Opinion: Barack Obama’s Gary Hart moment?


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No, we’re not talking about the ‘Monkey Business’ boat picture and the accusations of having an affair with Donna Rice that drove Gary Hart from the 1988 presidential race.

Instead, we’re referring to some poorly chosen words by Hart during his 1984 campaign, in which, as an insurgent candidate, he came oh-so-close to winning the Democratic nomination from the establishment favorite, Walter Mondale. With that race in mind, blogger Jon Perr offers an interesting historical precedent on Barack Obama’s San Francisco comments on small-town Pennsylvanians.

In his Perrspectives blog, Perr likens Obama’s remarks to something Hart said about Pennsylvania’s neighboring state, New Jersey. Writes Perr:

The timing for Barack Obama could not have been worse. Just as he was closing the gap in a decisive Pennsylvania primary that could be a knockout blow against Hillary Clinton, Obama may have produced the unforgettable gaffe that derails his growing momentum in that state -- and beyond. Just ask Gary Hart. In late May and early June 1984, Hart was locked in a tight New Jersey primary contest he had to win to deny Mondale a first-ballot nomination at the Democratic convention the following month. At a California fundraiser eerily reminiscent of Obama’s this week, Hart and his wife Lee spoke with reporters at a Los Angeles event. In one moment of carelessness, Hart, too, struck a nerve with voters in a critical state. As Time magazine recalled: ‘In a classic campaign boner, he exposed his sarcastic side at a fund raiser in Los Angeles. The ‘bad news,’ he told a well-heeled audience standing on the lawn of a Bel Air mansion, is that he has to campaign apart from his wife Lee. ‘The good news for her is that she campaigns in California while I campaign in New Jersey.’ When Mrs. Hart interjected, ‘I got to hold a koala bear,’ Hart sniggered, ‘I won’t tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic-waste dump.’ Hart went from closing fast on Mondale in the Garden State to a decisive 15 point blowout a week later. Mondale went on to sew up the Democratic nomination thanks to the delegates he swept in New Jersey. The rest, as they say, is history.’ As I can personally attest, the impact of that one cataclysmic slight against the good people of New Jersey was lasting. I not only worked for Gary Hart in 1984, but was at the photo-op at the toxic waste dump in question. While hanging out at the Jersey shore the next summer, I was harangued by a woman who saw my ‘Gary Hart for President’ t-shirt. ‘I hate him,’ she said, ‘because he insulted our state.’


Past isn’t necessarily prologue, of course. But it is worth noting. Hart is an Obama supporter so, if nothing else, he gives the senator from Illinois a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.

-- Frank James

Frank James writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune’s Washington bureau.