Gary Hart has consistently trod the unbeaten path. As a young Denver attorney, he hooked up with George McGovern, the darkest of dark horses, and together rewrote the book on how to win the Democratic nomination. Two years later, Hart ran for the US Senate from Colorado, a state where Nixon had crushed McGovern two years before. He rode the post-Watergate Democratic tidal wave and entered the Senate at the tender age of 37. In 1984, Hart’s own presidential insurgency nearly knocked off Walter Mondale as he challenged Democrats to look to the future instead of their past.
By crafting a candidacy based on “the new,” Hart discovered the door which others, like Clinton and Obama, successfully opened in later contests. Walter Mondale, on the other hand, represented the past and became a forlorn caricature that Republicans were able to lampoon to a 49 state win.
A decade after leaving the national political stage, Hart still remained ahead of the curve. In 1998, at the request of then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen, he served as co-chair of US Commission on National Security/21st Century (known as the Hart-Rudman Commission). It was a blue ribbon panel which conducted a comprehensive review of the global security environment and the final report concluded that the United States was vulnerable to a massive terrorist attack that would claim the lives of thousands. Prescient as always, the report’s conclusions were delivered to the Bush Administration in early 2001 and buried, months before the tragic events of 9.11.
Remaining in the Arena. The predictable route for retired politicians usually involves a lobbying shingle and an exact change lane. However Gary Hart took a non-traditional path and along each step of the way, he has constantly remained a step ahead of the pack.
Gary Hart returned to The Luncheon Society after a two year absence for gatherings in Manhattan, Los Angeles, as well as San Francisco. He was on tour to talk about his memoir, The Thunder and the Sunshine/Four Seasons in a Burnished Life which takes a non traditional route of telling his story through the rubric of Tennyson’s epic poem “Ulysses.”
Throughout, we were thankful that our friend Jim Day was able to host the Luncheon Society gathering at Prime House in Manhattan and Bennet Kelley was able to host at Westwood’s Napa Valley Grille in my absence, while I moderated events from San Francisco at Credo, a locale we visited for the first of many future gatherings.
New beats Old. For Hart, trumpeting “the new” meant dislodging those who profited from the Old Order. After their disastrous 1968 Convention, Democrats began a long process of soul searching that took the better part two decades to resolve. The architect of the New Deal Coalition died suddenly in 1945 and the various parts were beginning to self-destruct and break away due to the social frictions of the 1960’s. The intellectual engine of the Democratic Party stopped producing and “where to next” revealed more questions than answers.
After Chicago, George McGovern selected to rewrite the nomination rules for 1972. The new roadmap would bypass “smoke-filled rooms” of labor leaders, big city urban bosses, and a random collection of insiders to create an inclusive structure. Primaries would matter and result in delegate counts, not “beauty contests” for state governors to muscle in as “favorite sons” to help broker the outcome. Minorities, women, and the young now had a place at the adult table and the complexion of delegates would represent Democrats throughout the nation.
In 1971 when McGovern began his long shot race for the nomination, the only people who truly understood the new rules of the game were George McGovern and Gary Hart. In many respects, McGovern’s 1972 campaign was an updated version of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 effort while heavyweight candidates like Ed Muskie and Henry Jackson ran for the nomination like it was still 1960. Hubert Humphrey implausibly tried to recast himself as “The People’s Candidate” but only emerged as a contender in the California Primary as a “Stop McGovern Candidate.”
Miami and the Birth of the New Democratic Party. Hart mentioned that political births were often messy public affairs and this was no different. Unlike 1968, those who were outside in Chicago moved indoors for Miami and they quickly discovered that running a national election was far more difficult than organizing a protest march. McGovern beat back a variety of Democratic power groups and delivered an acceptance speech in the wee hours that nobody ever saw. The party planks, especially over abortion, became a series of pained moments, and the delegate vote for the Vice Presidential nomination revealed all sorts of mischief, as people like Mao Zedong, Martha Mitchell, and Jerry Rubin received votes. Worse, Tom Eagleton, McGovern’s choice for VP (who after his death was outed as the source behind the McGovern smear as “the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion”) withdrew because of mental health issues he failed to disclose during the vetting process.
