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.

Hart still had plenty of ideas, and he expanded on them at the early debates in New Hampshire and Iowa--when the other candidates would let him, that is. But the issue of Hart's cruise control kept coming up. "There is a difference between public morality and private morality," Hart pronounced at one January debate.

Not enough of a difference, apparently. After a poor showing in the Super Tuesday polling, Hart gave up for good on March 12, 1988. While he retreated to his home up Troublesome Gulch, his staffers cleaned out the donated Gilpin Street office, dumping bundle after bundle of campaign paraphernalia into the trash--where they were found by Stan Oliner of the Colorado Historical Society. "I still don't know what made me go to that dumpster," Oliner says. "My fingers went in it, through the snow, and here came a bunch of letters." He took them back to the museum, dried them on the radiator, notified Hart staffers of what he'd found--and that was the start of Collection Number 1246, the "Papers of Gary W. Hart."

While Hart's more traditional papers are at the University of Colorado, this collection may offer a truer glimpse into what makes a politician run--and what he runs from. The files are filled with phone messages, Christmas cards, potential speaking engagements (Texas Farmers Union, Galveston Mexican-Americans, Prince Georges [Maryland] County Board of Trade, Iowa Catholic Conference, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Council on Small Business, Poor People's Campaign, Irish Immigration Reform Movement, Northern Illinois Homebuilders), requests for memorabilia (from Punchdrunk Man Reader, a new book, and from the Willard Smith Racquetteville Library of Political Americana), resumes, resignations, donations ($1 from George Hooker: "I am fourteen, 3.70 GPA, love America, and believe in Gary Hart"), bills (a lawyer wanted Friends of Gary Hart to pay off a $727 Federal Express bill, pronto) and suggestions. Many, many suggestions. "The Battle of New Orleans" would make a great comeback song, advised one fan, but "don't play possum too long." Raffaele Martini Pandozy of NY, NY, sent $50, a copy of his manifesto The New Humanism, which would revolutionize the teaching of art, and this odd observation: "Unfortunately, many Americans will not be able to grasp the limits of your visions, but they will be able to judge upon the strength of your character."

Dr. Jonathan Kelly liked Hart's character just fine. "I am personally sorry for the recently publicized turmoil in your personal life which results in you dropping out of the presidential race," he wrote in November 1987. "On a just completed trip to Israel, my wife and I met an Armenian shopkeeper in old Jerusalem who believes that you are a man who can save the United States and maintain our position as a beacon of freedom for all. I am sending you his name and address...His only criticism is that you are too soft on Turkey."

"Buddy" was eager for Hart to get back in the game but wary of revealing his true identity. "I can deliver to you enough publicity that you will be elected," he promised. "Just one of these things is the original, uncut tape of the killing of JFK which will prove that it was Fidel Castro who caused it to be done. There are other such things available to me..."

Other correspondents offered nothing but their own support.
"I am a sinner," wrote Linda Hawthorne of Nevada City, California, a self-professed "patriot" when the word had a different meaning. "I have committed transgressions of the moral law. It is easy to identify those acts that are transgressions because I wish I had not committed them. The only remedy is to ask forgiveness of those we have harmed and commit to repentance. If this is in your heart, a simple statement to that effect should re-establish the trust the American people need to have in a candidate for the nation's highest office. You might have to spell 'repent' to the press--the freedom of the press knows no repentance!"

Not so fast, said Dan Leite of Columbus, Ohio, a Hart delegate in 1984 who took a break from a "busy work schedule" to counsel his candidate: "Being a former reporter myself, I would like to offer one small piece of advice, if I may, on the issue of 'attacking' the press. I know it has been harsh on you, but I hope you won't go overboard with attacking their position. By no means is the press perfect, but they can do some good for the campaign."

Virginia Duprenberger of Loveland sent a copy of the poem "Don't Quit," along with other instructions: "Fight on! Please don't give up your young and full of good ideas we poor tax-paying people need a voice. Rich get richer, Reagan, Sinatra, actors' best friends, millionaires should be taxed heavy--not the poor. Charity begins at home...Women do anything for a buck. Donna? Money talk, BS walks."

