Sunday, December 17, 2017

"Let's Let The People Decide!"

I can't let 2017 go without one more kick at the carcass that is Gary Hart's long-dead political career.  Yeah, I know his presidential campaign was three decades ago, and yeah, I know Martin O'Malley is one of his protégés, but who cares? I don't want to believe that Hart's 1987 sex scandal, which ended his presidential ambitions,  altered the course of American history all by itself and led us down the path to Donald John Trump, but I do concede that he at least may be responsible for the Bushes and the Clintons, which is damning enough.
I recalled Hart's 1988 presidential bid in a post this past May, but I only touched briefly on his attempt at a comeback after his May 1987 downfall.  That's why I'm back today.
It was thirty years ago this past Friday that Gary Hart re-entered the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination campaign, having decided that none of the other six candidates for the nomination were discussing the ideas he himself had campaigned on - namely, his ideas on national security, education and the economy.  "Let's let the people decide!"  he said, implying that the media had pushed him out  over his sex scandal without giving the voters a chance to make up their minds about him.  Hart (above, from December 1987) returned to the campaign after having dropped out seven months earlier . . . and having also forfeited his numerous advantages from when he was the next President of the United States - like resources and supporters.   
"This will not be like any campaign you have ever seen because I am going directly to the people," he said, announcing that he was "back in the race" at a courthouse in New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary.  "I don't have a national headquarters or staff.  I don't have any money.  I don't have pollsters or consultants or media advisers or political endorsements.  But I have something even better.  I have the power of ideas, and I can govern this country."
He also had something else - the reputation for being a jerk.
As I have argued here and elsewhere, Hart wasn't undone by his sex scandal.  He was undone by his arrogance, his aloofness and his duplicity, all of which came out when he tried to handle the affair.  He immediately became the front-runner again after he got back in the campaign, but this was due more to name recognition than to the idea that anyone would be sane enough at that point to actually support him.  His smugness was evident from the way he got back in, seemingly disparaging the other Democratic presidential candidates of 1988 for not sharing his vision and his policy proposals.  His opponents, who had expressed sympathy for the way the media hounded him out of the campaign, were now universally condemning him.  Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt declared that he found it hard to believe that Hart thought he had a monopoly on new ideas.  Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the eventual 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, said that the issue wasn't who had the most creative ideas but who was best temperamentally suited to lead the nation.  Bruce Babbitt, later President Clinton's Secretary of the Interior, said that he didn't need Hart to teach him the most important thing about running for President - to tell the truth.  (Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, truthfully told the voters that the only way to erase the budget deficit was to raise taxes through the roof and cut spending to the bone; he was the only 1988 Democratic presidential candidate to drop out before Hart once the primary and caucus voting started.)  Jesse Jackson said that Gary Hart had "a superiority complex without the superiority."  Illinois senator Paul Simon joked about it with singer Paul Simon (of course) on "Saturday Night Live."  But the classic response came from Tennessee senator and future Vice President Al Gore - "Give me a break."
And Hart didn't help himself when he said earlier in 1987, "Only half of me wants to be President . . .. The other half wants to go write novels in Ireland. But the 50 percent that wants to be President is better than 100 percent of the others."
Hart started campaigning immediately once he got back in and tried to talk about his "new ideas," but once the novelty of his re-entry into the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination campaign wore off, the press lost interest in talking to him.  And while it was unfair to shut out his ideas over a cruise to Bimini with a second-rate model, it was all for the better, because when he did engage with the press over his reputation for womanizing, he only drew more comparisons to Richard Nixon, having already been compared to the former President for his deviousness and his hostility toward the press.  In January 1988, in an attempt to put the womanizing issue behind him, Hart, who had admitted the preceding summer that he'd been unfaithful to his wife earlier in their marriage, said in an interview, "I wouldn't be the first President to commit adultery, but I would be the first President who's ever confessed [to it]."  Thus, Hart downplayed his own guilt by citing others similarly guilty - just like Richard Nixon would have done.  In that same interview, he added, "One could argue - I wouldn't - that Ronald Reagan walked away from a marriage."  Thus, Hart pointed out something unpleasant about someone else while evading the credit for pointing it out - just like Richard Nixon would have done.
