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Hart to Heart 

Gary's thinking about running for president again

Thursday, Apr 17 2003
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Photo by Ted Soqui

On a recent Thursday night, as U.S. tanks rolled toward Baghdad, Gary Hart, now 66 and clad in a black blazer and navy-blue turtleneck, strode to the microphone of Hollywood’s Knitting Factory and immediately lashed out at the war, which he compared to “kicking over a hornets’ nest.”

“If this country is powerful enough to depose governments on the other side of this world,” Hart said to the enthusiastic crowd of 100 marshaled over the Web by Meetup.com, “then we ought to be powerful enough to provide health care for all of our kids.”

But that’s just about all the former Democratic senator and two-time presidential candidate said. Or should we say three-time and current candidate? The Hollywood event was, in fact, a classic candidate’s “meet-’n’-greet,” pressing the flesh with key grassroots supporters and recruiting new volunteers.

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Back in the fall, after being urged back into the public spotlight by a small group of university honor students, Hart announced plans to make four major “policy addresses.” By early this year, he said he was “exploring the possibility of an exploratory campaign.” Six weeks ago, he said he was “testing the waters.” And last month, he started raising campaign money on his Web site (www.garyhartnews.com). Now Hart says probably sometime this month he’ll formally decide whether to make his third attempt at the White House. “If I run, it will be not only to raise the debate, but also to win,” he says — as most candidates do.

The first time around, in 1984, Hart came out of nowhere to stiffly challenge the eventual Democratic nominee (and big-time loser in the general election), Walter Mondale. In his 1988 redux, Hart appeared well on his way to winning the nomination, when his campaign, in pre-Clinton America, furiously imploded amid all the monkey business around Donna Rice. A hurt and alienated Gary Hart retreated from public life, wrote a handful of books and built a successful career as an international business lawyer.

So why even try a third time? “Gary’s a visionary who knows how to win in mainstream politics,” says one of his former staffers. “And he burns to stay involved. What’s not clear is if he’s really running. Or if he’s just auditioning for secretary of state in the next Democratic administration.”

You can also argue that a presidential run is the only next logical step for Hart. It’s no secret that Clinton had at least considered him as head of state — before deciding on the human hologram of Warren Christopher. As a consolation prize, Clinton did eventually name Hart as co-chair of the then-obscure U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. When Hart’s commission turned its report over to the White House in February 2001, it predicted a terrorist attack much like the one to come nine months later, and it recommended the immediate establishment of homeland defense. Hart can claim, with solid credentials, that he understood this new era we are living in before most of the rest of us had ever thought about it.

 

After listening to a couple of his major addresses, and conducting a lengthy, wide-ranging interview with him, I would say Gary Hart poses a unique challenge to American political conventional wisdom. And there seems little doubt that if he were to make a serious run, and if he got sufficient attention, he could — at a minimum — shake up the entire process. “I have a rather archaic view of history,” he says during our talk. “You ought to qualify to run for the presidency before you run, not try to figure it out after you get elected — like in the movie The Candidate, where Robert Redford asks at the end, ‘What do we do now?’”

That’s easy, of course, to say if you have published a dozen books, established yourself as a Jeffersonian scholar and just got your Ph.D. in politics — as Hart did two years ago, from Oxford no less. But what is striking about Hart is precisely his seriousness in pondering the role and future of America way beyond the narrow, Rove-like calculations of a political operative. He proudly boasts of “writing every word” of the thick, major policy papers he presented over the last few months. And anyone who knows him wouldn’t doubt the boast for a moment.

Nor is Hart’s political posture so easily pigeonholed into the limited spaces that now make up modern American politics. Perhaps the best definition comes by way of one of his former advisers, who says, “Gary is basically a postindustrial social democrat.” In Europe that might be easy to grasp. But what does it mean in American terms?

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