The McGovern campaign, Hart noted, maneuvered around the establishment players to win the nomination, found that the Empire did indeed Strike Back in the fall campaign and they lost 49 out of 50 states. However, what made McGovern (like Goldwater before him) different is that the campaign stood for something. “Come Home America,” was more than a speech, it was a feeling that still makes those associated with McGovern proud of their endeavor nearly four decades later. Hundreds of local activists cut their teeth in that campaign and Hart gave Bill Clinton a job managing the effort in Texas. The emotional impact of the McGovern campaign, like Goldwater’s effort, lives on.
Hart and the Rise of the Class of 1974. Many who worked on the McGovern campaign found themselves running for elective office themselves and Gary Hart was part of the Class of 1974. Not only did he and his new colleagues (aligned with senior liberals) break down the old seniority system, but they also began to ask a number of uncomfortable questions about policies that were often left to the margins of cloak and dagger governing. At the behest of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Hart found himself as a member of The Church Commission that investigated CIA abuses, referred to as its Family Jewels ranging from attempted assassinations, coup involvements, and domestic spying, all at odds with their charter and certainly against the law. With that, he explored and privately investigated the deeper implication of what really took place in Dallas in November 1963.
Every political action coincides with an equal reaction. By the late 1970’s the Carter Administration was faltering. In 1976, Carter improved McGovern’s insurgent model and was able to unite both houses of the Democratic Party to squeak out a win in the fall. However, the partisan cleaves that began in 1968 were fully exposed as Ronald Reagan crushed Carter in the fall campaign. At the convention, Carter argued that Reagan’s style of conservatism would undermine the New Deal and Great Society construct, but offered very little new ideas on his own. However, it was Reagan who offered new ideas for the 1980’s and voters bit. Meanwhile, in Colorado Gary Hart somehow held on by 21,000 votes and won a second term in the Senate.
1980 begat 1984. The sole upside of the 1980 wipeout is that a newt construct of ideas had the chance to bathe into the sunlight because longtime traditional liberals like Warren Magnuson, Frank Church, Birch Bayh, George McGovern, and Gaylord Nelson found themselves swept out by the Reagan riptide.
As the race for the 1984 Democratic nomination came into focus, Mondale was the inheritor of its past, John Glenn reached out to moderate and Reagan Democrats, and those who more left-leaning split their allegiances between George McGovern and Alan Cranston in the early going before coalescing around Jesse Jackson in the middle to late primaries.
While these five candidates began their trajectories, only Hart carved of a reputation as a candidate who built an intellectual underpinning to his effort; he was somebody who was willing to examine and question the most sacred of cows. As the Glenn campaign deflated on the night of the Iowa caucus, a large hole opened up on the landscape and Hart ran with it. He finished second in Iowa with 17% but them turned things upside down with an upset win over Mondale in New Hampshire. While it was followed by a number of key wins, especially in the Western half of the country, Hart could not match the political machine Mondale built over time with labor, money, and a daisy chain of endorsements.
Mondale won the nomination and announced that he would raise taxes in his acceptance speech. As they say in boxing circles, Mondale led with his chin and never got up off the canvas.
1988 and Beyond. To Hart’s credit, he cared deeply about issues of policy as 1988 came into focus. Policy was not meant as a political lever to drive contributions but was serious stuff unto itself. Hart prepared a program to drive substantial national investment into building a new economy to replace the old heavy industry jobs that fled overseas to lower wage locales. Based on his visits to the Soviet Union, he believed that Gorbachev was ready to wind down the Cold War with the right incentives and even prepared to invite the Soviet leader to his inauguration to press his point.
However, it was not to be. We all know what happened and it bears no repeating. After departing from the political field, Hart settled into a career of an international lawyer and academic but still carried a thoughtful voice when it came to the national interest.
