Gary Hart

updated 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

This summer, several months before next March's New Hampshire Presidential primary, the small towns of the Granite State are already aswarm with Democrats feeling a public calling to change their address to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The candidates have issued myriad statements, but none said anything remotely resembling what Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado uttered upon his arrival at a gathering of teachers in New Castle: "They're having a picnic," Hart whispered to his local campaign manager. "I don't want to horn in."

What? This man is running for President and he doesn't want to horn in? It's unthinkable. To campaign is, by definition, to horn in. Smile, shake hands, kiss babies, make a quick stump speech and then look for another gathering to horn in on. But not Gary Hart in New Hampshire.

In Somersworth, Hart arrived at a festival in a National Guard armory just as everybody was sitting down to eat. He didn't want to disturb them. He refused to let aides announce his arrival and clung to the wall, hands in pockets, until staff members lured a few people away from their barbecued chicken to greet him. In the Nashua Public Library, he met a group of concerned citizens and environmentalists, a natural constituency. But he didn't make a speech. He didn't even ask for their votes. Instead, he listened politely—even when a woman held the floor for a full half hour to talk about her problems with various bureaucracies. And he never interrupted her. "I find it hard to turn people off," Hart says. "I'll talk to them as long as they want. Politicians mostly talk down to people. I talk up to them. People are sick of slogans and bumper stickers."

Bumper stickers. To most politicians, they are a gimmick. To Hart, they are an epithet. When he really wants to rip Ronald Reagan—whom he calls "the most irresponsible President in history"—he says, "Most of Reagan's philosophy could fit on a bumper sticker."

Gary Hart doesn't cram his philosophy onto bumper stickers; he airs his ideas in "issue papers." Hart is famous for his issue papers. Last year, when he was toying with the idea of a Presidential run, he wrote issue papers on everything from reindustrializing America to reforming the military. These papers were distributed at last summer's Democratic miniconvention in Philadelphia. When he returned to Washington, he found his office besieged with requests for copies—generally by Democratic candidates who wanted to use his ideas in their congressional campaigns.

Hart likes to experiment with ideas. Forget his background as George McGovern's campaign manager; Gary Hart is not a knee-jerk anything. He stakes out positions all over the political landscape and attacks cows sacred to various groups, from multinational corporations to labor unions to New Deal liberals. He says he'd cut "at least $20 billion" from Reagan's military budget, which offends various big industries and big unions. He promises to reform entitlement programs—he doesn't say which—but old-school liberals cringe anyway. He says he'll do away with most income tax deductions or introduce a tax on spending, which scares the kind of people who finance their ski chalets through tax loopholes.

Armed with such ideas, Hart—who is, at 45, the youngest candidate—touts himself as a man with a "fresh approach," a leader for "the next generation." Thus far, however, neither the next generation nor this one has stampeded to his clarion call. He runs well behind Walter Mondale and John Glenn in opinion polls, with less than 10 percent of Democratic voters surveyed supporting his candidacy. (In a recent Washington Post/ ABC poll of registered Democrats, just 4 percent picked Hart.) Worse, he has already finished behind California Sen. Alan Cranston in straw polls in two key liberal states, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Cranston has used the nuclear freeze issue to attract the kind of zealous grass-roots volunteers that Hart used in McGovern's campaign—and hopes to use in his own.

Hart's rivalry with Cranston, 69, has flaired into a feud. This spring an irked Hart confronted Cranston on the Senate floor to demand that Cranston's top aides stop spreading rumors that the Hart campaign was in its death throes. Cranston promised to rein in his staff, but Hart still nurses a grudge. "Alan has sort of matched himself up with me because he wants to get me out of the race so he can be No. 3," says Hart acidly. "I think he's pretty well acknowledged that he can't be considered a serious candidate as long as I'm in the race."

This kind of sourness is unusual coming from Hart. Friends chalk it up to his bitter disappointment over the way the campaign is going. "He had it figured out and it's not working," says one Democratic observer. "Now he's angry. It's as if he's saying, 'Get out of my way and let me take my place as rightful leader of this generation.' "

Then, too, Hart finds himself in an unusual position: He is losing. A winner since his high school days in Ottawa, Kans., Gary Hartpence, as he was then known, was editor of the school newspaper, vice-president of the junior class, and a member of the band, the Key Club, the drama club, and the football, basketball, track and tennis teams. "My upbringing," he says, "was about as close to Happy Days as you can get."

It was also about as American as you can get. Hart's grandfather was a Missouri frontier marshal. His mother was a railroad worker's daughter and his father a farm machinery salesman who never hit it big. Both parents were devout members of the fundamentalist Church of the Nazarene. In 1954 Gary won a scholarship to Bethany Nazarene College near Oklahoma City. It was a strict school—smoking, drinking and movies were forbidden—but Hartpence did well, winning the "Good Citizenship Award."

After a summer of putting down railroad tracks, he married fellow student Oletha "Lee" Ludwig and they headed for Yale, where Gary studied at the Divinity School—his eye on a teaching career—while Lee taught high school English. Three years later he was accepted at Yale Law. "Teaching was not an active enough life," he says. "A law degree just seemed to offer a great deal more flexibility."

