Gary Hart has just released a fascinating personal memoir. In The Thunder and the Sunshine: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life, the former U.S. senator and presidential candidate weaves his personal story and observations through the history of the past 40 years.
An accomplished author of more than a dozen books, Hart's been in a unique position throughout. And in this book, Hart unleashes a slew of intriguing vignettes that bring those decades of modern American history to life.
Reading the book, which is a brisk read at 240 pages or so, I'm struck by the threads of continuity running from 1970 to 2010. Then, as now, America was in a state of imperial overstretch, riven by a foolish war and roiled by divisive politics, fatefully dependent on foreign oil and tethered to an old energy economy that threatens the future of our economy, our environment, and our security.
Gary Hart has had a unique vantage point throughout.
Inspired by the Kennedys and his Nazarene upbringing, Hart attended Yale Divinity School before switching to Yale Law School, where he had a classmate named Jerry Brown who had also switched from spiritual and philosophical pursuits to public affairs. The young Kansas-born lawyer went to work for the Justice Department, then moved west to Denver and the Rocky Mountains that had always fascinated him.
There, as an activist, he met Senator George McGovern, then making swings around the country as head of the Democratic Party's reform committee, charged with making changes to the presidential nominating process in the wake of the disastrous 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. McGovern, a highly decorated hero of World War II-turned-rather mild-mannered history professor, had picked up the fallen standard of the Robert F. Kennedy forces at that convention and was not nearly the controversial figure he was to become.
Impressed by his energy and organizational acumen, McGovern made Hart the manager of his nascent presidential campaign, which merely became arguably the most consequential losing presidential campaign in American history, bringing movements for human rights, peace, and the environment into mainstream electoral politics.
Emerging from that crucible, Hart in 1974 made what seemed a longshot stab for a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado. He won in a landslide, spending the munificent sum of $350,000 which, even with inflation, would be a small amount today.
Upon entering the Senate, Hart was thrust into the middle of the groundbreaking Church Committee investigating the runaway excesses of the intelligence community, encountering White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney and CIA Director George Bush, two figures who would loom prominently in his life, and the life of the nation, for the next 35 years, almost immediately. He also formed a personal friendship with a Navy captain named John McCain, and was part of his wedding to Cindy McCain.
As America drifted out of one foolish debacle of a war in Vietnam, and into another in Iraq, Cheney and the Bush clan, as it happens, were present at most critical junctures.
From the wreckage of the McGovern campaign, as he made plain in his 1973 book about the campaign, Right From the Start, Hart believed that the Democratic Party needed to retool, to avoid clinging to New Deal shibboleths while embracing the New Deal ethic of experimentation for the common good. He also believed that the party could not simply be an anti-war party, that it needed a credible doctrine of national security.
So in addition to being a founding member of the Senate Intelligence Committee as a young freshman senator, Hart also took a post on the Armed Services Committee, where he began developing a doctrine of military reform which sprouted into a large bipartisan congressional caucus he co-chaired with Newt Gingrich, then a far less harshly partisan figure than he ultimately became. Eschewing the ever-spiraling complexity and costliness of gold-plated weapons systems favored by defense contractors, Hart championed a new doctrine of maneuver warfare that proved highly effective in the first Gulf War.
And he traveled the world, checking out such emerging hot spots as Iran, where a rather hair-raising visit made it clear that an unacknowledged anti-Americanism was very much on the rise even as our great ally the Shah held power.
Hart organizes his memoir, framed by Tennyson's famous poem "Ulysses," around four sections.
"Sailing Into A Revolution" covers the period from 1968 through 1972, in which Hart emerged as a serious political activist and then as McGovern's presidential campaign manager. Among other things, Hart gave Bill Clinton his first real job in politics. The McGovern campaign, in all its glory and pathos, is well-described, with Hart providing telling and amusing anecdotes. "It is difficult to find political organizers as imaginative as Segretti anymore, especially if they have a reluctance to serve hard time," he writes, referring to one of Richard Nixon's meisters of dirty tricks.
