Shot Through the Hart: A Brief (and Incomplete) Rhetorical History of Character Assassination in Politics


Nancy Wong: Colorado Democratic Senator Gary Hart at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California (CC)

by Jennifer Keohane

If you don’t study American politics or weren’t of voting age in the 1980s, you have probably never heard the name “Gary Hart”. Yet Gary Hart was once an immediately recognisable political dynamo for the Democratic Party. Young, rugged and handsome, Hart was supposed to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1988. How did he fall from grace? In short, Hart was a target of character assassination. Journalists for the Miami Herald got an anonymous tip that he was having an extramarital affair and pursued the lead. What happened next was the stuff of movies (and indeed became a 2018 film entitled The Front Runner).

Political journalists knew about Hart’s previous flirtations, but, as per custom, they largely left his personal life out of their coverage. When rumours of Hart’s affairs persisted, out of frustration he challenged the media to prove it. “Follow me around,” he declared. “I don’t care.” So they did. Herald journalists staked out his Washington, D.C. town house, securing the proof they needed to break the story.

Hart, of course, did not go on to become president or even to secure the Democratic nomination. He dropped out of the race.

In some ways, Hart was caught in the crosswinds of prominent changes that he ignored at his peril. His disdain for the press was well known, which may have made them more likely to air his dirty laundry. Moreover, technological changes like lighter-weight cameras and fax machines made it easier for journalists to engage in and disseminate their snooping.

On another level, Hart’s downfall illustrates an age-old axiom that character matters for public figures. The story, of course, was about far more than an extramarital affair. It was about whether Hart had the character to be president. Indeed, Hart’s withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race was the direct result of character attacks against him that stemmed from the affair and his continued denial of its existence. Hart hadn’t committed a crime, nor had his political platform lost popularity. Instead, his reputation – deeply linked to his character – was damaged beyond repair.

The Hart case is often seen as a turning point for making U.S. politicians’ private lives unabashedly public and newsworthy. Journalist Matt Bai called it the first modern political scandal. Yet every public figure is and always has been a potential target for character assassination. Because character assassination underlies a universal human motivation – to take down another person through strategic communication – its defining tenets and rhetorical hallmarks have remained relatively stable throughout history. Even those decrying the contemporary rise of “cancel culture”, a form of character assassination wherein an individual is silenced or deplatformed, are in fact pointing to a phenomenon with historical antecedents. While technological advancements and shifts in social norms do impact the practice of character assassination, the changes are usually a matter of degree. The speed and intensity at which scandal came at Hart was new, but much of the rhetoric was not.

Character assassination is the intentional destruction of a person’s reputation or credibility through strategic communication. Character attacks are aimed at a public and designed to influence this public’s perception of the targeted individual. Because we tend to think of character as a stable set of an individual’s features, personality traits, behaviours and emotional tendencies, it is more accurate to that say character assassination is about the public’s perception of a target’s character. Indeed, the perception of Hart as a trustworthy leader with integrity was irreparably damaged by the news of his affairs and his willingness to deny what was rapidly being documented in the press.

The Hart case also illustrates some of character assassination’s typical rhetorical strategies. While the types of character attacks may overlap, they generally fit into several categories. The Herald and other journalists attacked Hart using allegations – accusatory statements (true or false) about his flawed moral character. Newspapers and pundits alleged Hart to be a womaniser and a hypocrite for touting a campaign run on the highest ethical values while engaging in immoral behaviour. Throughout history, character assassins have hurled allegations at their targets. Today, allegations of corruption or duplicity, true or false, with or without evidence, are bandied about on political campaigns across the world.

A supplement to allegations is name-calling or labelling, a rhetorical strategy whereby assassins foist catchy and damaging labels – often only one word – on their targets. Hart’s insistence that he had done nothing wrong made it easy for commentators to brand him a “liar” as evidence emerged casting doubt on his claimed innocence. Throughout U.S. history, being labelled a “Communist” could be enough to warrant dismissal from a job. If these attacks make a label “stick” to their target, they can be incredibly successful.

Likewise, journalists engaged in exposing – when compromising material is made public as a form of attack. Miami Herald journalists, because of their stakeout, were able to confirm the presence of a young blonde woman in Hart’s townhouse. Later, journalists unearthed a compromising photo of Donna Rice sitting in Hart’s lap in front of a yacht appropriately named “Monkey Business”. In making these photos public, journalists exposed Hart and provided strong evidence for his extramarital affairs. Exposing, too, has a long rhetorical history and sometimes even includes doctored evidence. For example, during the American Revolution, counterfeit letters falsely exposed George Washington as an insincere rebel. In these letters, Washington purportedly professed his sympathy for the King of England and expressed doubts about American independence. It later turned out that these letters were forgeries, created to besmirch his name and damage his credibility as the leader of the Continental Army.