With the change of careers came a change of name—for Gary and his father. "He wasn't ashamed of the name," says his uncle Ralph Hartpence. "It's just that Hart is a lot easier to remember than Hartpence."

In 1964 Hart took his law degree to Washington and worked for Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department, then as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. In 1967 he and Lee and their children—Andrea, then 3, and John, 1—moved to Denver. Hart joined one of the city's most prestigious law firms and dabbled in antiwar politics. In 1968 he organized phone banks for RFK's ill-fated Presidential run.

Two years later, at 32, Hart quit his job to run George McGovern's Presidential campaign. He proved to be a wunderkind, a whiz kid who organized hundreds of thousands of grass-roots volunteers into a machine that beat such seasoned pols as Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie for the Democratic nomination. His role did not go unnoticed. "Hart is strikingly handsome, chillingly incisive and an obvious organizing genius," wrote columnist Joseph Alsop. Today Hart shrugs off such praise. "It was done with smoke and mirrors," he says. "I didn't have that much experience, but I was able to organize people's talents and direct them."

The smoke and mirrors didn't work in November—McGovern was massacred at the polls—but Hart emerged unscathed. Two years later he ran for Senator from Colorado. He presented himself as the representative of "a new generation," and won 57 percent of the vote in a state where McGovern drew only a pitiful 35 percent.

Gary Hart stood out in the staid Senate like a cowboy in the Kremlin. There he was—longish hair, mod suits, boots and a staff that called him "Gary" instead of "Senator"—right there on the same Senate Armed Services Committee with Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis. But if some of his Senate colleagues viewed the newcomer as a maverick, they were soon surprised. Hart established himself as a thoughtful, knowledgeable spokesman for military reform. Instead of simply arguing against defense spending, he argued for different defense spending. He opposed the MX missile but favored the Trident submarine. He also argued against huge, complex weapons systems in favor of smaller, simpler systems in larger quantities—many small, quick aircraft carriers, for instance, instead of a handful of huge hulking ones. "You can disagree with him politically," said Barry Goldwater, an unlikely admirer, "but I have never met a man who is more honest and more moral."

While Hart thrived in the Senate, the long nights and near-constant travel strained his 21-year marriage. Late in 1979 the Harts separated, Gary moving into bachelor digs with Bob Woodward of Watergate fame while Lee and the children remained in their Maryland home. The Harts reunited several months later. But after Gary's reelection in 1980, they separated again, this time for more than a year. Shortly before Hart began his Presidential campaign, they reunited a second time. Lee denies that the reconciliation was politically motivated. "If we were that kind of political animal, why did we separate in the first place?" she says. The Senator is reluctant to comment. "I'm shy," he says. "I'm the most private politician you ever saw in your life."

Shyness is an endearing characteristic for a public person, but perhaps not politically advantageous. "I don't think Gary has ever let anyone know him," says a close friend in the Senate. "How does he expect people to vote for him if they don't know him?"

Hart's campaigning style highlights his "limitations." Like Ted Kennedy, he hates crowds. Unlike Kennedy, though, he cannot deliver rip-roaring, ovation-inspiring oratory. He does not coin memorable catch phrases; he simply does not possess a bumper-sticker mind. He is soft-spoken on the stump, and he sometimes comes off as bureaucratic and detached. His is a style that works well on television—and one-on-one—but fails to electrify.

Hart's oratorical shortcoming is not his only problem. Money is not pouring in, and he has already lost a key advisor—William Romjue, who organized Iowa for Carter in 1980 and was doing the same for Hart until he quit last month over deteriorating finances.

Such setbacks lead many Democratic campaign experts to pronounce the Hart campaign DOA. "Gary can't do for himself what he did for McGovern," says one prominent Democratic organizer. "McGovern had the Vietnam War, and he was the symbol of opposition to the war."

Not surprisingly, Hart thinks he can use the McGovern guerrilla-operation strategy again. He claims that he'll have 10,000 volunteers working in the winter, building on the excitement generated by what is conceded to be a good organization in New Hampshire. He has also eased his money problems by lining up benefits by Jimmy Buffett and possibly Robert Redford and arranging for a $350,000 loan from a Washington bank. "If I were designing a campaign, I'd have myself positioned exactly where I am now," he says.

Brave words, but they don't stand up well to the sunlight of political reality. Just last week Hart's campaign manager, Oliver ("Pudge") Henkel, announced a major shift in strategy, designed to clothe Hart in the garments of "a genuine grass-roots candidate." From now on, Hart will attempt to preserve his dwindling campaign funds by avoiding the nonbinding straw polls and candidate "cattle shows."

Some observers perceive this midstream change as the final sign that Gary Hart is not a candidate whose time has come. The thought may have occurred to the candidate as well. Recently, riding back to Boston after a weekend of campaigning, Hart unexpectedly revealed another side of his ambition: "What I'd really like to do is to go to Ireland and write fiction. I'd like to live on the west coast of Ireland. If you want to do something, and you just keep thinking about it, you should do it. I will do it..." Then, perhaps realizing he'd let slip something out of the ordinary for a still-hopeful Presidential candidate, he added a quick clarification: "...probably around the end of my second term."

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