A number of Coloradoans have run for president, but no one came closer to actually winning the office than former Senator Gary Hart. In 1984, he presented a heated challenge to anointed party favorite (and subsequent landslide victim) Walter Mondale, ultimately falling short in large part because superdelegates -- a species of Democrat much sought after this year -- had committed to the former veep in the earliest moments of the campaign process. Then, in 1988, he was widely seen as a surefire nominee -- at least until publication of a photo showing Hart and a model named Donna Rice posing in a friendly manner in front of a boat named the Monkey Business.
Today, Hart is the Wirth Chair professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, not to mention a keen observer of the electoral process, as he demonstrates in the wide-ranging and revealing Q&A below.
Hart previously spoke to Westword in February just prior to the publication of Under the Eagle’s Wing: A National Security Strategy of the United States for 2009, his latest book. The followup took place on the morning of June 3, when the last primaries of the 2008 season had just gotten underway. Given the timing, Hart naturally touched on (very) current events even as he looked back on his presidential campaign legacy.
The subjects include the 1972 campaign he managed for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, which went a long way toward establishing Iowa as the first major test of White House hopefuls; the difficulties of unseating an incumbent president; comparisons, or a lack thereof, between the attacks made on McGovern and those already being pitched at Obama; the ways in which he partly, but not entirely, overcame his underdog status in 1984 by raising his profile from the grassroots up; the proliferation of debates and questions about their usefulness as campaigns drag on; the historical repercussions of the Rice revelations, coupled with a strong refutation of the assumption that Hart challenged reporters to trail him in the wake of infidelity allegations; some kind words for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in whose second wedding Hart served as a groomsman; and predictions about the Denver-based Democratic convention in August, highlighted by advice about an approach Obama can take to placate supporters of Hillary Clinton without throwing the event into chaos.
And now, students, get ready for a history lesson of the most intriguing sort:
Westword (Michael Roberts): Before we talk about your own runs for president, I wanted to ask you about the campaign you managed for Senator George McGovern in 1972, and particularly your use of the Iowa caucuses to establish him as a credible candidate. Is that the first time the caucuses had been used in that way?
Gary Hart: To my knowledge, it was. What happened, obviously, is that the frontrunner in that day was the late senator [Edmund] Muskie, and the process up until then was thought to begin in New Hampshire. And in discussion with the tiny campaign staff’s expert on delegate selection, a man who’s now a federal judge in Boston, I said, “Isn’t there any state that begins its delegate selection process before New Hampshire.” And he said right away, “Iowa holds caucuses in January, a week or two, I think, before the New Hampshire primary.” And I said, “Let’s go.” So we set out to organize the Iowa caucuses. That is to say, identify a state committee and then in turn go down to the grassroots to have McGovern supporters in as many precincts as possible. And we spent about a year doing that.
WW: What did Iowa provide that New Hampshire didn’t?
GH: It gave us a Midwestern state near George McGovern’s state of South Dakota. So we reversed the geographical advantage Ed Muskie had in New Hampshire, next door to Maine [Muskie’s political home base]. People in Iowa knew George McGovern better than people in New Hampshire did. Obviously, we would have loved to have won the caucuses – I don’t remember what the final numbers were. But what we achieved was a headline in the New York Times the next day that said, “Muskie Bandwagon Slides Off an Icy Road in Iowa.” And that was worth it all.
WW: Since then, Iowa has become a huge part of not only the Democratic presidential race, but the Republican one as well. Does that surprise you at all? Or does it make perfect sense?
GH: It’s sort of monkey see, monkey do. Once things got established, four years later, reporters began to ask all the candidates, “Are you or are you not going to campaign in the Iowa caucuses.” So the dye was cast. Several years ago, I said to Governor [Tom] Vilsack [who served from 1999 to 2007], “I’m still waiting to have my bronze statue placed on the statehouse grounds,” because I figure I brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the state of Iowa (laughs). He laughed, too.
WW: So there’s no construction underway at this point?
GH: Not last time I checked (laughs).
WW: Once Senator McGovern became the presumptive Democratic nominee, he was attacked mercilessly by the Richard Nixon campaign as being radical and outside the mainstream. How did you attempt to counter that argument back then?