And there was a reason he had no money.  He still had $1.3 million in outstanding debts from his 1984 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination against Walter Mondale, and when he filed for federal matching funds after he got back in the 1988 campaign, many observers thought it was a way to get some dough to pay off his 1984 debt. It didn't help that $101,000 from his abortive start for the 1988 campaign was tied up in a lawsuit filed by campaign creditors from . . . 1984.
Wonder whom he would have appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury?
William Greider of Rolling Stone, in a 1988 column explaining why a Democrat would win that year's presidential election, pretty much got Hart right even as his prediction for that November turned out to be dead wrong.  "Gary Hart is everyone's favorite subject of conversation - until the talk turns serious," Greider wrote.  "He has a Nixonian shiftiness in his eyes, but Hart lacks the true venom of Nixon's twisted soul.  Hart got the full benefit of a media blitz during the primaries of 1984, but he blew his magic moment.  This time, I expect an early fade, once voters face the real question about his presidential character in the privacy of the booth.  Hart can depart with a semblance of honor, claiming vindication from the votes he will get.  Or he can make things even more sordid and painful for the party by sulkily clinging to a doomed venture.  I expect him to do the right thing when the time comes, partly in the mistaken notion that he can still become somebody's Secretary of State.  Forget it, Gary; it's over."
Hart had already burned his bridges in May 1987, when he let down his supporters by letting his campaign get derailed by an avoidable personal issue and blaming everyone but himself for it.  While he apologized privately for the scandal to his closest aides - including Martin O'Malley, who rejoined Hart when the former Colorado senator re-entered the presidential campaign - he failed to apologize publicly to the masses of people who'd gotten behind him, and while he remained a mentor to numerous Democratic politicians, he lost millions of admirers he would never get back.  I, for one, had washed my hands of Hart by December 1987; I was already supporting Dukakis, and I was in no mood to switch back to a quitter who was now trying to get attention to remain "relevant."
Just like Richard Nixon did so many times after 1974.
Hart stayed in the campaign through the first thee months of 1988, coming in last in both Iowa and New Hampshire; it was clear that the voters in 1987 had not loved him in December as they did in May.  By the time of the Super Tuesday primaries in March, he'd been promoting his policies more than running for the Presidency.  As Greider had accurately predicted, he dropped out a second time, conceding that the people had pretty much decided.  And when a Democrat finally won the White House in 1992, Hart's reputation was so damaged that it's easy to see why Bill Clinton chose Warren Christopher to be his first Secretary of State.
Hart, to be fair, redeemed himself in the field of foreign policy.  He remained a popular foreign-affairs expert on news talk shows in the nineties and two thousand zeroes, and he helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, which had endured a long sectarian war.  He served President Barack Obama twice - first as Vice Chair of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, then as Obama's special envoy to Northern Ireland.  And, to be honest, the current rash of harassment scandals makes Hart's boat ride to Bimini look quaint by comparison.  But his greatest claim to fame is still as the man who went from being the forty-first President of the United States to being a joke on late-night television . . . until late-night comics found someone else to joke about.  And he never overcame his reputation as a jerk; a ladyfriend of mine actually crossed paths with him in Los Angeles back in the 1980s and told me that she thought of him as a pompous sort who really fancied himself - the very definition of a jerk.  And when one woman was asked by Newsweek what Hart's wife should have done after he cheated on her, the woman replied, "I'd have told her to leave the jerk."
The jerk.
And that's not the end of it.  Coming in 2018 - The Front Runner, a Jason Reitman movie about the Hart scandal based on Matt Bai's 2014 book on the subject, starring Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart.
It's a comedy.

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