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Lee Hart: The Public Face of a Political Marriage

The day news broke that presidential candidate Gary Hart, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 1988, had been spotted in Washington with a young blonde woman, Joe Trippi was dispatched to attend to the candidate’s wife. Trippi — then a young aide for Hart’s team — drove from campaign headquarters in Denver to the Harts’ cabin outside Kittredge, in a canyon novelistically named Troublesome Gulch. Outside, he found a swarm of reporters and photographers pressing at the gates with the fervor of Hollywood paparazzi. Inside, he found Lee Hart, Gary’s wife of more than 30 years, treating the situation with gallows humor.

“I think the first time I met her that morning, she was with some friends joking, ‘I should cut his thing off. We should have cut all their things off,’” Trippi, now a veteran political consultant, recalls. “I remember I didn’t know whether she was joking or not, so I’ve got my hands over my crotch.”

Lee Hart didn’t attack, of course — nor did she leave her husband during or after that torrid stretch of 1987. Long after the reporters left and the scandal faded, that loyalty became the defining characteristic of her public life: When she died in April at age 85, the first line of the Associated Press obituary said she “stood by” her husband as his candidacy tottered. There is still vigorous debate over whether the Hart affair marked a turning point in American politics, when the media went sensational and private lives became public fodder, as Matt Bai asserts in his 2014 book, All the Truth Is Out. Trippi contends that the frenzy over Hart just inured the press and public to future scandals. Either way, Lee Hart’s own image became collateral damage. Such is the fate of a political spouse when scandal hits, and personality, ambition and complex relationships flatten into a single, searingly public act of forgiveness.

Born in Kansas as Oletha Ludwig, Lee had taught high school English while Gary, her college sweetheart, studied law and religion at Yale. She then turned to raising their two children, before selling real estate in Maryland while her husband was in the Senate. By the time he first ran for president, in 1984, he and Lee had been married for 25 years, and had been separated twice. In a Washington Post profile by Elisabeth Bumiller that year, Lee was surprisingly forthright about the communication problems that had roiled her marriage and the rumors of Gary’s infidelity. “Lee Hart is well aware of her husband’s reputation as a womanizer,” Bumiller wrote. But she raised the possibility that the public wouldn’t care: “Washington is dining out on every bit of gossip about the Harts’ personal lives, but people also are speculating that the rest of the country may well accept Hart as the contemporary candidate, with contemporary problems — like everyone else.”

It was a stunning bit of foreshadowing that turned out not to be correct. When Hart’s scandal broke three years later, the public fascination was white-hot. In part, that’s because the story was filled with irresistibly colorful details, like a stakeout and a boat named “Monkey Business.” In part, it’s because Gary Hart seemed to display a Shakespearean level of hubris. Still, as the crisis unfolded, Trippi recalls, Lee directed her fury at the press. She was so livid about the spectacle outside her house — some reporters, Trippi says, were trying to break through the windows — that she refused to talk to “those vultures” for days, despite the campaign’s best efforts. In the end, she was exfiltrated in a Hollywood-style secret mission, hunched in Trippi’s van in the middle of the night and whisked on a private jet to New Hampshire, where she finally spoke, beside Gary, before an entirely different press corps.

But the idea that Lee would defend her husband was never in doubt, Trippi says. At one point during the dayslong standoff at Troublesome Gulch, he recalls that Lee took him for a picnic up a hill, beyond where the press could see them. “Gary called me last night,” she reported that day, “and I told him, ‘Gary, don’t worry about this. You need to be the president. We’ll get through this.’” This was a matter, not of marital reconciliation, but of missionary zeal, Trippi says: The Harts, both raised in evangelical households, regarded the campaign with an almost religious sense of purpose. “It wasn’t something either of them particularly wanted, but it was his duty and hers … because of what he saw as where the country was headed and what needed to be done,” Trippi says today. “He thought he was the only one out there, and she did, too.”

One could say that all longstanding marriages are, in part, business arrangements; the flush of first romance gives way to a steadier sort of love that competes for attention with bills, obligations, childrearing questions, logistical plans. A political marriage is both a business arrangement and an actual job. The spouse’s explicit role is to humanize the candidate, vouch for his or her character, make the public feel warm and connected. Lee was good at that, according to reports at the time, which described her as charming on the campaign trail, extroverted and talkative, where her husband was cerebral and aloof.

But the moment a scandal hits, the spouse’s job shifts; now, it’s about a parade of manners before a leering public. (In The Front Runner, Jason Reitman’s 2018 movie about the Hart scandal, the Lee character, played by Vera Farmiga, checks all the boxes, alternately glaring, scolding and crying.) The public often seems to root for a broken political marriage to end, as double punishment for the cheater; when Jenny Sanford avoided the 2009 press conference where her then-husband, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, confessed to philandering, she was hailed as a kind of folk hero. Forgiveness is often treated as a cynical act, a ruse. In a scathing Vanity Fair article after the Hart scandal broke, Gail Sheehy suggested that Lee had stayed in an unloving marriage for the sake of her own ambition: “She had tried independence and found it a tough row to hoe. It would be easier to achieve her own ends by advancing her husband.”

That’s the kind of movie-level motive the public likes to imagine. But it doesn’t capture the complexities of an actual marriage, with its secrets and goals and intimacies and private understandings. In real life, the Harts remained together for 34 more years. Her Denver Post obituary notes that Lee settled into a quiet, private life, traveling with her family, spending time in nature, fulfilling a longtime wish to see gorillas in the wild in Uganda. She also stayed true to her partnership with Gary and to the missionary spirit that Trippi remembered. In a 2014 New York Times Magazine article, Bai recounted interviewing Gary Hart in the study of the couple’s home in the early aughts, when Lee entered to refill their water glasses, and the couple launched into a conversation about the past:

Lee: Gary feels guilty, because he feels like he could have been a very good president.

Gary: I wouldn’t call it guilt.

Lee: No. Well.

Gary: It’s not guilt, babe. It’s a sense of obligation.

Lee: Yeah, OK. That’s better. Perfect.

There’s a lot to unpack in that exchange: the casual affection, the mix of clinical distance and still-acute regret, the acknowledgment of flaws and their consequences, the quiet acceptance of fate. A scandal that once roiled the universe had, over time, faded into anecdotes and wistful what-ifs. But the marriage remained. That much was real.

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