Why Lee Hart Is Back : Her Inner Circle Describes How She Put Aside Scandal and Returned to the Campaign Trail

This story is based on reporting by Times staff writers Nikki Finke in Los Angeles, David DeVoss in Denver and Betty Cuniberti in Washington. It was written by Finke.

Before Gary Hart formally announced last spring that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, he hosted a weekend camping retreat in the mountains near San Juan Capistrano for his inner circle.

One night, as the group gathered around the fire, "there was an open discussion and everyone was throwing in their two cents," recalls John Emerson, then Hart's deputy campaign manager and now a deputy Los Angeles city attorney. At one point, Hart's wife, Lee, hurt by womanizing rumors that were already surfacing, launched into an emotional soliloquy.

"She talked about her belief in Gary and what he had to offer. And tears were streaming down her face," Emerson says. "And she said, 'That's why, no matter how tough it is, and how much the pain, I will campaign from morning till night across this country for this cause.' "

That's the sort of story that friends, family and former aides tell about Lee Hart today to explain why she was back on the campaign trail with her husband last week, attempting to revive a campaign that disintegrated eight months ago over rumors of his sexual infidelity.

To many, her appearance alongside him in New Hampshire and South Dakota was almost as astonishing as his decision to re-enter the presidential race. "It's like getting hit in the back of the head for months, and then asking to take it front on," says Los Angeles businessman Rick Allen, former California coordinator for the Hart campaign.

'Ultimate True Believer'

But friends say it's typical Lee Hart. They describe a 51-year-old mother of two who has more faith in her often rocky 30-year marriage than she has in the press; a veteran campaigner who is "the ultimate true believer" in her husband's presidential timber, even if it means sacrificing her privacy for his ambition; and a loyal wife who was able to forgive her husband's adultery even while maintaining a strong sense of denial about it.

"One of the things that made me the angriest this year was when people said, 'Well, she's going to stick with her husband, because she's a dishrag,' " Gary Hart said Sunday on "60 Minutes." "No one who knows her would call her that or suggest she was weak in any way. (She's a) very strong woman."

Lee Hart, who declined a request for an interview, offered this defiant explanation on a street corner in Portland, Me.: "Obviously, I am not here because anyone forced me to be. I wanted to be here. I have never wanted my husband to be President. But I have put my personal feelings aside, because I believe very much that the country deserves to hear his voice."

Shortly after Gary Hart withdrew from the presidential race last May, the wife of another Democratic contender imagined herself in Lee Hart's situation. "If I were Lee, my self-respect would say, 'I've gotta leave this guy,' " she mused in an off-the-record interview.

John Emerson found much the same attitude in Los Angeles. "The minute I came back here from Denver, everyone said, 'Well, when are they getting divorced?' " he recalls. "And I was always convinced they wouldn't. Because when you come through a crisis like this, it either blows you apart or it binds you closer. And it was clear from the outset that this was going to be a bonding experience for both of them."

In fact, friends and family say Lee Hart never talked about divorce. "Oh God, I don't think so," says Wren Wirth, wife of Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) and a friend of the couple for more than a decade. "Not a chance; not even a hint," agrees Patricia Duff-Medavoy, who helped mobilize Hollywood's big contributors behind Hart in 1984 along with her husband, Orion Pictures executive vice president Mike Medavoy.

Instead, Lee Hart's friends see her decision to stick with her husband as typical of a generation of women who came of age before the modern-day women's movement gained momentum and who may have had jobs over the years but not full-fledged careers.

"Lee is a person who knows what it means to make decisions for the better of the team rather than ascribe to the notions of the women's movement saying, 'I come first,' " says Sally Henkel, a longtime confidante and the wife of the Cleveland attorney who managed Hart's 1984 presidential bid.

Echoes Wren Wirth: "You don't break up your marriage over something like that. . . . I think people our age and from the center of the country have a very different view of marriage. Marriage is marriage and it's a commitment and you stick with it. You have good times and bad times, you turn on your strength of character and you come through it."

When the Miami Herald published stories linking Gary Hart with Miami model Donna Rice, Linda Spangler, a family friend in charge of Lee Hart's campaign schedule, rushed out to the Hart family home on a road known as Troublesome Gulch in Kittredge, 27 miles west of Denver.

"Gary was calling three or four times a day, but Lee was amazingly calm," Spangler remembers. "She refused to read any of the newspaper stories, but it was impossible to ignore the pictures in the (National) Enquirer. But even then she never thought about leaving him."

Over the summer, some friends found that she "really felt that Gary did not do anything," in the words of one supporter. "Yeah, he was caught in a compromising situation with Donna Rice. And, yeah, she knew the whole story about the Washington Post (which reported that it had evidence linking Hart to another woman), but she felt that it was jumping to conclusions on scant evidence."

