Ship of State

"Today, there is a secret plan to deprive the American people of the man they want for their president. It consists of mass-media manipulation, lies, distortions, half-truths, cheap tricks and Soviet-style news blackouts and censorships. The media have insulted the American people's intelligence by thinking they can decide the presidential election by utilizing below-the-belt, steamy journalism. The media is wrong."

Wrong because these days, the lower the news sinks below Bill Clinton's belt, the higher his approval ratings rise. But Michael Williams wasn't analyzing the current president's zipper problem when he wrote those words over a decade ago. He'd jotted down his thoughts and sent them to former Colorado senator Gary Hart, then in the midst of his third bid for the presidency.

In the end, it was a picture that scuttled Hart's presidential aspirations--not rumors about his womanizing. He might have weathered the Miami Herald's surveillance, the New York Times's "I told you so." He might even have come up with a reason, a good reason, for Donna Rice to make an overnight visit to a D.C. townhouse (not far from another townhouse that Governor Roy Romer would visit a decade later while a private eye waited outside). Hart, who'd announced his second run on April 14, 1987, stood his ground and defended his morality in a speech before the American Newspaper Publishers Association on May 6, 1987, just two days after the Herald story, three days after the Times magazine piece in which he'd told a reporter, "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'd be very bored."

But then came the far-from-boring photograph on the cover of the National Enquirer. The candidate, caught mid-cruise on the good ship Monkey Business, sat with a lapful of Rice and a goofy, uncomfortable expression on his face. He looked like a conventioneer caught fudging his expense report. He looked guilty. This just wouldn't play in Ottawa, Kansas, where Gary Hartpence had been raised by a strictly religious family before he dumped the last half of his last name, moved to Colorado and went into politics.

Once that picture appeared, Gary Hart--two-time Colorado senator, leading Democratic contender--was sunk.

Over a decade later, the current cover of the Enquirer shows Clinton on Air Force One, surrounded by a bevy of lap-filling beauties. He looks a lot more comfortable in this position than Gary Hart did. And maybe he looks a lot more comfortable because of Gary Hart. While Hart turned into a political footnote, so far Clinton has survived the scandal. Hart became a figure of fun, but Clinton's still a wild and crazy guy, the life of the Democratic Party. Clinton's better at this monkey business than Gary Hart ever was; he even gets away with it at the office.

And don't think Hart doesn't recognize that. After a decade of silence on the scandal that ended his presidential hopes, Hart has started talking--to John F. Kennedy Jr., for the featured interview in the April issue of Kennedy's George magazine. There the ironies pile up faster than a load of dirty lingerie: Hart complaining about the press's obsession with personal lives, in a magazine filled with stories about politicians' personal lives--"Her Age of Innocence," an essay on Hillary Clinton; "In the Belly of the Media Beast," a columnist's blow-by-blow account of covering the White House since the scandal broke; "Alexander Hamilton's Original Sin," concerning the treasury secretary's two-century-old sexcapade; "Monica's So-Called Life." All of this edited by a man who snags the interviews he does because he shares the name of a famous philanderer.

Hart, who now works out of a Denver law office, can walk 17th Street alone. But when JFK Jr. recently showed up at the Brown Palace--for his chat with Hart, it turns out--he created quite a stir.

Kennedy to Hart: "A lot of people are now saying, 'I don't care what President Clinton does in his personal life. What worries me is that he shows reckless conduct, and I care a lot if my president is reckless.' Is that a legitimate concern?"

Hart: "Yes, I think it's legitimate. And it was legitimate in my case. I have said over and over again that I shouldn't have let myself get into the situation I did. That was my fault. But it was innocently done."

"Not reckless?"
"No, just not very smart."
And how about: not very presidential.

But Kennedy's just getting rolling: "Of course, your name has come up as a reference point in much of the Clinton-Lewinsky coverage."

"Oh, yes," Hart replies. "And I'm often used as a justification for the press's behavior. Which is totally outlandish. Why are they talking about me? I'm old news. I've been out of public life for ten years. What is the purpose of hauling me out and thrashing me again?"

Kennedy, who has hauled Hart out for this exclusive interview, does not answer that question. Instead, he says, "Yet there is a difference in the way people reacted to your predicament compared with President Clinton's. Why is that?"

"The people never really spoke out in 1987," Hart begins.
But, in fact, they did.
The people spoke in thousands of letters sent to Hart's Denver headquarters after he announced his second bid for the presidency in April 1987 (in 1984, while still a Colorado senator, he'd lost the Democratic nomination to Walter Mondale), after he left the race on May 9 in the wake of the Monkey Business, and after he revived his candidacy on December 16--because the people wanted him to, Hart said, but perhaps also so he'd qualify for federal matching funds that would help pay off his $3 million campaign debt.

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