Jack Ohman

Jack Ohman: A look back at Gary Hart

There is a fascinating story in The New York Times Magazine about former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign and the role journalists played in its destruction.

Hart looked very much like the front-runner in 1987 for the nomination when The Miami Herald printed stories about his affair with a woman not his wife, Donna Rice. The Miami reporters staked out Hart’s Washington, D.C., townhouse, acting on an anonymous tip from another woman who had very intimate knowledge of Hart’s activities.

The upshot of the Times story was to challenge a long-held canard about the Hart story, which was that the senator had dared the national media to “put a tail on him.” He said they would be “very bored.” The truth is a bit murkier; the Miami Herald reporters were unaware that he had, in fact, issued this challenge. Hart’s dare led to the media’s justification for going with the story. After all, Hart put it out there, right?

Well, kind of. But not really. He mentioned this in passing to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and it was reported later, after the story had broken.

I write about this now because I drew a lot of cartoons about this event at the time and was extremely uncomfortable with it. But there was more to the Hart implosion than The New York Times story suggests.

Let me address the discomfort.

First, we are all human. I certainly wasn’t aware of the interior of Hart’s marriage, and sometimes these things are way more complicated than they look. People make arrangements, or they are secretly separated, or they are trying to work things out and so on. Second, this wasn’t remotely like the later Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky mess. Donna Rice wasn’t a Hart intern.

I’m not saying Hart exhibited good judgment. I am saying it was none of my business.

I don’t recall Hart going around saying anything like he’d be the Savior of the American Nuclear Family. He did talk about things we now commonly discuss, like rogue terror states, rebuilding infrastructure and engaging with our foes. So I was compelled, like the entire U.S. political commentariat, to make jokes about Hart’s escapades.

This coverage, without question, led to people deciding that Hart wasn’t going to make it. He dropped out. What people forget, though, is that Hart re-entered the race later that year and went up to New Hampshire, where he got thoroughly trounced. That wasn’t addressed in the Times article.

Second, people were looking closely at Hart for far different reasons.

We want to know our leaders before we give them our votes. Hart was tough to figure out. He seemed to be a changeling, a guy from Nowhere, a former Nazarene. He had changed his name from Gary Hartpence to Gary Hart. That hurt him when it came out.

When he was a young guy, Hart loved Jack Kennedy so much that he seemed to be pantomiming him. Anchor Roger Mudd once famously challenged him on the air to have him do his impression of all the Kennedys. He testily declined.

Hart had been Sen. George McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972. He parachuted into Colorado and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974. As a senator, the introverted Hart had few friends but was respected as a thinker.

The Colorado senator had dramatically changed his signature and was very defensive about it, I remember. His favored private pastime was sculpting birds out of wood, which were said to be quite stunning.

Hart also engineered a really nice little commission for himself as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve at the age of 44. I tried to get one as an ensign at age 41 and was told, after a very long process, that would not happen. I guess being a potential presidential candidate and a U.S. senator helped a bit.

So, yes, Gary Hart got a raw deal. No question. Not a lot of journalists I knew were happy about it. They didn’t sign up to work for the National Enquirer, and neither did I.

But in the Times story, there were omissions, shall we say, that I think painted a rather different picture than I recall.

I am glad Hart is doing well. He is a very thoughtful man whose life was altered dramatically, only partly by his own doing.