In his savage obituary of Richard Nixon, Hunter S Thompson summed up the way he had reported on the former President throughout his life: “I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”
In the mid- 20th century, these were transgressive things for a journalist to say about an American president. At the time, Thompson was in a tiny minority of journalists prepared to treat politicians as they treated anyone else in the news.
Presidents Roosevelt, Johnson and Kennedy, for example, all had long-term affairs that never made it into the press – such matters were considered private. The Front Runner is a film about the point at which this changed.
The film tells the story of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), a senator from Colorado who was widely seen as the Democrats’ best hope of winning the 1988 US presidential election, but whose candidacy came to a bitter end when the Miami Herald published a story that claimed he had committed infidelity.
The current President of the United States achieved the White House despite a recording in which he appeared to boast about grabbing women “by the pussy” and accusations of sexual misconduct from at least 22 women (Trump denies all charges).
That Hart’s campaign could have been destroyed by a single night of (alleged) infidelity is a graphic illustration of how much politics has changed in such a short time.
But for journalists, the way in which The Front Runner tells this story comes as something of a slap in the face. Because the film seems to be saying that culprit for this downfall – Hart’s and, by extension, America’s – is not the political system or society, or even Hart himself, but the press, who had the temerity to expose his affair.
The reporter from the Miami Herald is portrayed as a sweaty amateur who is outclassed by the proper political journos and resorts to the apparently underhand tactics of waiting outside Hart’s house.
There is a lot for journos to enjoy, from tense interview scenes to fast-paced shoe-leather graft and last-minute, late-night editing.
Eventually, the Herald team pins Hart down in an alleyway and hastily interview him – this happened in real life, but in the film it appears to be an accident in which Hart maintains his dignity while the hapless hacks are played for laughs.
Once the secret is out, however, even the high-minded writers of the Washington Post can’t ignore the grubby truth the Herald has uncovered. The press besiege Hart’s wife and, it is implied, ruin his campaign by asking him to explain his actions.
Hart, in one particularly loaded scene, warns a press conference that because of their irresponsible reporting of his infidelity America may, to paraphrase Jefferson, “get the leaders we deserve”.
The Front Runner is a very well-made, highly watchable film that will tell you a lot about American politics, but it seems oddly tone-deaf about journalism.
Given last month one Guardian journalist defended a politician’s violent threat towards a Times reporter, it must be asked why so many in the media seem to think that journalists have a duty to politics before the truth.
The Front Runner is in cinemas from 11 January.
Picture: Sony Pictures CTMG
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