A few years back, former Colorado senator Gary Hart boldly waded into the blogosphere -- and before long, he was mired in cyber-muck.
"This was during the run-up to the Iraq war," recalls Hart, 69. "A number of people were saying, 'You've got to run for president' and so forth, because no one else was speaking out. So I opened a blog." He soon discovered that managing this addition to his old website "was very time-consuming, because the responders want you to engage with them. They say, 'I read your blog, and I disagree on this and this and this. Tell me what you think.' And if you start doing that, it's 24/7. It's like going to a public meeting, and everyone in the crowd says, 'This is what I think. Now I want you to say what you think of it.' Every one of them. And the other thing is, the haters are using the system, and they're trying to destroy it. These are people who are ad hominem, hate-filled, and they clog up the blogways with their diatribes and frothing at the mouth. And that kind of takes the fun out of it."
Hart's pop-cultural reputation, which pivots on the 1987 scandal involving model Donna Rice and a boat named the Monkey Business, suggests that good times have long been a major motivator for him, just as they were for John F. Kennedy, his political role model; the native Kansan volunteered for JFK long before toiling as the campaign manager in George McGovern's ill-fated 1972 presidential race or serving as a senator for his adopted home state from 1975 to 1987. But Hart was even fonder of Kennedy's attitudes about public service and civic responsibility than he was of the late prez's personal style, and he's spent his life in the public eye trying to promote them, with varying degrees of success. While his probing intelligence has always been impressive, his stiffness and formality prevented him from appealing to the voting masses on a visceral level, the way Kennedy did. In recent years, moreover, his frustrations have seemed awfully close to the surface. And why not? Hart warned about potential terrorist attacks well before 9/11, but not enough officials in the Bill Clinton or George W. Bush administrations bothered to listen.
Professionally, too, Hart has suffered disappointments -- among them the dissolution last year of Courdert Brothers, the international law firm that employed him as senior counsel for more than fifteen years. Courdert was founded in 1853, and Hart boasts, "We had the first law license in Russia, the first law license in China, and we pioneered in Vietnam." But he acknowledges that the old-fashioned company couldn't keep up with changing times: "I used to address the annual partners' dinners and say, 'We're the best nineteenth-century law firm in the world.' But that was part of the problem. We just got eaten alive by much more aggressive, much more commercial and much more cutthroat competitors."
Despite such downturns, however, Hart shows no interest in bemoaning his lot. In conversation, he's surprisingly loose these days, as if his decision to accept the role of elder statesman (and let go of his obdurate desire to be a national candidate) has freed him up on a personal level. He still speaks in the sort of abstract academese that can leave lesser thinkers in the analytical dust, but he's relaxed enough to occasionally chuckle at himself. He displays more than a hint of self-deprecation when talking about his recent appointment to the Wirth Chair, a position named for onetime senator Tim Wirth (he succeeded Hart) that obliges him to oversee a fall course for the University of Colorado-Denver's Graduate School of Public Affairs. "Maybe you can help me define what I'm going to teach," he says, laughing, "because I've got to write catalogue copy."
Actually, Hart has plenty of ideas for the class, many of them culled from The Shield and the Cloak: The Security of the Commons, his latest book, which was published last month by Oxford University Press. "It tries to redefine the nature of security to include not just secure borders and the war on terrorism, but security of energy, security of the environment, security of the community, security of livelihood, and to broaden out from the Cold War what security really means in this new century," he says.
Shield is one of three new Hart tomes to arrive in recent months; the others are God and Caesar in America: An Essay on Religion and Politics, issued by Golden's Fulcrum Publishing, and James Monroe, a volume in "The American Presidents" series from Times Books that he took on at the behest of distinguished historian and Kennedy intimate Arthur Schlesinger Jr. And these efforts have hardly exhausted him of opinions. He often writes op-ed pieces about current events for the likes of the Washington Post and the New York Times (they're labeled as blogs on gadfly Arianna Huffington's www.huffingtonpost.com website, but Hart doesn't think they qualify) and weighs in eagerly and candidly on all manner of media topics. Consider his observations about Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
"Everyone reads Tom Friedman, and they should," Hart points out. "And by the way, his takes on energy and a variety of other things were all in the report of the U.S. Commission on National Security that my friend [Republican ex-senator] Warren Rudman and I chaired five years ago. So Tom's just kind of recycling stuff we said then. Nevertheless, Scotty Reston and Tom Wicker and journalists from their era never used the first-person pronoun. They wrote in the third person, and wrote in detached ways about policy: 'Here's what's going on in Washington, this issue is being debated.' It was never'I' or 'me.' But you go through Tom's columns, and you get the first-person pronoun fifteen times: 'I talked to this guy,' and 'He said to me,' and 'I have this opinion.' It's all about him."
Granted, Hart briefly uses a similar approach in the opening portion of God and Caesar in order "to qualify myself to get into the debate" about the growing influence of fundamentalist Christianity on the political process. "I was raised in an evangelical church -- the Church of the Nazarene, which is the same one that Dr. James Dobson comes out of," he notes. Dobson's family was well acquainted with that of Hart's wife, Lee, who stuck with him through the Rice controversy and beyond; her father, the late Dr. S.T. Ludwig, was a senior Nazarene leader and onetime president of Oklahoma's Bethany Nazarene College, where the Harts met circa the '50s. But the comparisons of Hart and Dobson end there. "I find it ironic," Hart says, "that the same God that made me a liberal Democrat made James Dobson a conservative Republican."