Our parents were right; we should respect our elders. Democrats and Republicans treat their candidates and elder statesmen differently and it speaks volumes about ourselves. Republican candidates are allowed to “season” and grow over a number of presidential cycles. It is common for Republicans like George Bush or Bob Dole to run in several serious campaigns before winning the nomination. In 1968, the idea of Ronald Reagan as President was laughable. In 1976 it was plausible but by the fall of 1980 it was inevitable. In 1984, he was simply unbeatable. Perhaps Sarah Palin is really running for 2016 through 2012 using that Reagan logic. Statesmen like Bob Dole, Howard Baker or George HW Bush are warmly welcomed at Republican conventions and events.
On the other side, Democrats are horrible to our candidates and elder statesmen. Our candidates get one shot and then we are looking for somebody new. Democrats like to discover something shiny but are too quick to discard them for something even newer. We discovered George McGovern only to discard him when he lost. In 1984, Jimmy Carter looked like an unwelcome guest at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco after serving one term as President. Until the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore wandered the wilderness. The same can be said for the likes of Mike Dukakis and Gary Hart; even today the latter can talk rings around current Senators when it comes to foreign policy and the former is sharper than the majority of sitting governors.
Hart looks to a smarter international construct. For example, Hart believes that National Security expands beyond military planning. National Security since the end of World War II meant comprehensive weapons systems; it meant containment of the Soviet Union. It also meant containment in some of the unseemly back alleys of the world. However today, viral pandemics can get on a plane in Hong Kong in the morning and begin to infect LA in the afternoon.
Security also includes Environmental Security or Economic Security. No single nation can drive another by coercion alone without serious costs; moreover, the rise of Globalism has begun to erode the basic integrity of nation-states. Microsoft has more clout than Micronesia.
The pendulums of history swing back and forth. Hart noted that from 1932 to 1968 was the Age of FDR; from 1968 to 2008 was the Age of Nixon; 2008 and beyond offers hope. Democrats owned the foreign policy sphere until the rise of Nixon. Multiple engagements of soft and hard power will define how the United States is perceived throughout the world. Democrats need to take the bull from the horns so that “multi-engagement” does not sound like weakness.
Between 1947 and 1991, two superpowers kept a lid on a number of simmering conflicts but once that conflict was removed from the landscape, a whole of “mini-Yugoslavias” popped up throughout the globe. With the rise of other players on the global scene, like the Chinese and others, the world has become a more difficult place to maneuver. Nothing can be reduced to a Cold War paradigm anymore. However, Hart argues that the three basic powers that a nation-state can employ (political, economic, and military) only the United States can articulate a fourth power—moral authority.
Perhaps, as Hart noted in past gatherings, there is a need to create an Organization of Democracies, roughly 20-25 nations with western style governments designed not to replace the UN but create a nucleus of nations where they can act in congress together whenever problems crop up throughout the world.
If The Luncheon Society can amplify the voice of Gary Hart and others, then we have done our job.
A Final Thought. Several years ago, when Gary Hart spoke at Luncheon Society gatherings in Westwood, one of the participants asked Hart if he ever watched The West Wing knowing that Lawrence O’Donnell, who was at the table, served as the Executive Producer and had crafted many of the characters and storylines. Hart replied that almost too painful to watch because it gave him a glimpse of what could have been. A sentence later, the conversation came around to O’Donnell. He talked about the creation of Josiah Bartlet, and mentioned that instead of creating the character to look like Pat Moynihan (his initial instinct), his wife challenged him to fashion it around those he truly admired. As a result, there was a lot of Gary Hart in the Martin Sheen character.
When O’Donnell finished his sentence, people simply stopped talking. Clocks stopped moving. Hart was rendered temporarily speechless, but spoke haltingly, and felt deeply honored. Those of us around the tabled were stunned and when I looked across the table at Ted Johnson, who writes the online Wilshire and Washington column for Variety; he looked back at me with utter surprise.
Years later, we both understood what it truly was; a moment captured in amber. However, it should have been a presidency.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Manhattan. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.