"How many American have skeletons in their closets!" chimed in Marge and Rosie. "Tell your wife to stand by her man. Two housewives from New Jersey think you have a good shot at it. Go for it, Gary." (Gary didn't, but Hillary Clinton followed Marge's and Rosie's advice when she sat beside hubby Bill during his campaign-saving 1992 Sixty Minutes interview.)

"Every red-blooded man has taken a tumble in the hay or two," noted L.E. Moffitt of Ocean City, New Jersey.

Some of Hart's supporters endorsed tougher love. "In 'your rush for judgment,' let me throw in some advice. It is important that you listen to advice. This is your worst characteristic..." advised Mary Ann Bienes of Soudertown, Pennsylvania. "You have thrown the focus back on Gary Hart. It would not hurt to remind us this is a problem for everyone running, including spouses and other family members. We will never go back to the last 200 years. But we need to judge candidates as human beings, see a democracy as 'working together'...I don't give a damn about Warren Beatty, Rocky Balboa or Oliver North, only Gary Hart! With friends like Beatty and Armandt [Lynn, who introduced Hart to Rice], do you need enemies? The difference between Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the Kennedys is in the numbers, the use and abuse of women. It is not only not caring for your wife's feelings, but also the feelings of other women in your life. We are taking Kennedy from God to the devil when what he was is human."

Bienes ended her missive with a salutation that she wanted to kick Hart--"hard"--once in a while, along with a reminder to herself to buy more coffee.

The Hart file is full of suggestion after suggestion, confession after confession. And then come the disappointment and the anger.

"Dear Mr. Hart," wrote Philip DeVelder of Framingham, Massachusetts, "I have been voting since 1964 and have never voted for a Republican--even in technically non-partisan elections. However, if the Democrats are irresponsible enough to nominate you for either President or Vice President, I will vote for the GOP national ticket in 1988. I cannot believe the consummate gall you're showing! You are either nuts, or are using some sort of illegal substance. I hope you are once again driven from the race."

With letters like that coming in, it didn't take long to see the writing on the wall.

Gary Hart quit politics ten years ago this month. He soon followed the lead of another retired Colorado politician, former Governor Dick Lamm, putting his ideas in books and earning his living from the private sector. Although Lamm flirted briefly with a run at the presidency via Ross Perot's party, he soon returned to academic life. After Hart withdrew, then-Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder considered a presidential candidacy, but it dissolved just before Schroeder herself dissolved into very public tears--and took a beating from the press for showing her emotions. Today Schroeder works for the same publishing association that heard Hart out in May 1987. Born-again Donna Rice Hughes crusades against Internet porn. And Bill Clinton skates along on ice so thin it's transparent--to everyone, it seems, but him.

Kennedy again: "You're not really penitent, and you're pretty frank about your feelings for the press. Do you think that what you said years ago has now come back to haunt you--that the press has, in effect, decided, 'Well, screw you too?'"

"Yeah," Hart replies, "I somehow managed to draw a battle line in '87 that I have not been forgiven for. I didn't intend to. I just was trying to be as direct and honest about journalism as I could be. But it was seen as an attack on the profession, and it polarized the relationship between me and the press in ways that I hadn't intended. I didn't appreciate how sensitive journalists are about what they do, because they really don't take criticism well."

Journalists weren't the only ones asking questions of Hart, though. Late in 1987, Daniel Litwin, a ninth-grader at Washington Junior High School in Duluth, Minnesota, wrote the on-again, off-again candidate as part of a civics assignment: "Our teacher, Mr. Vukelich, asked us to write a letter to someone in politics. I chose you because I thought you might have some interesting thing to say about your recent presidential campaign and the circumstances that led you to withdraw from that campaign. Do you feel the news media was unfair in their coverage of your personal life? Do you blame them for your withdrawal? Do you think people in public life have a right to a private life? And finally, do you think the public expects politicians to be perfect?"

Litwin never got a reply from Hart; his letter landed in the dumpster behind the campaign office. But it did not go unanswered.

Leafing through the Hart collection last year, Oliner came across Litwin's letter. He contacted Mr. Vukelich, who is still teaching, and then flew to Minnesota--at his own expense--to talk to Vukelich's current civics class.

At last: Democracy in action.

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