He has shot white-water rapids on a raft and dangled by his fingertips from a 500-foot-high ledge—claiming (to his campaign staffers' horror) to "love danger." But now it appears that Gary Hart's biggest risks have been taken indoors. For years his reputation as a womanizer has dogged his political career. One of the top advisers on his last campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination recently predicted that Hart could be mortally wounded "if he can't keep his pants on." Yet despite all the talk, Hart always eluded fatal embarrassment, perhaps because of an unwritten journalists' code that has protected Presidents from Grover Cleveland to JFK from disclosure of their sexual indiscretions.
Then came May Day. That Friday evening, Hart, 50, entered his Washington town house with Donna Rice, 29, an aspiring actress and sometime model. Rice stayed awhile, although whether she remained through the night or left unseen by a back door may well remain a mystery. The Miami Herald, acting on a tip, had sent a team of two reporters, two editors and one photographer to stand vigil outside Hart's home all weekend. Although the observers failed to watch all the doors all the time, the paper reported that Rice "spent Friday night and most of Saturday there." Both Hart and Rice said the story was filled with falsehoods and strongly denied even sleeping in the same house, much less together. "I'm more attracted to younger men," said Rice.
Finally even Hart had to admit to a gross offense against the appearance of propriety. Donna Rice, who once posed seminude for a poster promoting a Country & Western bar (the bar folded anyway), apparently was more sensitive to the issue than he. In a transcript of an interview released by her lawyer, Rice described her doubts. "I wondered what anyone would think of this if they were to see it," she said of her visit to his Capitol Hill town house that night. "But I wasn't worried about it because it didn't seem any concern of his—and he's the one running for President."
Rice is an undeniable beauty with Phi Beta Kappa brains who in the past several years has been known mostly by the glamorous male company she keeps. She has dated Prince Albert of Monaco and chummed around with Don Johnson of Miami Vice and Danny Sullivan, winner of the Indianapolis 500. Not all her friends are celebrities, but few appear to be commonplace. One of her boyfriends, James Parks, is in prison on a narcotics conviction, yet she remains in touch with him out of loyalty. She says: "I'm never one to abandon a sinking ship," and there are reports that the romance is very much alive.
In December Rice spent two weeks with rock singer Don Henley, formerly of the Eagles. It was at a party thrown by Henley at his home in Aspen, Colo, last New Year's Eve that Donna met Hart. She says he came up and introduced himself. "I knew who he was, but almost everyone at the party was a celebrity, so I didn't take much notice of Hart." Asked what mutual interests the aspiring actress and the aspiring President might have in common, her friends couldn't think of any.
By all accounts, this is not the sort of life Donna Rice's parents, anguished over their daughter's sudden notoriety, envisioned for her when she was growing up. She lived in Tallahassee, Fla. until she was 13. Then the family moved to Irmo, S.C., a small (pop. 11,000) suburb of Columbia that hosts the annual Okra Strut Festival. Her mother, Miriam, describes Donna as "a fine Christian girl." She says her daughter joined a school gymnastic group called the Tumbling Tots, was active in church missionary groups, sang in the church choir, participated in church youth activities, became a Girl Scout, worked summers in a pizza parlor and once had ambitions of becoming a doctor. Donna says she began making commercials when she was 13. She also took modeling lessons. Says Miriam: "You have to live in Columbia to understand that. All the girls were taking modeling. I thought the basic course would be good for her to learn to walk properly and have poise."
Rice attended the University of South Carolina, where she majored in biology, became the head cheerleader and graduated magna cum laude. She entered the Miss World Contest in 1980, and after becoming Miss South Carolina, the 5'6", 105-lb. fledgling beauty queen moved to New York to make modeling and acting her career. She gave up modeling four years ago, although it couldn't have been because acting was taking up too much of her time. Her career so far has consisted mainly of a walk-on part on Dallas, a two-line part on an episode of Miami Vice, a brief appearance on the soap One Life To Live and a role in a movie entitled The Last Plane Out. She was cast in the movie as a secretary to star Jan-Michael Vincent, but, according to producer Jack Cox, she was so nervous in her one scene that it had to be cut. In 1986 Donna Rice earned about $1,000 as an actress.
For the past three years Rice has lived and worked in the Miami area. She rents a $450-a-month fourth-floor condominium apartment on Harbor Island in North Bay Village and represents the Wyeth pharmaceutical company, calling on doctors and hospitals as the territory manager for Dade County. "It's a very respectable job, and I'm one of the top salespersons in the country for our company," she says. Occasionally she also finds work in TV commercials. Her mother says, "Everybody seems to be impressed with her as a person and as a professional." Taking down a photograph of her daughter, she explains proudly, "People say she's not just pretty, she's pretty inside."
Then, her voice breaking, Miriam continues: "It's just a tragedy, it really is, to see someone with her kind of reputation just pulled through the sludge and the scandal."