GH: Well, the problem didn’t begin with Richard Nixon. It began with his other Democratic opponents, who kind of came at him serially. After Ed Muskie departed the race, I think Scoop Jackson [a senator from Washington state whose given name was Henry] got in, and Scoop was very much more conservative than McGovern – very pro-military. Keep in mind that this was right at the height of the time that the country and the party were deeply divided over Vietnam and many other issues, and the cultural revolution was still going on at that point. So it was a turbulent time to begin with, and Jackson departed after a few primaries and Hubert Humphrey [former vice president and senator from Minnesota] became the anti-McGovern candidate. McGovern didn’t lock up the nomination until the vote on the floor of the convention Wednesday night in Miami, so it was a battle all the way. And by the time of the very rancorous California primary, it was McGovern-Humphrey, and Humphrey, who had always been a liberal, attacked McGovern from the right, and said he was weak on defense and all kinds of other things. This was a great shock to McGovern, who had been a protégé of Humphrey. They served from neighboring states. He had kind of followed Hubert into the Congress and they shared many traditional liberal values. So here was the odd experience in a debate in California with Humphrey saying, “McGovern’s weak on defense.” In a way, all of McGovern’s opponents in the party set him up for the Nixon attacks. And Nixon’s attack was summarized in three A’s: acid, abortion and amnesty. McGovern, I think, had taken the position that young men who had fled to Canada to avoid the draft would be given amnesty and welcomed back. The acid was just kind of an over-the-top suggestion that McGovern and, I guess, everyone else around him were on dope. I don’t know…
WW: In retrospect, was there any way to have countered those attacks more effectively? Or because of the turbulent times you mentioned, was the battle one that would have been extremely difficult to win in the mainstream?
GH: It was extremely difficult to win. First of all, it’s more difficult to unseat an incumbent president than most people realize. McGovern tried it in ’72, and I tried it in ’84. And your supporters, or those on your side, namely in the Democratic party, because of their dislike for Nixon or because of their dislike of [Ronald] Reagan, think it should be simple. And even in the [Senator John] Kerry race in ’04, the profound dislike of George Bush led supporters of Kerry to think he should have just knocked Bush over with the back of his hand. It’s not that easy. The power of the presidency over the media and a lot of other advantages makes it very, very difficult to beat an incumbent. All three of us had that experience of trying to do that, as well as Vice President Mondale. I think we could have done better, but after that convention, we got into the general election – and then we had the Eagleton problem to overcome. [McGovern’s original choice for vice president, Senator Thomas Eagleton, eventually dropped off the ticket after it was revealed that he had been hospitalized for exhaustion three times during the first half of the 1960s and twice received shock therapy treatments. He was replaced by Sargent Shriver, an intimate of the Kennedy family.] I think it just became impossible.
WW: Is there any corollary between that race and this year’s contest…
WW: So you don’t see the attacks on Barack Obama as being in any way similar to those on McGovern?
GH: No, I don’t think so. First of all, the attacks, depending on your point of view, I guess – there were some suggestions of racism, some remarks by former President Clinton and other Clinton supporters. But I think whatever damage that was done to him was by the cable networks endlessly recycling the remarks of Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright [Obama’s former pastor at Trinity United church] and now this new minister [guest pastor Reverend Michael Pfleger, who also made controversial comments from the Trinity pulpit] – how seriously people will take that in the fall I don’t know, but I doubt that they will. When the chips are down on the economy and the war and real serious issues, will people vote against him because of one or two preachers? I doubt it, but it remains to be seen. But the current race was much more like mine. It was a generational contest, Hillary Clinton representing the establishment and the older generation Democrats and Barack Obama representing new leadership. And that was the contest between myself and Mondale. So there weren’t the deep policy divisions you had in ’68 and ’72 and other years.
WW: Let’s talk about the ’84 race. As you alluded to, the party powers had certainly lined up behind Walter Mondale. What kind of obstacles did that present to you in terms of both fundraising and organization?
