot of journalists preferred to keep.
“I did not become a newspaperman to hide outside a politician’s house trying to find out whether he was in bed with somebody,” snapped New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal in 1987 in response to a question about the Herald’s Hart story.
The genie, however, was out of the bottle, as politicians from Bill Clinton to John Edwards to Mark Sanford would subsequently discover.
Fiedler, however, has no apologies, either to Hart or the institutions of American journalism. Reporters had to adopt different standards after U.S. political parties began changing their rules on nominating presidential candidates in the early 1970s.
“Before that, the role that the press assumed in the campaign process was very different,” he said. “Candidates were picked by party bosses, and it was their responsibility to evaluate character and check for scandals. The press thought the only thing it should be doing was following the candidates reporting what they were saying and doing.
“Once candidates started being chosen by voters in primaries, the press had to change the way it operated. If the press didn’t ask these kind of questions, who would? The voters needed a way to test the abilities and the character of the candidates.”
And, Fiedler added, character was a major question about Hart, even before the rumors of his sexual hijinx began surfacing. His family name had been shortened from Hartpence around the time he went into politics; he said the idea came from his now-deceased parents, but other relatives said he pushed them into it because “Hart” sounded snappier in advertising. He had claimed to be a year younger than he really was, according to his birth certificate, even using the false age in official documents. And he was extremely vague about his years as a Christian fundamentalist, preferring to talk about his more recent — and more mainstream — membership in the Presbyterian church.
“And now you had him running around and involved with the crowd on Turnberry Isle, which in the 1980s was a dangerous place where you would find drugs and fast women and fast men,” Fiedler said. “What is a presidential candidate doing hanging around there?...
“I don’t think the story was about his sex life. It was really a test of Gary Hart’s authenticity. It went to the heart of his credibility: Who was he?”