Although there are reports that Rice had dinner with Hart at least twice in February at a Bal Harbour restaurant, she says she didn't see him from New Year's Eve until the weekend of March 1. She and friends, she says in the interview transcript, left a party that weekend to stroll aboard a yacht chartered by a friend of theirs. "So we walked on the boat," she recalls, "and lo and behold, there were two gentlemen there who came to be known as Bill Broadhurst [a Washington attorney] and Gary Hart. Well, I was very embarrassed. Of course everybody else was ready to strike up a doo-dah or whatever, but I had met Hart January 1, 1987 and apologized for the intrusion and whatnot...." The two chatted and, says Donna, Hart took her telephone number. "I had mentioned I was very interested in getting into fund raising," she says. "So that was what prompted my giving him my number."
What followed should gladden the heart of any young political volunteer who believes one must toil in obscurity for years before being noticed. Two days after their meeting at the party, she and Hart were together on a boat (named Monkey Business) bound for Bimini. "It was Hart who called and asked me to go," Donna says.
The boating trip was arranged by Broadhurst, a former associate of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and a longtime friend of Hart's. One of Donna's friends, Lynn Armandt, also joined the party. The trip was planned as a cruise on Florida's Intercoastal Waterway, Rice says, but then, somehow, they ended up in Bimini and then, somehow, the customs office closed before they knew it "and we were stuck" overnight. She adds that the women slept aboard Monkey Business, the men on a fishing boat that Broadhurst kept on the island. Hart, she says, was a gentleman: "If I had felt there was something more in his intentions I would have been very upset. I don't think he was coming on to me. He had been working hard and was down for relaxation. He didn't give me the impression he was attracted to me, and I wasn't attracted to him."
Despite their mutual lack of interest, her visit to Washington followed soon afterward. Rice describes that weekend as one filled with good food and fellowship. Present were the same four people: Hart, Broadhurst, Armandt and Rice. The wives of both men were out of town. This is Rice's version of the events of that weekend:
On Friday night the foursome spent an hour at Hart's town house, then dined on steak, corn and artichokes at Broadhurst's house, a few minutes' walk away. They returned to Hart's house, where Donna picked up an address book she had accidentally left behind. The three of them departed, leaving the presidential candidate to sleep alone. (The Herald story said Broadhurst and Armandt left, but Rice did not.) In the morning, Rice says, she returned to Hart's house with a manila envelope that Broadhurst had asked her to deliver, although Armandt and Broadhurst came to the house a short time later. Then they all went for a drive to Mount Vernon, past the home of the President who never told a lie.
The rest of the day was filled with meals, strolls and apartment hunting for Armandt, who planned to move to Washington to become Broadhurst's personal social hostess. After dropping Hart off at his house again, Rice, Broadhurst and Armandt watched the Kentucky Derby, then they all rejoined Hart for a chicken dinner. "All four of us at Bill's," Rice says. "About 10:30 p.m. Then Gary and I [went] out for a walk, and he saw someone who looked suspicious...." This was Hart's first meeting with the Miami Herald reporters. "I have not spoken to him since."
Hart's friendships with the opposite sex, like Rice's, have been anything but commonplace. For a number of years he had a Native American spiritual adviser, a woman named Marilyn Young-bird, and during the 1984 campaign he had at least one provocative encounter with actress Debra Winger. Although she apparently spent only two days with his campaign, at 10 p.m. one evening she was seen entering his hotel room. For the next six hours a curious observer telephoned Winger's room (which was on Hart's floor) every 30 minutes. Winger finally answered at 4 a.m. A not-so-secretive Secret Service agent assigned to his door later said that Winger had left Hart's room at 3:45 a.m.
No one would have noticed, or cared, if the rumors about Hart's womanizing were not so persistent. One of his girlfriends was a buxom, flamboyant woman who bragged around Washington about the good times she and Hart enjoyed. Another was a quieter woman, but Hart provided the daring here by several times parking his car on the street outside her apartment, emerging the next morning and driving off. The only doubt about this relationship is whether it occurred while he was separated from or still with his wife; the woman says he was separated, but other sources say he was not.
Back in 1972 Hart told the Washington Post, "I don't want to do the safe things. Just as challenge and insecurity frighten most people, security and safety frighten me. You miss too much. I'm a frustrated race-car driver." A friend of his amended that. "If you want to know the truth," this friend said, "Gary Hart would rather be Warren Beatty."
There is surely precedent in American presidential history for politicians to have close personal female friends who are not their wives. Inasmuch as Grover Cleveland had Maria Halpin, Franklin Roosevelt had Lucy Mercer, Dwight Eisenhower had Kay Summersby and John Kennedy had too many to mention, the mere fact that a candidate spends time with a beautiful woman, in all fairness, should not be fatal to a political career. What is most baffling about Hart's behavior is his apparently cold-blooded willingness to risk his reputation, his family and his chance at the Presidency for trivial pursuits. During the question-and-answer session that followed his speech in New York last week, he never once mentioned Donna Rice by name. He referred to her only as "the woman in question," and he seemed to have dismissed her entirely from his life.
As self-destructive as his encounters with Rice have been, Hart is above all an experienced, calculating politician who seems to understand that he is no longer toying with political extinction but actually facing it. Having fulfilled his wish for the race-car driver's ultimate thrill, he finds himself now in the most treacherous turn of his life, at the moment when the tires start to slide.
—Written by Alan Richman from bureau reports