GH: It was huge. If you go back and read the press coverage and the headlines leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Mondale was even more the frontrunner, if you can believe it, than Hilary Clinton was in the months before. He was well over fifty percent in the polls, largely because of name recognition. The rest of us trailed far behind. His only imagined opponent was Senator John Glenn, who was just coming off a lot of favorable publicity because of the publication of the book The Right Stuff, and the movie had just come out. And so it was a very high moment for Senator Glenn. He was a national hero and so on. Everybody expected that if there were going to be any competition, it would come from Glenn. And then in Iowa, I ran a distant second and Glenn was back behind me along with some others. And we went to New Hampshire a week later, and I won that – and the whole race changed after that. It was very, very difficult before that. If you’re at two percent in the polls, people don’t particularly want to give you money. It was only after New Hampshire that I began to do any serious fundraising, and it was very much catch-up, because two weeks later, we had Super Tuesday, which was then only nine states. But to raise enough money to campaign seriously in nine states was still a tremendous problem. And the final difference was, we had no Internet. If we’d had the Internet in 1984, I think I might have been able to do much better.
WW: Regarding New Hampshire, I understand that one of your strategies was to get to the state very early and devote a lot of your time there even before a lot of the other candidates had hit the ground. Is that correct?
GH: Well, it’s true. I started there the year before – but I did have two advantages. I’d been through, firsthand, a presidential race twelve years before, and I knew enough to get people who understood in great detail the delegate-selection process state by state. We had the rules down. The dates, the rules, and other candidates – Senator Glenn and others, and even Vice President Mondale – sort of took it for granted that they’d just go a state at a time and things would fall their way. And the second advantage I had was experience at grassroots organization. I still was perpetuating the idea of using volunteers – not just young people but housewives and a lot of other people who could knock on doors and pass out leaflets. And this was by now the heyday of the media oriented campaigns, so all the other candidates were raising money and buying television spots. And having no money, I just relied on grassroots volunteers. In a state like New Hampshire, that’s very appealing to people.
WW: Is that kind of approach still possible in this day and age? Or because of the way the media has changed since then, is that kind of grassroots approach more difficult to pull off effectively?
GH: It’s not more difficult. It’s just that fewer people do it because the emphasis on money and media has accelerated and expanded. I think Senator Obama’s success in the caucus states, almost across the board, was because he appealed to grassroots volunteers. He also had very large paid staffs organizing in those states – something I didn’t have and couldn’t afford. And that gave him a huge advantage as well. And there was also the fact that Senator Clinton didn’t take the caucuses seriously. So yes, it’s possible. It certainly helps if you have all of that supported by finances for a staff and some paid media. But his breakthrough was really the Internet.
WW: In 1984, what role did debates play in the Democratic campaign? Were there a lot of them? And how widely were they seen?
GH: There were quite a lot of them. I don’t know how it stacks up numerically with this year. Probably there weren’t quite as many. But there were a lot – it seemed to me two or three dozen at least, up to New Hampshire involving six or seven candidates on the Democratic side. So it was a multi-candidate affair. And I think even up until Super Tuesday, there were still three or four candidates, including Senator Glenn. He didn’t get out until after Super Tuesday. So there seemed to me an awful lot. And after Super Tuesday, there were still some debates between Vice President Mondale and myself.
WW: Being that this took place before the real cable boom, were these debates more local affairs as opposed to programs people across the country could see?
GH: Yeah, I think they were. You’re reaching back 24 years, but my recollection is that they were at least regional. If you’d go into the South, you did have CNN by then, as I recall, and you’d get regional exposure. And then the national networks would take sound bites out of the debates and run them that night or the next day.
WW: Now, of course, there are so many debates that can be seen across the country. Is that a positive? Or perhaps too much of a good thing?
GH: I think it gets to a point where – well, I wouldn’t say it’s self-defeating, but it’s just non-productive. You just get the same candidates saying the same things over and over again. Trying to get their policy lines in, trying to write their own headlines, going for the clever sound bite that they’re hoping to get in the coverage the next day. By and large, once you’ve stated your health-care policy six times, saying it sixteen or eighteen times doesn’t get you very far.
WW: When we spoke in February, we had the chance to discuss the impact of superdelegates on the 1984 campaign, and clearly they threw the nomination to Mondale, who didn’t turn out to be an especially formidable candidate against Ronald Reagan. Do you think superdelegates this year have learned that lesson and will lend their support to the candidate with the best chance to win the election?
