Can Gary Hart Find Himself? : He Would Be an Active President--With No Joy in the Job

<i> Jack Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly. </i>

When he was a child, Gary Hart wondered aloud whether the epitaph on his tombstone would read: “Who Was He?” And, to a peculiar degree, his wavering identity remains the most troubling question about him.

Politically, of course, there is little doubt who he is. His voting record over the two terms that he served as a senator from Colorado is that of an uncommonly thoughtful and independent liberal who showed flashes of political courage in voting against the Chrysler bail-out and for the breakup of the large oil companies--a powerful home-state lobby. In his penultimate year in the Senate, indeed, Hart was rated its most liberal member by Americans for Democratic Action--the Dunn & Bradstreet of liberalism.

He won that rating by switching his position to vote in favor of gun control, something that he could do only because he was not seeking reelection. Coloradans who were against gun control could be forgiven for thinking that his vote for gun control was as opportunistic as his earlier votes against it had been--Walter Mondale having made political capital out of them in the 1984 primaries. Which is the real Gary Hart? they must have asked themselves. Where, in short, is the beef?

You can bet on it: That gibe will once again come wafting into our living rooms, courtesy of the evening news, during the 1988 campaign for the presidency. It will be borne on paragraphs like this one, plucked from 1984. The speaker was Jack Smith of ABC News, broadcasting on the eve of Super Tuesday:


“Like many politicians’, Hart’s moves have sometimes appeared calculated. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan swept the country, Hart was nearly defeated in Colorado. A month later Hart acquired the military record missing from his resume. He got the Pentagon to waive his age and make him an officer in the Naval Reserve--'clearing the biographical decks for 1984,’ quipped Evans and Novak. Hart and his wife, Lee, have been separated twice. Just a few months before he announced, though, they were reconciled. Hart also has changed his religion from evangelical Methodism to Presbyterian, changed his signature . . . changed his name--he was born Gary Hartpence--and he’s even fudged the year of his birth, 1936, but for years Hart has listed it--a ‘family joke,’ he says--as 1937.”

Any one of these “moves” is defensible-- for example, how would you like to have been called Hard Pencil as a teen-age boy?--but altogether they form a cloud of inexpungible doubt: Is this man certain enough of his real self to be President?

What we might call Hart’s authenticity problem stems partly from the pain in Hart’s real past--a loving but troubled mother who bred rootlessness in her son by moving restlessly from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood in tiny Ottawa, Kan., and who enforced a life-throttling religious discipline on his up-bringing; partly from the rough fit between the chapters of Hart’s protean life, and partly from the telltale lack of weight of his adopted generation.

Though he was born during the Depression, Gary Hart seems much more at home in the generation to which he makes his strongest appeal--the baby-boomers of the postwar era. Like those of them who managed to avoid the Vietnam War, Hart’s identity has not been sculpted by the big, raw sweeps of history that we call The Depression and The War. History took a furlough, giving the postwar generation a rare freedom to be. Hart made the most of it; he transformed himself from a poor small-town Kansas boy into the holder of two advanced degrees from Yale, a senator, novelist, thinker and presidential candidate. But a knack for self-transformation, as against steady development from well-sunk roots, however admirable, is not, finally, reassuring. When will it stop? we want to know. When will he arrive at a self that he likes?


Hart is made up of complex parts, which often conflict. This intelligent man gives too many hostages to fortune for his own good. When Sally Quinn of the Washington Post asked why he was not living with his wife, he replied, “Let’s just say I believe in reform marriage.” In the 1984 campaign, having established an image of himself as a candidate who does not pander to special-interest groups, Hart trashed that image in the New York primary by switching his position on moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem--a crude stratagem calculated to appeal to New York’s Jewish voters. In Illinois, more self-inflicted wounds. In New Jersey, a state that he should have carried, an invidious and rankling comparison to California, a slip of the tongue that belongs, like other Hart gaffes, in a “Psychopathology of Everyday Politics.” And so on.

Small blunders--the venial sins of politics, yes, but they tell us something about the kind of a President that Hart would be. So does his well-documented passivity in moments of adversity--and there were many--during the 1984 campaign. And so does his oft-confessed aversion to politics as opposed to government, which he likes.

What do these things tell us? The best study on predicting performance in the White House is James David Barber’s “The Presidential Character.” After sketching a number of explanatory categories, Barber says: “The most important thing to know about a President or candidate is where he fits among the types, defined according to a) how active he is, and b) whether or not he gives the impression he enjoys his political life.”

Hart would unquestionably be an active President, believing as he does that “government is the instrument by which we solve our collective problems.” But, clearly, he would take no Rooseveltian joy in the job. He belongs among Barber’s “active-negative” types--with Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Lyndon Johnson. Of these three, Barber writes: “At the core of their way of approaching the presidency was an image of self. In each case, self-esteem was only tentatively established, continually threatened by doubt.”


That could be a description of Gary Hart--a man as calculating as he is idealistic, as flawed as he is gifted; a man of this moment; a President of our disorder.