“When I announced for president in 1987, we did it right up there,” Hart said, pointing toward a rock formation at the top of the hill.
I tried to imagine the lectern set against the red rocks and blue sky, the crush of cameras and the palpable sense of history. Hart’s aides had wanted him to do something more conventional, with a ballroom and streamers and all of that, but he insisted on standing against the mountainous backdrop, near the amphitheater he called “a symbol of what a benevolent government can do.”
Back then, Hart was as close to a lock for the nomination — and likely the presidency — as any challenger of the modern era. According to Gallup, Hart had a double-digit lead over the rest of the potential Democratic field among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.
“Must have been a hell of a backdrop,” I said. Hart didn’t respond, and after an awkward moment, I let it drop.
As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap. When they talked about him now in Washington, Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce. He warned of the rise of stateless terrorism and spoke of the need to convert the industrial economy into an information-and-technology-based one, at a time when few politicians in either party had given much thought to anything beyond communism and steel. But such recollections were generally punctuated by a smirk or a sad shake of the head. Hardly a modern scandal passed, whether it involved a politician or an athlete or an entertainer, that didn’t evoke inevitable comparisons to Hart among reflective commentators. In popular culture, Gary Hart would forever be that archetypal antihero of presidential politics: the iconic adulterer.