GH: Well, they certainly heeded in the sense of a lot of them waiting, and it drove commentators and pundits crazy because the whole theme throughout was, “When are you going to make up your minds? When are you going to make up your minds?” There was a media push to get superdelegates to commit as early as possible. Some of them did and some of them didn’t, and I think the bulk of them come off the fence tonight or tomorrow. And I think that’s all to the good. I think it’s all legitimate for a party official or elected official to wait. I think many of them learned a lesson in ’84, where the bulk of the superdelegates endorsed even before the caucuses and primaries began. I know when I spoke to many of them after the end of the primaries, they said, “Gee whiz, I promised Fritz [Mondale] I’d support him a year ago, and I can’t go back on my word. I think you’d be the stronger candidate, but I’m locked in.” I think there were lessons learned from that.
WW: You earned the 1988 presidential race as the presumed frontrunner before the campaign imploded. What is the legacy of the campaign’s end, especially in the sense of how things that take place in someone’s private life are covered?
GH: I think that with the Clinton impeachment, the media intrusiveness kind of died down. I think there was the sense that the public believed the media had gone too far in surreptitious surveillance. It’s very dangerous if you’re going to subject candidates to surreptitious surveillance. That’s totalitarian behavior even if it’s done by just one newspaper, as this was done. Looking in people’s windows, going through their trash, following them around surreptitiously is not healthy for the system, and I think enough editors and producers got the message after the Clinton impeachment that they’d better back off and go back to a more normal standard. Now, if somebody shoves a dossier of pictures and so on through the transom at a newspaper, they’re probably going to print it, or at least assign a reporter to check it out. But the phenomenon of the Clinton impeachment is that even though newspapers and magazines were flying off the newsstands and people were totally absorbed in the Lewinski business, his popularity stayed high. So you could only draw the conclusion, even if you were the editor of the New York Times that what people found interesting they didn’t necessarily think was important. It’s always been a staple of journalism that if people read it or listen to it, they think it’s important, and people demonstrated that they didn’t think so. Are people fascinated by a president’s sex life? Yes. Do they think it’s important to his job? Apparently, a lot of them didn’t think so. So I think that caused a real recalibration in newsrooms. Hopefully we’ll go back to the standard where what’s reportable is only what affects a person’s ability to do their job. Anytime the subject comes up, I’m obliged to correct the media myth that I dared or challenged reporters to follow me. I did not. I did not, even though for twenty years I’ve had to live with that allegation. It’s just not true.
WW: There was a New York Times article [written by E.J. Dionne and published on May 3, 1987] that’s generally mentioned as the source of those claims…
GH: It came out the same day as the infamous Miami Herald report [which claimed that a young woman had been seen coming out of Hart’s Washington, D.C. residence the previous night]. They didn’t place me under surveillance as a result of that sentence…
WW: You were already under surveillance.
GH: I was already under surveillance based on rumors, inaccurate rumors. And the sentence in E.J. Dionne’s profile was very much directed to him, and he knows that. I just said, “E.J., you’re welcome to accompany me in my daily rounds if you think I’ve got time to chase girls.” [The quote as published read, “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.”] He understood it was an invitation. It was to be openly pursued, but I was not stupid enough to dare or challenge the entire press corps. That’s crazy, and everybody in journalism who’s known me for thirty years knows it’s not true. But it was the justification, the after-the-fact justification for supporting the Miami Herald in the media: “Hart dared us to follow him.” I didn’t. I simply didn’t.
WW: The recalibration you talked about… I wonder if there wasn’t a partial recalibration prior to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In his campaign for the 1992 nomination, questions were raised about his personal life and he managed to survive them. Do you think your experiences in 1988 might have made a lot of people think, we don’t want to eliminate a viable candidate based on something like this?
GH: I think I would substitute “journalist” for “people.” Journalist is a euphemism for people. But yes, I think by ’92, even four years later, there was a sense that all of that business in ’88 hadn’t been handled well by anybody. And even though the myth had settled in that they did what they did because I’d challenged or dared them, there still was a sense that – I wouldn’t say that an injustice had been done, but that the media had gone too far.
WW: Moving forward to the folks who are running for president this year, I read that you were a groomsman at John McCain’s second wedding. Is that correct?
GH: I was.
WW: How well do you know him?
GH: Very well. He was Navy liaison to the Senate in ’77, ’78, perhaps ’79 as well. That was a period during which he was ending his Navy career, decided not to pursue an admiral’s star, and began to be interested in politics and civilian public service. And he and I and Bill Cohen, then a Republican senator from Maine, got to know each other. We were both on the armed services committee, so John acted as our escort officer on several trips. I was particularly interested in naval affairs and went aboard ship in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and he was escort officer on those trips. You get to know people very well when you travel with them, and I liked John a lot. I had great respect and admiration for what he had done.