"Governing In A Darkening Grove" takes us through the period of 1975 to 1971, Hart's first term in the U.S. Senate. It's a particularly fascinating time in American history, in which the dark underbelly of politics is exposed for the first time in the wake of political assassinations, Vietnam, and Watergate, with Hart in the thick of it all as an investigating senator. The oil economy became even more dominant in American life -- with all the economic, environmental, and security risks that that entails -- even as Hart and others pushed for energy efficiency and more use of renewable power sources.
It's also a time in which the Senate was a very different place, a place of serious debate with Democrats and Republicans able to work together under the leadership of Hart's mentor, Montanan Mike Mansfield, a time which came to an end with the 1980 elections and the resurgence of the right and the rise of a harsher politics.
"Ambition In the Counter-Reformation" covers 1981 to 1988, dealing with Hart's early positioning as a dark-horse presidential prospect through his emergence as a front-running contender for the presidency and its aftermath in the wake of the controversy around his personal life. With Hart the only targeted Senate Democrat to survive the Reagan landslide -- due in part to de facto backing from, ironically, fellow Westerner Barry Goldwater, the archconservative who today would be a rather moderate Republican -- he explores a run for the White House and finally takes it on.
As he departed on an election day flight from first-in-the-nation Iowa to New Hampshire, I told Hart I expected him to finish second behind front-running former Vice President Walter Mondale, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart replied that that if he was second in Iowa he would win the New Hampshire primary eight days hence. Hart had been languishing in fifth place in Iowa a month earlier. He ended up winning 26 states, but fell short of the nomination at the Democratic national convention in San Francisco.
After that, and with polls having shown him running within a few points of President Ronald Reagan even as Reagan swept to the predictable landslide over old guard Mondale, Hart was the clear front-runner for the presidency in 1988, with a big lead over all Democrats and over George Bush. Hart prepared for the presidency, developing a strategic investment initiative to retool the economy and forming a cautious friendship with Russian reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. But it all came tumbling down in controversy over Hart's private life. Political journalism had suddenly changed, and the tabloidization of the media was underway.
Fiercely private, Hart doesn't delve into his relationship with Donna Rice, but does address the constant canard that the press merely took up his challenge to investigate his private life. He had issued no such challenge; the quote frequently cited to support that notion was a throwaway line in a New York Times magazine cover story published after Hart's Washington townhouse was staked out by the Miami Herald. The reality is that the Herald was tipped, and used, repeatedly about Hart's movements by undisclosed players.
"An Odyssey Continues" takes Hart from 1988 through the next 20 years, in which he reemerged as an international lawyer, author, diplomatic back channel, and elder statesman. His fascinating work in helping modernize the infrastructure of the late Soviet bloc and other parts of the developing world, his back channel diplomacy, and his leadership of the Clinton-created U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century are all well covered.
The commission, which Hart co-chaired with former Senator Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican, at the direction of Hart's old friend and spy novel co-author, moderate Republican Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, forecast the geopolitics of the coming quarter-century and recommended new strategies and security arrangements to meet emerging challenges. It is famed for having predicted major terrorist attacks inside the U.S. over a year before 9/11.
But the new Bush/Cheney administration ignored the warnings, even though then National Security Advisor Condi Rice had served on the advisory board of Hart's Center for A New Democracy think tank when he was running for president.
I'm tempted to go on at length about all this, but Hart tells his own story in this very fine and briskly enjoyable book.
On a personal note, I've known Hart for decades, and have worked with and for him on several projects. As those who read his front-page columns here on the Huffington Post know, he is the real deal, a man of intellect, and a man of action. He is also a man of humor, loyalty and kindness.
Now serving as scholar in residence at the University of Colorado after completing his doctorate at Oxford early in the past decade, Hart is co-chair of the U.S/Russia Commission, from which he's counseled the Obama administration on the "reset" of relations with that reemerging great power, and chairs the Threat Reduction Advisory Council.
If you want a sense of the continuity of American politics and geopolitics from the Vietnam War through the post-9/11 era, with a fascinating personal story in the bargain, this is the book for you.