In Hart's view, the distinctions between politics and religion, which he studied at Yale Divinity School, are stark. "Politics is a system of compromise. With the two-party system, basically, neither side can have its way entirely," he maintains. "And religion is about absolutes: good and evil, right and wrong. That's part of what its mission is." This is particularly true, he feels, of the fundamentalism presently exerting so much pressure on Republican lawmakers. "If the gospel of Jesus is judgmental at all, it's judgmental against rich people and things like that," he says. "I read the gospel totally separate from what the religious right is up to, which is intolerant, illiberal and unforgiving -- and that's not what Jesus taught."
L'affaire Rice gives Christian conservatives a built-in excuse for rejecting Hart's theories. "They can say that I was a sinner," he points out. "But, of course, the Bible says we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. They just don't admit it." Even so, Hart tries his best not to write off all fundamentalists as casually as he suspects many of them dismiss him. He hasn't met Ted Haggard, who, as the senior pastor of Colorado Springs mega-church New Life and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, is a rising star on the religious scene. But based on a chat with NBC anchor emeritus Tom Brokaw, who interviewed Haggard last year for a report about fundamentalism, he's curious to learn more about him. "Tom told me that Reverend Haggard is a pretty decent, sober and thoughtful fellow and I should get to know him and talk to him," he reveals. "He said he's not as extreme as some of the other ones are, and he has great doubts about whether they should be up to their eyeballs in politics. I gather that at least some part of his personality is questioning all of this."
The Brokaw mention may smack of name-dropping, but it's also indicative of the circles in which Hart continues to travel. He's an in-demand guest at networks such as CNN, and back in 2004, he appeared on the Fox News program Hannity & Colmes to plug another of his literary efforts, The Fourth Power: A Grand Strategy for the United States in the Twenty-First Century. Still, he doesn't shy away from criticizing the TV-news medium in general for what he sees as a lack of substance.
"I can remember that when I was in office, the morning TV shows were dedicated to public policy," he says. "You'd turn on the Today show and they'd have serious discussions of health-care problems and Cold War issues, and they'd have people from Congress on. Now it's all about lifestyle. It's cooking, it's dressing, it's celebrity-oriented, it's promotion of other television programs on the network, it's sensationalism. I think the heirs of William Randolph Hearst have taken over the whole industry."
A big reason for this shift, he believes, is the increasing concentration of media ownership. "The First Amendment was not introduced into the Constitution so Rupert Murdoch could make money," he declares. "There's a duty that comes with the protection of the press, and that duty is to inform the American people. And further, there's a political obligation here. Ninety cents of every campaign dollar goes to the media -- to television and radio advertising and those who put it together. If you want to break the back of corruption in Washington and put a stop to the Jack Abramoffs and others, you've got to reduce the cost of campaigns, and the only way to do it is to give free time to candidates. And who's going to oppose that? Every television network in America. None of the campaign-reform proposals ever have free media time for legitimate candidates anymore. They just don't bother, because the power of the media -- and the lobbying of the media -- comes down on them like a ton of bricks. And they have the local affiliates behind them. They'll have Denver's 4, 7 and 9 get hold of you and say, 'This is outrageous. You can't take this stream of revenue away from us.' You get hammered all over the place."
He's just as exercised about the ideological forces brought to bear on media outlets and the willingness of so many to succumb. "The Rocky Mountain News is a conservative-to-right newspaper. They have their own point of view, editorially and otherwise," he says. "But the Denver Post, which was more liberal, has become almost non-partisan, if you will. I think it was intimidated by the right, which has done a brilliant job of that, by the way. The right is always talking about 'the liberal media, the liberal media,' but you turn on KOA and it's wall-to-wall conservatives -- Mike Rosen and Rush Limbaugh and all those guys. So when they're attacking the liberal media, who are they talking about? They dominate the airwaves." Of late, Hart thinks the Post has gotten a bit bolder about folding what he calls "liberal points of view" into a mix that he describes as "real fair and balanced," but he understands why the paper may have drifted from its progressive moorings: "When anybody disagrees with the right, they can generate thousands of e-mails to an editor. And that's very intimidating."
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For his part, Hart shrugs off such tactics and speaks his mind -- something he's done to a greater degree than most politicians throughout his career. But such autonomy came at a cost, according to Mike Medavoy, a Hollywood executive who served as the financial co-chairman of Hart's 1984 presidential bid. In You're Only as Good as Your Next One, his 2002 autobiography (penned with Josh Young), Medavoy suggested that Hart's 1988 bid for the White House might not have gone down with the Monkey Business if it weren't for certain aspects of his personality. "Gary was a loner in Congress," he wrote, "and his overly cerebral nature alienated some people." He concluded that Hart "has a brilliant mind but has not been able to fully contribute to the country he loves, which is a tragedy."
Predictably, Hart doesn't buy this theory, in part because his contributions continue through his books, his upcoming UCD course, his involvement in contemporary politics (he recently endorsed Bill Ritter's gubernatorial push) and appearances during which he espouses his principles to a new generation. "I think young people are, by and large, idealistic," he says, "and they want to find a way to do good for their country."
He'd be proud to think that his example might inspire such youths -- but when it comes to exchanging blog comments with them, that's where he draws the line.