It was May 1987, and the USA was gearing up for a presidential election.
Trump wasn’t running. Donald Trump was still a real estate developer in New York City, and still married to his first wife, Ivana Trump.
Ronald Reagan was nearing the end of his second term. George H.W. Bush, his vice president, was Reagan’s heir-apparent.
The Democrats, out of office for two presidential terms, were looking for a new standard-bearer. The likely favorite was Gary Hart, a 51-year-old Senator from Colorado.
Hart was youthful and photogenic. In an era when most Americans over the age of 35 could remember John F. Kennedy in office, many folks said that Hart reminded them of JFK.
And then that infamous photo appeared in the National Enquirer, the one with Hart (who was married) seated beneath a dock with Donna Rice, his considerably younger lover.
The Democrats—not the Republicans–subsequently rejected the charismatic Hart. Instead, Michael Dukakis, the stiff, technocratic ex-governor of Massachusetts, won the Democratic nomination in 1988.
The Democrats lost the general election in an epic landslide. (This was the last time the People’s Republic of California went for the GOP in a presidential election, by the way.)
America was a different country in 1987. It’s difficult to know how much of a scandal a similar situation would even be today.
But one thing is for certain: Gary Hart’s extramarital affair sunk his political career, and possibly changed the course of history.
Would Gary Hart have beaten Bush in 1988? We just don’t know—but it’s certainly possible.
Here’s a 2017 article from American Heritage with more details about the Gary Hart sex scandal of 1987.