'Come On In' : Gary and Lee Hart Offer a Rare Look at Their Private Life in Troublesome Gulch

Times Political Writer

The scene was a baggage carrousel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. It was nearly midnight and the place was forlorn, almost deserted. Outside, the wind whipped at piles of dirty snow.

Gary Hart stood waiting for his luggage to drop.

By his side--as she is almost always now--was his wife, Lee. Nearby were three reporters who had traveled with Hart for weeks and had come to share a certain amount of camaraderie with him. As the reporters' bags arrived, they discussed which bar they would head for to have a nightcap.

Meanwhile, Lee Hart, a charming, ebullient person who likes to talk, started up yet another conversation with her husband about his renewed presidential campaign. Hart listened, but the look and the little wave he gave the reporters as they departed was unmistakable: Take me with you. Please.

As he enters the second month of his renewed quest for the Democratic nomination, Hart is on an odyssey, one that has as much to do with getting his self-respect back as it does with the long-shot possibility of winning the White House. It is an odyssey in which Hart faces a couple of paradoxical--and poignant--situations.

Wife Has to Be There

For this to work at all, given his departure from the race last May over reports of his "womanizing," Hart has to have his wife by his side. That is less painful than some might assume because the Harts' 29-year marriage appears surprisingly strong. But it is also true that they have always given each other a lot of space.

And there isn't much space right now.

Also, Hart needs reporters even as he rails at them. Their offense, as he sees it, was the invasion of his privacy last May when the Miami Herald staked out his Washington townhouse and discovered him in the company of Miami model Donna Rice. But without the media there is no one to relay the image of the warm response he receives wherever he campaigns. And there is no one to report his indignation and his challenge to those who say he has no place in the campaign.

So, sometimes the Harts cannot resist talking to reporters. They enjoy getting into spirited discussions, and one such argument recently led to a startling proposal from two people who have always guarded their privacy, especially from the press.

"I want you to come up to our house and we'll finish talking about this," Lee Hart said to this reporter during a flight from Boston to Denver. We were arguing over whether Hart could overcome the unfavorable rating that many people give him in polls, even as some of them make him their first choice in the Democratic race.

Hart looked dubious about his wife's invitation, then finally left it up to her.

But it was Hart himself who called a few days later. "Why don't you go up early and Lee will show you around the place," he said. "I've got some stuff to do at my law office and I'll be in later."

The invitation provoked some ambivalence. Was this a setup to provide a look at the happy Hart family at home? Hart would call that another cynical thought from a cynical reporter. But there have been so many stories about Hart's dual personality, his mix of idealism and calculation, that the doubts continued as he gave instructions for finding his home.

In the end, of course, it was an opportunity that couldn't be turned down.

Kittredge is about 45 minutes west of Denver on the way to the big Colorado ski resorts. The residents, many of whom wear cowboy boots and leather vests, are a mix of folks with genuine rural roots, a few leftover hippies and some well-heeled lawyer types who like being able to live in the woods and still be close to Denver.

With its steep, meandering roads branching off in several directions from the main highway, it looks a little like Topanga Canyon. The Harts' cabin is in a canyon called Troublesome Gulch.

Lee Hart waved a greeting from the back of her Jeep station wagon as she picked up a sack of groceries.

"This is the place," she shouted. "You found it. Pull back the gate and come on in. Leave it open for Gary."

The car spun in the snow and ice that covered the final yards of the driveway. Up on the hillside was a small log cabin with a hand-carved wooden sign over the door: "Three Pines."

Gary Hart's sanctum sanctorum.

Built in 1910, it was once a stagecoach stop between Kittredge and Evergreen. The Harts moved there from Bethesda, Md., after Hart decided not to seek a third U. S. Senate term in 1986. And since they have sold the infamous Washington townhouse, the cabin is their only residence.

It is so small that most of their possessions are jammed into a stone storage building nearby.

Lee Hart came down dressed in a red ski jacket and jeans to lead a walk around the property.

The Harts' dogs, Smoky and MacArthur, plowed through the drifts to a ditch where Lee Hart had found an ailing raccoon earlier in the day.

"I took it down to the vet but he doesn't have a license to work with wild animals," she said. "So I put it in the house and we're going to see if we can get it to a vet in Boulder. I think it has distemper."

She paused at a large rock by the side of a creek. It was an isolated spot. The only sounds were the wind in the pines and the aspens and the gurgling of the creek beneath its shell of ice.

"We had the greatest picnic on this rock last April right before Gary announced the first time (for the presidency)," Lee Hart said.

"Up there," she said with a wave of her hand, "is where Gary wants to build a house for us someday. He'll probably do a lot of it himself."

The site was a boulder-strewn hillside that overlooks the meadow and a small "mountain" that is the highest point on the property.

"We originally bought the cabin and 25 acres because that was all we could afford," she said, adding that they later purchased another 150 acres or so with a loan from their longtime friend, actor Warren Beatty.

"This is where Gary and I will grow old and die," she said. "We love it up here."

The conversation turned to marriage.

The Harts are in their early 50s. Hart, the candidate of the yuppies in 1984, is identified with a younger generation, one that was shaped by the Vietnam war, rock 'n' roll and such issues as women's liberation. But their marriage belongs to another time.

After Hart went to the U.S. Senate in 1975, he was often away from home for weeks at a time, Lee Hart said, growing intellectually and meeting stimulating people, while she stayed behind and raised their children, Andrea and John.

Never Enough Money

It was not an easy time, she said, in part because there was never enough money.

"People think all senators are rich," she said. "Listen, I was still ironing Gary's shirts until a couple of years ago. We had kids to educate and all the other bills. I took a job selling real estate in Maryland because we had to have the money. We couldn't make it on Gary's salary."

