Over the last four decades Gary Hart has been a major force in politics -- from "inventing" the Iowa caucuses while managing George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, to unintentionally creating the template for political sex scandals with the "monkey business" photo during his 1987 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to issuing a prescient study warning of terrorism before 9/11. Along the way he also served as a U.S. senator from Colorado for a dozen years...and also became a novelist.
We recently touched base with the former senator to discuss his latest novel, Durango, based on the real-life story of the Colorado town's political drama involving the Animas-La Plata project. And while we were talking with him, he also asked this sage of political strategy about the current presidential campaign, touching on Romney's lack of real questioning, Republican opposition to the president's legislation, and whether Obama is repeating the mistakes of previous incumbents.
Westword: Your book is so heavily entrenched in the Animas-La Plata project; could you give us a little background on that situation and how you became involved with it?
Gary Hart: I was involved in the Animas-La Plata project as a representative of the state during the '70s and '80s. As my book indicates, it was designed as an agriculture irrigation project, but by the time the '70s rolled around the thing had changed dramatically, and suddenly it wasn't going to be built for its original purposes. This was the time of the OPEC oil embargoes, and there was great pressure to develop America's energy resources. So all of a sudden, a traditional agriculture water project suddenly took on new life as a means of providing water for energy development.
When did you first think this would make a good setting for a novel? While it seems like a very worthwhile story, it is somewhat esoteric.
Well, you couldn't be a senator from Colorado in the '70s and '80s without getting involved in water projects. And this project specifically was one of those that Jimmy Carter sought to cancel in the first few weeks of his administration. And many of us came to their defense and essentially reversed the Carter water policy of that time. If you know Colorado at all, you know the role water plays in its history, and if you know Southwest Colorado, you know the importance of La Plata's. So it wasn't esoteric. It was real-life drama.
Do you think Jimmy Carter knew how important La Plata was?
Why do you think he cut the funding for it?
That's not relevant to the book. . . . He was poorly advised.
Like your late friend Hunter Thompson, you've often blended fiction and non-fiction narratives in your writing. How much of your personal experience informs the fiction you write?
I started writing fiction in 1984-5; [former Secretary of Defense] Bill Cohen and I co-authored a spy thriller, and that got a great deal of attention. And I've written three novels on my own. So I write fictional stories as a kind of hobby. And they're usually based on actual experiences I've had with the intelligence community, or in Cuba with a couple of stories. And this was no different. The book is also based on a Sophocles play from 2500 years go.
Let's change gears for a moment and talk politics. The last time we checked in with you in 2008 you commented on how much campaign financing has altered elections. Yet this was before Citizens United dramatically altered campaigns. Did you expect that things would change this much in such a short period of time?
Well, this has been a long-term trend with the increasing cost of campaigning. The people who have the most money are those who have an interest in government outcomes -- and that's where the corruption comes in. Citizens United didn't change everything, it just made a bad situation much, much worse. To say that, for First Amendment purposes, corporations are people, it was an absurd judgment -- and most constitutional scholars concur on that.
Do you think there's been a lack of public pressure for the two presidential candidates to explain their party's platforms? They seem to be relying much more heavily on sentiment than substance -- even more so than in the past.
No, that's just the way candidates campaign. But oddly enough, the platforms are usually very, very specific. It would be very interesting for someone to analyze the Republican and Democratic party platforms, because they're so specific on issues like same-sex marriage or abortion. This happens because interest groups in the parties insist that their particular concerns are addressed in those documents. And the political types in the parties know that very few people -- including journalists -- ever take the time to read them.
But it doesn't seem that the candidates have been forced to answer for the platforms. Just as Romney seems to have gotten away with not answering for his change in positions from his time as governor.
Well, we don't know if he's gotten away with it until all the votes are cast. The only change in politics is that candidates don't have to face critical questions. I don't think Mitt Romney's had one press conference since he got the nomination. In the old days, candidates would walk into living rooms and face all kinds of questions. And they'd do press conferences.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter was facing a severe decline in the enthusiasm of his base, many liberals feeling he hadn't delivered on a variety of their key issues. Do you think this is comparable to Obama's difficulty with reigniting his 2008 enthusiasm?
I don't think there's any comparison at all. Circumstances are completely different today. Most analysts have concluded that Jimmy Carter lost because of the Iranian hostage crisis; his failure to rescue the hostages was seen as weakness on foreign policy. And the Reagan campaign took advantage of that.
But will you admit that Obama has lost a lot of the passion he once conjured from Democratic voters?
We'll have to see. I don't recall what erosion of base Carter had. I think everyone, even President Obama himself, would admit that there isn't the intensity in this election that he had four years ago. He has himself addressed that he inspired a great hope in 2008 that he could go to Washington and single-handedly change the way politics works. And what he was not expecting, and neither were many others, was the decision of the Republican Party leadership to oppose everything he tried to do. I don't know of a single president in my lifetime when the opposition party was so unified in stalemating everything that he tried to do. If you look back to the George W. Bush administration's tax cuts, a whole lot of Democrats voted for those, same with the war in Iraq. So even George W. Bush got bipartisan support. You can't find any bipartisan support for Barack Obama.
This seems to be the age we're living in. You come from a time of bipartisan support, as evidenced by your longstanding friendship with John McCain. How integral is bipartisanship to governing?
It's the way the U.S. government has worked throughout history. The last four years of opposition-party stalemating is completely unprecedented.
Do you feel that the Democrats have any responsibility for this hostile environment?
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I don't think so. I've talked to colleagues in the Senate about efforts made to get Republican support on various measures, and there's total resistance to cooperation, and not just with Obama, but with Democrats in the Senate. And I can account for why I think this is: I think the Republicans have convinced themselves that a majority of people want Obama and Democrats to fail. And that's where they're casting their lot -- but they may learn that this is not the case this November. Gary Hart will appear at the Tattered Cover LoDo at 7:30 p.m. to discuss Durango. Admission is free.