They cite it as an example of what one former campaign aide called her "enormous capacity for denial."

Others, however, believe that Lee Hart simply forgave her husband. "If she can forgive Gary's foolishness, then the rest of the nation ought to, too," notes Gary Hart's uncle, Ralph Hartpence. Andrea Hart, the couple's 23-year-old daughter who attends the University of Denver, agrees: "He made a mistake, and Mom knows that you don't divorce a person because they made one mistake, whatever that mistake may have been. She's amazing."

But even Andrea admits that "probably any other woman might have divorced their husband. She's very understanding."

Or else very ambitious. For years, the buzz in Washington was that Lee Hart wanted to be First Lady as badly as Gary Hart wanted to be President, and maybe even more.

She was often portrayed as an ambitious political wife willing to tolerate an unfaithful husband as long as his womanizing didn't keep him out of the White House. There was talk, fueled by their two formal separations, that the Harts had an "open" marriage.

But the Harts' inner circle say both pictures are overdrawn. "People want simple explanations for complex people, and that was a simple explanation for Lee," says Rick Allen.

Sally Henkel insists Lee Hart "campaigned hard because she was trying to get Gary elected for Gary's sake, not for her own. . . . She wasn't running for First Lady."

When Hart announced his withdrawal from the race in an emotional speech in Denver, friends say, Lee Hart's reaction was mostly one of relief.

"Not from the standpoint that the race was over," says Emerson, "but from the standpoint of 'Now the press will leave us alone.' It's like you're in an accident and pinned under a truck, and finally the thing is lifted off of you."

For days the family had been besieged. More than 200 journalists camped out by the gate. Three helicopters swooped overhead. Satellite trucks blocked the roads. News cameras whirred every time Lee Hart went to the window. A photographer climbed onto the roof of the Harts' home at night. And Andrea had to hide under blankets in a car to sneak out.

'She Was Radiant'

One Los Angeles supporter who was with Lee Hart in Colorado recalls that, after looking like a "piece of bruised fruit" in New Hampshire at the height of the scandal, "the day he got out, she was radiant. I thought she looked better than I'd seen her look in years. It was sort of like, 'Aaah, I get my life back.' "

For the next eight months, Lee Hart was rumored to be hiding out. In reality, according to one supporter, "she was taking it easy, relaxing for the first time, just basically enjoying herself."

She spent her days playing tennis, reading the mail that continued to pour in, and spending hours on the phone. One former campaign official received a call from Lee Hart about three weeks after her husband's withdrawal. "She laughed a lot and seemed very relaxed. I remember her saying, 'Can you believe there's no place I have to be today?' "

As the summer wore on, Gary Hart traveled to Brazil and Germany for his law firm, around the United States on a speaking tour, and to Ireland for a vacation with their son, John. By the end of autumn, he was on the road three to four days a week.

Friends who stopped by Kittredge found an unconcerned Lee Hart arranging her house, putting up curtains and feeding an array of wild animals, including a family of wild raccoons. She also traveled (to Connecticut and New York to see friends) but did not join her husband, friends say, because she was tending to such business as putting their Washington townhouse up for sale.

Search for Income

"And she was trying to figure out what to do with her life," one supporter insists, "something to earn income because they really did need it." The one-time schoolteacher told family and friends she was thinking of going back into real estate because she had been moderately successful at it when Hart was in the Senate.

Also, by all accounts, the Harts were working through their marital problems. But friends who saw Lee Hart during this period found that she needed no comforting. "I took Lee and a few of her friends out to lunch just to get away from politics. I had intended to offer my support," recalls Dottie Lamm, wife of former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, "but she had the strength to deal with problems herself."

Those who saw the Harts together last summer and fall said they showed no evidence of marital strain. John Emerson joined them at the 50th birthday party for Buie Sewall, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, and found them "very relaxed. It was just fun, social hugs and kisses." And when Wren and Tim Wirth went horseback riding with the Harts in Eldorado Springs this fall, "They were just fine together," Wren Wirth recalls. "There was lots of laughter. We had a ball."

By all accounts, if Lee Hart was angry at anyone during this time, it was at the media. "She was pretty bitter about the press, and I'll tell you why," says Emerson. "They were like a pack of wolves, literally, in terms of the physical, coming after her family. It was a visceral reaction."

And, in talking with her inner circle, Lee Hart clearly believed that the media had treated her husband badly. "She felt that Gary in some ways had been set up by the press," one friend recalls.

Wren Wirth thinks Lee Hart was "more angry at the meddling" than at her husband's relationship with Donna Rice. "She considered it a situation that was private that was made a big to-do by the press."