WW: Is there any internal conflict at all in your decision to support Barack Obama over him?
GH: Not at all. I think he’s a terrific human being and American. I just don’t want him to be president. His politics are totally different from mine.
WW: Back when we spoke in February, you thought we were about a week short of knowing who the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee would be.
GH: (Laughs.) I thought there was a chance that Obama was going to sweep the table. But to a degree, the same thing happened this year that happened in ’84. After I won Iowa and seven of nine Super Tuesday states and the main caucuses… well, I came within 4,000 votes of winning the nomination on Super Tuesday. In two weeks. Then we moved on to Illinois and a mid-primary season in the industrial states, and the labor unions made a lot of illegal contributions to Vice President Mondale, and he stayed in the race and began to win in the same states that Senator Clinton did. Then the race began to seesaw back and forth, and then we went west and I won virtually all the West. So there are some striking parallels, except that back then, the last primary was California, and I swept California hugely.
WW: That win gave you great momentum going into the convention.
GH: Yeah. I still read reports Hart peaked in New Hampshire. It just dumbfounds me when I read that. Nevertheless, I won 25 or 26 states and Fritz won the rest, and I think the popular vote was pretty much equal. So it was a pretty close thing. It just went back and forth.
WW: With the final primaries of this season taking place today, do you feel that this time, we really are about a week away from knowing who the nominee will be?
GH: (Laughs.) Yeah, I do. But all I know is the conventional wisdom, which is what the talking heads say on TV. Presumably they’re talking to superdelegates and have the inside information in the Clinton campaign. Other than that, I don’t have any other information.
WW: Regarding the upcoming Democratic convention, what role do you hope to play?
GH: I have no role. I’m not a delegate or a superdelegate. Aside from occasionally advising the mayor on what to expect, I don’t anticipate having any role at all. I continue to give ideas both in terms of policy and politics to the Obama campaign, but I’ve not been asked to play any particular role.
WW: Some outsiders, Rush Limbaugh being noteworthy among them, seem to be salivating at the prospect of unrest at the convention. Do you feel that’s likely to occur?
GH: Well, there are professional demonstrators, and they’ve already signed up to demonstrate. They’ll show up in Minneapolis [at the Republican convention] as well. Pretty much the same people. They will be representing a variety of caucuses, and they’ll have licenses. I would be amazed if there are floor demonstrations. Now, Senator Clinton may decide to have her name put in nomination, in which case expect a very vigorous demonstration in her favor. Cheering, applauding, sign-waving and so on. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be anti-Obama. I think by August, I’d be amazed if there’s even a tiny replication of what happened at the rules committee – that is to say people screaming “Unfair!” and “I’m going to vote for McCain,” and so on. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
WW: You see the convention being more of a coming together than a fractious kind of event?
GH: Yeah, but I must say, there will be those in journalism who will be looking for any friction and will be reporting on it. If Senator Clinton’s name is put in nomination, they’ll see that as a continuing challenge to Obama. I think, again, ’84 is instructive, and I’m kind of amazed that journalists haven’t drawn the parallel more than they have, in that given my run of late primary victories, even though I was several hundred votes short of getting the nomination, it was expected that I’d be placed in nomination – that my supporters would put on a show, which they did. But it wasn’t “Down with Mondale” or anything like that. It was just people who’d worked with me and for me and who believed very strongly in my candidacy wanted to be heard. Then when the roll was called the next night, I went on the platform after Vice President Mondale was nominated and moved his nomination by acclimation. And that was the gesture of support. And the next morning, I went to his hotel suite and said, “I’ll do everything I can to help.” So there was never rancor even in the closing weeks, and even though I was placed in nomination, I think very few people saw that submission of my name as a threat or challenge or anti-Mondale effort.
WW: So in that case, it was respect shown to your campaign, as it would be in the case of Hillary Clinton…
GH: Exactly. And I think, frankly, if I were in Obama’s shoes, I would suggest that to her. I would say, “Presuming you’re not interested in trying to pick off my delegates or continue to work against me behind the scenes, I’m perfectly happy with your name being placed in nomination and letting your supporters have their chance to applaud your efforts.”