Skip to main content

Features

Then and Now

Ten years after her involvement with Gary Hart shipwrecked a presidential campaign, Donna Rice Hughes still deals in monkey business--but she's on the other side now

from Washington

Standing in the glare of TV lights, with microphones thrust at her from every direction, Donna Rice Hughes must have had a strong sense of deja vu. It was March 15, and the Supreme Court had just heard oral arguments regarding the Communications Decency Act, Congress's attempt to control pornography on the Internet. The statue of a blindfolded Justice towered behind her as Mrs. Hughes explained once again to the media how computer porn undermines traditional family values.

Justice might have been excused for lifting her blindfold just a bit to check out the rather unlikely scene below. After all, the attractive blonde basking in the media spotlight had spent most of the previous decade avoiding the media. This woman waxing eloquent about family values in her soft southern drawl was best known for saying simply "no comment" to all press inquiries. Most ironically of all, this implacable opponent of porn was once widely expected to pose for Playboy or Penthouse.

The irony isn't lost on Mrs. Hughes herself. "I think God must have a sense of humor," she says with a laugh. "It's the kind of thing you can't take credit for yourself because I would have never picked this--ever, ever, ever."

It has been 10 years since Mrs. Hughes was last a media celebrity. She wasn't Hughes then--just Donna Rice. And instead of standing before the Supreme Court, she was sitting on a Bimini boat dock near a yacht named Monkey Business. On a man's lap. A man who was running for president of the United States.

When Gary Hart's presidential campaign collapsed following allegations of an affair with Donna Rice (to this day, neither of them has said exactly what occurred), no one could have predicted that 10 years later she would be an outspoken advocate for Judeo-Christian family values. "The last thing I wanted to get into was a controversy," Mrs. Hughes says of her decision three years ago to serve as spokeswoman for Enough Is Enough, a Washington-based anti-porn group. "I'd been trying to stay out of controversy for seven years, and this was a stigmatized, sexually charged issue. I'm like, 'God, You can't be serious!' But apparently he was, and he's really used it in my life, given me an opportunity to be involved in something important."

That sense of being part of a cause has helped Mrs. Hughes put the past behind her. She says that after the Monkey Business photo hit the newsstands, "I made a decision very early on [after a brief stint modeling No Excuses jeans] that I did not want to exploit my notoriety, that I wanted the pain I was going through to count for something bigger than me. I could've made millions of dollars and furthered my career and exonerated myself, [but] I never said anything about it, never posed for Playboy, any of that stuff."

Despite the temptation to cash in on her 15 minutes of fame, Mrs. Hughes chose to take a less-traveled road. "I returned to my faith," she says simply. "I was brought up in church and I had been active from the time I was in the ninth grade all the way into college. While all the other kids were out partying, I was in Bible studies. I was a summer missionary in Anderson, S.C., my sophomore year in college."

After she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from the University of South Carolina, however, things started to change. She moved to New York and began a career in marketing and modeling. Eager for company and far from her Christian friends, she started dating men who were not believers. One of those men raped her. She was 22 years old. She was a virgin.

"That kind of set me back," she says in quiet understatement. "I didn't realize it at the time--in fact I never even told anybody--but I gravitated toward some dysfunctional relationships. I just kind of left my faith on the shelf and didn't realize I was doing it." With her faith still on the shelf, she met rocker Don Henley, who introduced her to a handsome young Coloradan who seemed charming and successful. "I went out with this guy twice and didn't even know he was married the first time," she insists.

She found out soon enough, thanks to two newspaper reporters who were following Gary Hart's every move. While the implosion of the Hart campaign was spectacularly public, Mrs. Hughes turned private and introspective. "When the scandal happened in 1987, I couldn't believe I had gotten so far from where I had started with the Lord. It got my attention. I fell on my rear end in front of the world, and I knew that the way back was the way of the cross. It was years and years of healing and walking through an intense time of embarrassment by the media." The hard part, she says, was "just choosing silence and waiting for God to bring about the right opportunities down the road if he ever wanted to."

Oddly enough, if the scandal had happened in 1997 instead of 1987, Mrs. Hughes probably wouldn't have needed to be quite so patient. Back then, the mere rumor of an affair was enough to end a political career. Ten years--and scores of scandals--later, the public has become jaded. Reports of marital infidelity hardly raise an eyebrow anymore, much less lower a politician's approval rating. Voters seem to have decided that extramarital affairs have nothing to do with affairs of state.

The new tolerance applies to politicians of both parties. Since Gary Hart was discovered monkeying around, prominent Democrats from Edward Kennedy to Bill Clinton have weathered brief storms of controversy about their private lives. More remarkable, perhaps, is the nation's collective shrug when Republican politicians are caught violating the family values they claim to champion.

Take the bizarre case of Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice. The two-term Republican was nearly killed last November when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his Jeep into a ravine along a lonely stretch of road between Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi's capital. Newspapers soon revealed that he had been spotted in a Memphis restaurant sipping wine and holding hands with a woman. Though the woman's identity was unknown, she clearly was not the governor's wife, Pat, who was in France at the time.

Democrats immediately tried to point out that the governor who fought to keep the Ten Commandments hanging on courthouse walls was apparently violating them in his private life. But 75 percent of Mississippians in a recent poll said they were satisfied with Mr. Fordice's explanation of events, which, interestingly enough, was hardly a denial. After several months of silence, the governor simply announced in January that the accident had wiped about two weeks out of his memory, including the crucial trip to Memphis. Mrs. Fordice, meanwhile, would only say that she "didn't quiz him" about the whole incident. Case closed.

Does Donna Rice Hughes believe she would have been treated differently had the Gary Hart scandal occurred now? "Oh definitely," she breaks in before the question is completed. "People aren't as scandalized anymore. We're more permissive of things. The silence [of the press] seems overwhelming.

"We've gone from a period in which a candidate's private life was an open book to one in which professional qualifications are all that seem to matter. We're just desensitized and probably sick of it. We should look for a balance. There is an appropriate amount of information that would be helpful to voters in deciding who they would like to elect to public office, and it's not just about professional skills, but issues involving character."

Though she knows that her life would have been much easier had her scandal occurred in 1997, Mrs. Hughes is not so sure that "easier" necessarily means "better." "I've always believed that it happened the way it did for a reason and that God knew how much I could handle," she says. "Part of what added to the crisis and the suffering was the fact that the scandal only perpetuated itself in the media. For a year and a half there was no letup. That forced me to continually let go and deal with it God's way. Any time you're in the valley for a long time, the more purging opportunities God has in your life."

Bob Jones

Bob Jones