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Hart to Heart

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.

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?

 

“I can boil all this down into two themes,” Hart answers. “First is to restore the ideal of the republic. The second is to shift American culture from consumption and spending to investment and saving. The bumper-sticker version might be: ‘We must earn our rights by performance of our duties.’”

That’s one helluva wonkish slogan to run on. But Hart is deadly serious about it. He’s written a trilogy of weighty books on the “restoration of the republic,” and his novel I, Che Guevara, written a handful of years ago under the pen name John Blackthorn, envisions a Jeffersonian revolution in post-Castro Cuba. He now argues for a renegotiation of the social contract in which the American people would take on more civic duties in exchange for improved physical, social, economic and environmental security. It’s a vision, he says, that America has been able to glean only fleetingly three times in the last half-century. “There was that moment when we were asked not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country,” Hart says. “And that changed my whole generation. Then there was Clinton’s brief, too brief, mention of an AmeriCorps.” The third incident, which Hart describes as a “massive missed opportunity,” was a week after September 11, when George W. Bush said, “We are all in this together.”

The economic and social rights won through blood and sacrifice over the last two centuries have made America a “hugely” better place, says Hart. “But we have lost the other side of the coin,” he adds. “Participation, responsibility and ownership.”

On that basis, he sketches out a political program that is no less than a hybrid of socially progressive ideas and small-c conservatism: national health care, children’s and citizens’ savings accounts, tighter regulation of markets and corporations, a national energy strategy, environmentalism, and radical campaign-finance reform. In turn, Americans might be asked to pay a consumption tax, he says, participate in community service and learn to scale down their lifestyles to something more compatible with finite resources.

This singular call to common tasks and sacrifice is what most distinguishes Hart from the rest of our current crop of politicians. And it makes you wonder if the American people would be open to such a two-way message. Hart agrees that Americans have been “spoiled” by the “last quarter-century of me, mine, go get yours” that has defined the American ethos. But he rushes to add that, more than any reflection of cultural rot on the part of average Americans, it’s much more a product of failed political leadership.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “My own Democratic Party doesn’t get it. It’s still the rights party, saying to you, ‘This is what government is going to do for you.’

“The Republicans, for their part, have betrayed their own name,” he adds. “It’s a party that really doesn’t believe in government at all any longer — it’s been hijacked by libertarians who want to do away with Social Security and public education. If they believed in half of what they said about local government, they’d jump all over my ideas.”

 

Last month, those ideas seemed to captivate a large audience when Hart led a public discussion on “economic security” at UCLA’s Anderson School. He ä received warm applause and a bevy of questions from an audience peppered with many of his longtime friends and admirers — many of them, like Adelphia Communications talk-show host Bill Rosendahl, dating back to the days when Hart managed George McGovern’s presidential run. Warren Beatty and producer Mike Medavoy were also on hand to applaud Hart as they did during his ’84 and ’88 campaigns. Also present were a couple of key sympathetic rainmakers whose money-raising talents will be sorely needed if Hart makes a serious go of it.

The question is, can Hart resonate significantly beyond the current circle of admirers and dedicated political wonks and junkies? The obstacles seem formidable — though not necessarily insurmountable.

First, there’s the question of his politics. Is he out of sync with a conservative era in which the idea of community service has been expunged from the political lexicon? Hart begins with an unflinching view of the Bush administration: “It’s Reaganism taken to a new scale, massive supply-side economics,” he says. “But in its foreign policy it’s also messianic. The Wolfowitz-Perle axis wants to remake the world, and as a Jeffersonian and an American it scares me to death.”

But, Hart says, the American people are desirous of a sea change, if only someone would lead them. He points to a time exactly 20 years ago. In 1980, the Reagan landslide buried a pack of important Democratic senators, “but I survived it.” Three years later, with Reagan riding at his highest, Hart went out across the country to take the national pulse on issues and ideas. “I saw my ideas were being listened to, that I could run, that I would get support,” he says. And he was right. Right enough to nearly deny Mondale the nomination. And right enough to propel him into the position of Democratic front-runner four years later. “We are in a similar moment right now,” he says. “What I am doing now is trying to replicate the experience of 1983 that led directly to the campaign.”

 

Some former Hart staffers — while exuding unblemished admiration for their boss (“He spoiled me forever — no politician ever again lived up to him,” says one) — nevertheless argue that he may be naive in making the run again. The 2004 primary cycle is the most front-loaded in history, openly favoring those candidates with the most money and the most name recognition. Hart has at least as much of the latter as any other contender. But he has practically no campaign cash, not yet anyway. (This while the semi-anonymous John Edwards leads the field in fund-raising, having garnered more than $7 million in the last reporting cycle.)

But one former Hart campaign worker, a former Clinton administration appointee now itching to work again for Hart, pushes these considerations aside. “I can see the scenario of Gary running and winning,” he says. “There’s a lot of free-floating idealists out there looking to hang their hat on someone like Gary. And this president we’ve got now is making it a lot easier to see his own demise. Virtually no one can be pleased by him except maybe those in the extraction industries and those on the Christian Right. This can be the big moment for Gary.”

Another veteran of the 1988 campaign says Hart is better suited than any other Democrat to be credible on all-important national-security issues. “Anyone who thinks that the political terrain hasn’t been altered since 9/11 is not living in the same world as the rest of us,” he says. “Hart is the only candidate who is in some way left of center but who has actually written papers on military reform, who has got a great position on homeland defense and terrorism and yet is not a right-wing hawk. The kumbaya position of a Dennis Kucinich might go over well at a meeting of San Francisco Democrats, but it ain’t gonna win over any fence sitters. But Gary can.”

Finally, there’s the question of Hart’s baggage. And not so much the Donna Rice affair that torpedoed his streaking 1988 campaign. Zippergate really does seem to have inoculated the country, or at least the punditocracy, against another outbreak of sexual correctness. Hart seems today more a victim of an intolerant body politic than some sort of Clintonesque . . . well, you can fill in the blank. Clinton was appropriately viewed as such a schemer and trimmer in the rest of his public and personal life that Lewinsky seemed like only one more symptom of his general unworthiness. For Hart, the Rice episode seems much more the exception to his otherwise statesmanlike character.

A more serious impediment for Hart might be what you can call a “been there, done that” indifference. In a culture of disposable celebrity, where today’s next new thing has an ever-shorter shelf life, a Hart campaign might collide with a generalized notion of “What? He’s back again? He had his two chances already.”

That would be a fairly disheartening and superficial reflex — but not one to be ruled out when we are dealing with a population that, for one, believes George W. Bush might just be a regular guy.

Whatever Hart’s chances, his voice would be welcome in the so-far barren presidential debate. He was right about September 11. What else might he be right about?


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