Even so, she agreed to speak to the Journalism and Women Symposium over the Labor Day weekend. But when three journalists said they would not honor a longstanding rule that her comments would be off the record, she canceled. "This confirmed all Lee's doubts about journalists," says Tricia Flynn, who had extended the invitation. "Lee was very sad and complained that nobody would allow her to be an ordinary person."

But did the Harts want to become just "ordinary" people after so many years in national politics? Gary Hart didn't. And Lee Hart did and didn't, according to friends.

"I think she really thought he was finished, and that the chances of him coming back in the next eight years was very unlikely. Their whole lives have been geared to this goal so long that suddenly having it taken away from them was very disorienting. For both of them."

Within the context of their marriage, running again seemed plausible. For one thing, Sally Henkel believes, the press no longer had the power to wound her.

"How much more can they hurt them? There's no more hurt to be had," Henkel notes. "The papers could be filled with information that most of us would consider to be additionally damaging. But the impact has already been made, the healing process has already been completed and there's no more opening of the wound."

Though Lee Hart began hinting to her closest confidantes at Thanksgiving that her husband might enter the New Hampshire primary, the decision was not made until Dec. 6. "The three of us were sitting in the living room," Andrea says, "and the filing deadline was less than a week away. I asked Dad if it was a green light. He said, 'Do you want me to do it?' "

Andrea was squarely behind it. "If I was angry at him for anything, it was that he got out," the daughter explains. But Lee Hart was the one who raised the red flag, "What was most important to her was that we realize it would be hard to go through it again," Andrea recalls.

In the end, though, Lee Hart went along. "She was as much in support of Dad as anyone could be," Andrea says. "That was probably one of the main reasons why Dad decided to do it."

When her friend and neighbor Tricia Flynn expressed reservations, Lee dismissed them summarily. "For her," Flynn says, "it was one more sacrifice."

It was not the first time she had sacrificed to further his career.

When Oletha (Lee) Ludwig met Gary Hartpence on the campus of Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma, the only thing the two students shared was a strict upbringing in conservative Kansas.

Raised in Kansas City, she was gregarious and politically attuned. Her father had been general secretary of the Nazarene Church, and her older sister, Martha Keys, would later become a member of Congress. Hartpence was a gangly loner from a hick town called Ottawa.

In 1958, two months after graduation, they married and set out for Connecticut where Gary, who later changed his name to Hart, had a scholarship to Yale Divinity School.

Supported by his wife, who earned $4,000 a year teaching English, Hart immersed himself in a world of ideas, leaving her behind intellectually, friends say.

In 1964, Hart, a law degree added to his divinity certificate, was hired by the Justice Department. It meant Lee could quit her job, but she was dogged by feelings of inadequacy. "I just reached a point where I didn't like myself very much," she told The Times during the 1984 campaign, adding that she would have sought professional help except "we couldn't afford it."

In 1967, Gary Hart moved his family to Denver. To her new friends, Lee soon became the embodiment of the perfect wife. It was Lee who cut the grass on weekends in front of their three-bedroom brick house in the Park Hill section of the city.

Repeated separations prompted an uncomfortable number of rumors, especially in 1972 when Hart ran off to manage George McGovern's election campaign, leaving his wife in Colorado. "The hi-bye relationship made some people think they were separated, but Lee didn't care what outsiders thought," Flynn says.

Gary Hart "might have been the poorest member of the Senate," Wren Wirth notes. "They have not one dime other than his salary, and that didn't cover expenses." Raising two children and maintaining residences in Denver and Washington consumed the couple's financial margin of comfort, so Lee Hart "had no option but to work," Dottie Lamm says.

She took a job as a realtor to pay the children's college tuitions, but money was a constant domestic problem.

Potluck Suppers

When her husband brought home campaign co-workers, it was Lee Hart who browned roast beef and baked potato dinners, organized backyard barbecues and fixed potluck suppers. And when Ginny Terzano, who was Hart's deputy press secretary earlier this year, noticed cobwebs on the windows of the family cabin, it was Lee Hart who cleared them away. "It's not that she's a bad housekeeper," Terzano explains. "But she's not going to hire a maid to dust the rooms once a week."

Over the next few weeks at least, those cobwebs are sure to multiply. Because, as daughter Andrea points out, her mother and father will be making joint campaign appearances for the foreseeable future, with Gary Hart taking pains to introduce his wife at every stop, in order to demonstrate their togetherness to voters.

"I think it's always been important with any campaign and any candidate, especially with what Dad had to go through, the scrutiny, the criticism," Andrea says.

But then again, "this isn't a traditional campaign," she notes. "Maybe the message they want to get across is they are a close family."

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