Character assassins throughout history have also used ridicule to mock their targets and prevent the public from taking them seriously. Just like today’s late-night talk show hosts continually lampooning politicians, Johnny Carson ridiculed Hart in one of his monologues as his studio audience laughed along. “I am going to ask you tonight to leave by the front entrance,” he said, referring to public suspicion surrounding why Hart and Rice were coming and going via the back door of his townhouse. “I don’t want anyone to say we spent the night together,” Carson chuckled. Mocking plays were also common in the ancient world, as Aristophanes’s the Knights shows in its thinly veiled scorn of Athenian politician Cleon.

It only took five days from the publication of the Miami Herald story to Hart’s withdrawal from the race. The maelstrom of media coverage created a sex scandal never before seen in American politics. Likewise, the willingness of journalists to probe Hart’s private life under the amorphous label of character marked a sea change in journalistic coverage of politicians. In the past, character assassins were more often opponents, pundits or commentators not journalists for mainstream papers. Indeed, editors and columnists of the flagship papers fervently debated the implications, with many lamenting that journalism had gone “tabloid”. So the Hart scandal inaugurated some new trends. However, this represented a fresh venue for character assassination, not a new rhetoric.

Communication, and hence character assassination, always adapts to the affordances of new technology. The rise of social media has spawned new venues in which attacks can circulate. Social media tools have undoubtedly “democratised” the ability to attack and rendered cyberbullying a worrisome trend among young people. While Hart was the target of professional journalists who were asking new questions and sending information faster than before, today anyone with a smart phone can make allegations and spread rumours that damage reputations. In the past, when kings and emperors controlled information flow, it was far easier to censor defamatory statements.

It may be tempting to dismiss the Hart case as a symptom of a two-party political system with very partisan primary elections and a rabid U.S. media. However, character attacks can be found in every society scholars at the Character Assassination and Reputation Politics (CARP) research lab have investigated. Attacks exist across cultures and time periods. Egyptian Pharaohs chiselled the likenesses of their predecessors off buildings or defaced their sarcophagi a form of character attack called erasing. Roman lawmakers like Cicero castigated their colleagues in the Senate often without any evidence that their aspersions were true. French revolutionaries toppled the statues of disgraced leaders in the eighteenth century, a tactic that has also greeted the fall of Communist regimes across the globe. In the United States, statue removal and destruction marks a move away from glorifying a Confederate past.

Many lament today’s political polarisation and insist upon the general nastiness and abundance of character attacks as a new phenomenon driven by social media. To make these claims is to ignore history. Character attacks have thrived in every society past or present, democratic or autocratic, collectivist or individualist since people always seek to take down or one up others. A quick search through the online database of centuries of attacks that researchers at CARP Lab have compiled confirms this. And politicians continue to use them because they work. This is not to say that social media hasn’t changed who can launch attacks and how, but to pine for a political past free of personal invective is a fiction. As rhetorical critic Jeremy Engels argues, invective was, in fact, central to negotiating the tensions of democratic life in the early U.S. republic.

To debate whether this is good or bad is, in some ways, beside the point. It simply is.

On the other hand, to study character attacks is to wrestle with a host of ethical questions. Centrally: Can character attacks ever be justified as a communication strategy? While it is likely impossible to answer that question definitively, it seems worthwhile to note that some attacks, like the ones against Hart, are based in exposing the truth. Hart was having an extramarital affair and he lied about it while insisting it was no one’s business. Likewise, those who speak out against sexual harassment and expose the misdeeds of (usually powerful) men in entertainment or politics are engaging in character assassination by deliberately attacking their reputations. These allegations are important in securing more equitable and safer workplaces for all. So perhaps we might insist that ethical attacks are based in truth (a notoriously slippery concept, to be sure).

Perhaps we might also insist that attacks in politics be relevant to the central debate at hand whether one of policy or electability. Rhetorician and logician Douglas Walton argued that ad hominem attacks usually treated as logical fallacies could be quite reasonable if they were relevant. If we believe that character matters for elected leaders, then it seems obvious that Hart’s affair was relevant to his electability as president. Yet this position also seems troublesome in that it suggests that public figures have scant claims to privacy whatsoever. In 1988, Democratic voters overwhelmingly felt that Hart’s affair was both relevant and damning to his presidential chances.

The story of Gary Hart, the Miami Herald and the yacht called “Monkey Business” in some ways represents a fundamental redefinition of the relationship between politicians, the press and the public. In many other ways, it represents political business as usual. It is, at its core, a story of exposing damaging information to harm a reputation. And that is a tale as old as time.

About the Author

Jennifer Keohane is assistant professor in the Klein Family School of Communications Design at the University of Baltimore. She is one of the co-founders of the CARP Research Lab, where she studies character attacks against women political leaders. She holds a PhD in rhetoric from the University of Wisconsin.

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