In 1987, Senator Gary Hart of Colorado was clearly a serious candidate for president of the United States. He was intelligent, articulate and handsome. He had a law degree from Yale and another degree from Oxford. He was full of confidence about his ability to deal with foreign affairs and anything else a president would face. The number of Democrats who hoped to nominate him in 1988 was steadily increasing.
But his plans were destroyed by news of his extramarital affair or affairs.
A large part of the electorate was horrified when newspapers and television reported on his involvement with one or two young models. His support suddenly dissipated. He withdrew his candidacy.
In late 1987, he returned to the race, declaring "Let's let the people decide!" In the New Hampshire primary he received about four per cent of the vote. In later contests he won no more than five per cent. He withdrew from the campaign a second time. He blamed the reporters who revealed his private life. He later recalled, "I watched journalists become animals, literally" -- a clear demonstration that he didn't know the meaning of the word "literally."
In recent years headlines have described him as "ex-presidential hopeful."
In 2002 he began a speaking tour to test the waters for a new presidential run but decided the public reaction didn't justify another attempt. He's held several federal appointments over the years, but he didn't again attract widespread attention until the appearance this season of a movie about his scandal, The Front Runner.
The producers had to explain how important he once was.
If we compare Hart's fate with Donald Trump's, we can learn something essential about the shaping and reshaping of public opinion.
Before the 2016 election, Trump or his agents paid two porn-connected women to remain silent about his affairs with them. This was done in the belief that Trump would be punished by the voters for extramarital sex.
But, as Jeet Heer recently pointed out in The New Republic, there's no reason to think this assumption is true. As the details of the Trump stories became public, they provoked only widespread indifference.
He may have disturbed more of his supporters when he was recorded advising would-be harassers to grab women by their pussies.
As Heer sees it, "Trump's ascendancy over the Republican party marks a little noticed, but real shift in American politics: Social conservatives, who once led the crusade against smut, have made their peace with a porn-saturated culture."
Trump's polls have remained steady. His followers absorb the gossip about him and respond: big deal.
Various aspects of feminism, and the defeat of censorship, have contributed to this change. It's summarized by the vague but omnipresent "sex-positive movement," which embraced safe and consensual sex.
Feminism made a great step forward when it chose to study female sexuality. Sex-positivity (a term invented by Wilhelm Reich) regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable.
It makes no moral distinctions among types of sex, regarding choice as a matter of personal preference. It travels through society under various names but affects most levels of Western society and culture. Those who reject the idea can expect to be considered old fogeys.
Most of us are accustomed to seeing sex acted out in movies and television with a precision that would have been unthinkable (and probably illegal) a few years ago.
Feminism affects all aspects of society, including language. Women nowadays use words that their mothers universally deplored. The other day in The New York Times, the editor of Glamour magazine, Samantha Barry, was being interviewed about her work. "I drop the F-bomb now and then," she said.