It was during the Senate years that rumors about Hart's affairs with other women began to build. The strain led to two separations, but the Harts got back together before he ran for President the first time in 1983-84.

It seemed to be a reunion of convenience. Reporters covering the 1984 presidential campaign couldn't miss Hart's attitude toward his wife. When she was around at all, she was "an afterthought," in the words of one close Hart aide.

But if there is any upside to the Rice episode, it appears to have pulled the Harts closer together.

Traveling Together

"Now I can travel with Gary, which is what I always wanted to do," Lee Hart said.

Of course, in many ways that is a political necessity for Hart now.

But reporters covering Hart have noticed what appears to be genuine affection between him and his wife. He sometimes lets his wife finish his sentences as they sit together at campaign stops, something that would have been unheard of in the old days.

He calls her "Babe," a nickname he has used in private for years. And she calls him "Honey," even when their give-and-take gets testy, as when she challenges his recall of events that occurred early in their marriage.

Back at the cabin, a thought begins to percolate. Do the Harts sleep in the same bed?

Tour of the Cabin

Suddenly, as if in answer, Lee Hart said, "Here, let me give you a tour--if you can call it that, this place is so small."

We were in the main room, which for many years was all there was to the place. It is about 30 feet by 40 feet and the ceiling is so low that Lee Hart, a tall woman, nearly touched it with her head.

The walls and ceiling are pine logs chinked with mortar. There is a black-and-white photograph over the sofa showing Hart sitting on a horse and brushing dirt out of his son's eye. There are a couple of chairs, a fireplace with a mounted deer head above it, and a bookcase along one wall that contains the Harts' favorite books. It is a mix of fiction--much of it 19th Century and early 20th Century--and philosophy and political books.

She led the way up a landing to their bedroom, which is almost completely filled by a king-sized bed. There is a television at the foot of the bed and several piles of books.

Children Are Grown

There is one other bedroom, which is often occupied by son John or daughter Andrea, both now in their early 20s.

John Hart was home that day but spent most of his time outside tending to the ailing raccoon. The conversation moved to the kitchen, and while Lee Hart put away the groceries, she mentioned the Washington townhouse.

"The thing about that damned place was that we only got it because it was convenient to have since we were going to be back in Washington during the campaign. It was a beautiful place, but we didn't like it that much. The kids used it more than we did. I was only there once.

"And when the Rice thing happened, what people don't know is that Gary would never have been foolish enough to carry on in that house because we rented out the first floor to a person who works on Capitol Hill. You had to go past that apartment to get to our quarters."

She continued to talk nonstop as she offered to mix a drink and prepared a smorgasbord of cheeses and crackers.

Suddenly, the front door opened, bringing in a blast of cold air.

It was Gary Hart.

He smiled and stuck out his right hand. His tie and camel blazer looked out of place in the cabin.

"Welcome to Three Pines," he said.

Fan of German Writer

He had dropped by a book store on the way home and found a collection of short stories by the early 19th-Century German writer Heinrich von Kleist, which he had mentioned some days earlier.

Hart used the name of one of von Kleist's most famous characters, Michael Kohlhaas, for one of his own characters in his recently published novel, "The Strategies of Zeus."

He changed into jeans, a navy-blue chamois shirt and cowboy boots, walked over to a stereo unit and put on a compact disc. It was modern jazz pianist George Winston, a master of soothing, reflective compositions.

Hart put his boots up on the coffee table and launched into what is his favorite subject these days.

"Why do you think so many of the pundits in Washington oppose my getting back into the race?"

Questions and Answers

Probably, it is two things: to them he showed bad judgment back in May by hanging out with Rice. Also, not many opinion-makers are buying his argument that he got back into the race because there was a need for his ideas.

As she would do for the next two hours, Lee Hart suddenly came sailing in from the kitchen to add her opinion, noting that her husband had worked "too long to change the direction of the country" not to take another whack at the presidential race.

As her soliloquy lengthened, Hart's face suddenly broke up. He laughed loudly and winked.

But he grimaced when the subject turned to the stakeout of the townhouse. He glowered and his wife headed back to the kitchen. Although Hart has acknowledged that he acted foolishly and not altogether straightforwardly in the Rice incident, on the stakeout he gives no ground and notes that even some in the media agree with him.

"Public officials are entitled to some privacy," he said. "With the technology we have today you can find out anything you want about someone. But is that what we want in this country? This is America. Yes, I made a mistake. I've said that, but was spying on my home justified?"

Discusses Mistakes

His wife came back in to comment. Hart got up to put on another compact disc.

"How about the Eagles?" he asked.

Then, turning to his wife, he said, "Where are we going to eat, Babe?"

Lee decided on a place down the canyon. John wandered in and agreed to go along.

Hart suddenly looked at his wife and son as they were putting on their coats and said, "The mistake I made, and I know it now, was in not ever letting people know much about my family life.

"So the only side of me you got was from all the rumors. But I can't stand politicians who sell their families. And I also believed my family life was nobody's business. I wanted to protect my family from politics. We didn't even talk about politics around the dinner table. I wanted us to talk about other things, like books and ideas."

Trip to Ireland

At the restaurant the dinner conversation was mostly about the trip Hart and his son took to Ireland last summer. Hart quizzed his son about what he had been up to while his parents were campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa.

The Harts acknowledged they face an uphill struggle trying to win the Democratic nomination.

Later, outside, Hart opened the Jeep door for his wife while his son climbed into the back seat.

Putting on his cowboy hat, he swung behind the wheel and headed out of the parking lot. As their Jeep pulled onto the road, Gary Hart turned slightly in his seat and tipped his hat.

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