Lee Hart, the wife of former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado, who stood by him when his front-running campaign for the presidency collapsed in 1987 for having an extramarital affair, died on Friday aged 85.
Her family confirmed she had died in Lakewood Colorado after a short illness, but did not specify a cause.
Lee Hart was propelled into the nation’s consciousness when her husband, a Colorado Senator and the favorite to win the 1988 Democratic Party nomination for president, was exposed as having an affair with a young model from Florida, Donna Rice.
The affair, which both Hart and Rice denied, tore his public image as a dutiful family man to shreds, and after polling confirmed his popularity had nosedived, he pulled out of the race a few days after being exposed.
The scandal marked a watershed moment in US politics; as politicians’ private lives suddenly became fair game for the press.
A 2018 film about the incident called The Frontrunner, starring Hugh Jackman as Gary and Vera Farmiga as Lee, carried the tagline: ‘The week America went tabloid’.
Lee would stand by her husband, now aged 84, who survives along with their two children and two grandchildren.
Gary and Lee Hart on the campaign trail in 1984 during Gary’s first run for President. She was a constant companion as he made a credible run for the nomination, before losing to Walter Mondale
Gary Hart, right announces he is pulling out of the race to become the Democratic nominee after his affair was exposed. Watching on are his wife Lee, who died this week, and son John
Donna Rice, a Florida model who once appeared in an episode of Miami Vice, was said to have struck up a relationship with Gary Hart after they met on a yacht
A poster for The Frontrunner, starring Jackman, about the scandal. ‘The week America went tabloid,’ reads the tagline
Affairs of the Hart
In 1987, Gary Hart was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to become president of the United States. He would soon become embroiled in a sex scandal that cast him out of the race.
April 27, 1987
Miami Herald politics editor Tom Fielder receives an anonymous that Hart had struck up a relationship with a woman on an overnight trip on a yacht rented by lawyer-lobbyist William Broadhurst named Monkey Business.
May 1, 1987
The paper send a reporter to stake out Hart’s home in Washington DC. Hart was spotted leaving the house with Donna Rice that evening, before returning later on. The reporter confronted them, and both denied the affair.
May 3, 1987
A story appears in the Miami Herald with photos of Hart and Rice. When asked if he was having an affair, Hart said: ‘I don’t have to answer that’. Rice separately denied the allegations.
May 5, 1987
Hart suspends his campaign, his political career in tatters. He dropped out of the race three days later. Voters polled on Hart later said they disapproved of his dishonesty more than the adultery.
May 24, 1987
The National Enquirer publishes photos of Rice sitting on Hart’s lap. In a story accompanying the photos, the tabloid newspaper quoted unidentified friends of Rice’s who said she confided to them that Hart told her he was planning to divorce his wife and marry her after he was elected president.
Lee Hart, a former English teacher, was a tireless campaigner and supporter of her husband during his runs for the Senate and the White House.
Gary first came to national prominence in 1984, when he Hart the Democratic presidential nomination, losing narrowly to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.
He declined to seek re-election to the Senate in 1986 and sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988.
He was widely seen as the front-runner, but his campaign was derailed after an affair with a young model, Rice, who once appeared in Miami Vice, was exposed.
The revelations in the Miami Herald and subsequent coverage from the political press corp in Washington marked a departure from the way previous politicians’ infidelities had been considered off-limits by the press.
Hart’s public persona had been that of a loyal husband whose marriage had been strengthened by brief separations from his wife.
The presidential candidate denied that he was having an affair, as did Donna Rice.
But the mounting scandal, and his dismissive attitude towards the media coverage of it, did not endear him to voters.
His conduct ‘challenged the moralistic conventions of political behavior and ultimately paid the price for his apostasy’, Time magazine reported in 1987.
As Hart tried to keep his campaign afloat in the face of intense media coverage, Lee Hart defended him when questioned about the allegations.
‘I love my husband very much,’ she said during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire.
‘I know Gary better than anyone else, and when Gary says nothing happened, nothing happened.’
But with support plummeting, and his image as an honest husband in tatters, he pulled out of the race.
‘I said that I bend, but I don’t break, and believe me, I’m not broken,’ he said at a press conference on May 8 announcing he was dropping out.
The next year, George H.W. Bush, who had served two terms as Vice President to Ronald Reagan, would defeat Michael Dukakis to become the 41st US President.
After dropping out of the race, Hart tried to revive his campaign, and again Hart was supportive.
‘I’m doing what I always wanted to do,’ she said, ‘traveling with Gary.’
Hart went back to practicing law, and would become a special envoy to Northern Ireland in the Obama Administration, and they remained married up until her death.
In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, Hart would say: ‘This whole business of ’87 is flypaper to me. I want to get unstuck.’
Gary and Lee Hart in 1984 during his unsuccessful first run to become president
Gary and Lee Hart were constant companions on the campaign trail. After his affair was exposed, she would tell the press: ‘I’m doing what I always wanted to do, traveling with Gary.’
Gary Hart’s first run for the Presidency in 1984 would eventually be narrowly defeated by Walter Mondale
This December 1987 photo of the Harts in high spirits as they campaigned in New Hampshire
Lee Hart, left, remained a devoted wife to Gary, after his affair with Donna Rice, right, was exposed during his 1987 presidential run
But his name would forever be synonymous with the affair, and the turning point it marked in the way the press covered political sex scandals.
Donna Rice married in 1994 and became an internet safety activist and is president of Enough is Enough, an anti-child pornography not-for-profit organization.
Even before the scandal, the Harts’ marriage had had its ups and downs, the Associated Press reports.
They separated twice, in 1979 and 1981, and even announced plans to divorce, but they remained married for more than 60 years.
Lee Hart was born Oletha Ludwig in Lawrence, Kansas, on Feb. 20, 1936. She graduated from Bethany Nazarene College in 1958 and married Hart that summer.
While her husband was getting a graduate degree at Yale University, Hart taught English in Milford, Connecticut, according to The Denver Post.
The Denver Post reported that Lee Hart was passionate about nature and wildlife, especially birds, her family said.
Her son John Hart told The Post that is mother was ‘very tough and very nurturing’.
‘She was always there to comfort us. She meant a lot to us in so many different ways,’ the paper reported.
After retiring, Lee Hart traveled widely, with her husband and family, fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to Uganda to see mountain gorillas.
She is survived by her husband; her two children, John and Andrea Hart; her sister, former U.S. Representative Martha Keys of Kansas; and two grandchildren.