- Published: 3 December 2018
- ISBN: 9781760144821
- Imprint: Penguin eBooks
- Format: EBook
- Pages: 288
The Front Runner
To get to the tiny village of Kittredge, Colorado, which for five days in 1987 became the unlikely center of the political solar system, you have to take the interstate about ten miles west of Denver and then follow Bear Creek Avenue as it winds its way up the mountain. Your average navigation device will get you pretty close, but Gary Hart, despite having once been an evangelist for the digital age, doesn’t really believe in such wizardry, so he insisted I follow him from downtown. This was a clear July day in 2009, with the heat visibly baking the city sidewalk. He poked his head into my driver’s side window like a nervous father, genuine concern in his gray-blue eyes as he ran through the list of turns we would soon be taking and which I couldn’t possibly have remembered. Then he jumped into his red Ford Escape—a hybrid, of course—and started toward the entrance to I-70.
I followed him for twenty minutes or so, until just before we hit Bear Creek Canyon, near a row of touristy restaurants and gift shops. There he unexpectedly alit, leaving the Escape idling in the middle of the road with the door wide open, and approached my window. “Did I show you Red Rocks last time you were up here?” he asked. I mentally winced, remembering my last trip out here to interview him, almost seven years earlier, and the painful story that had come of it. Hart now professed not to remember that incident in our relationship, and I came to see that this was his most common defense mechanism; when he wished not to revisit something in his life, he often affected a kind of fogginess about it, as if it existed only in his mind and could somehow be expunged. I said no, I hadn’t seen Red Rocks, and he assured me it was worth a look.
And so we headed for Red Rocks Park and brought our cars to a stop in a deserted gravel lot, maybe a hundred yards from the breathtaking copper cliffs and boulders—the kind of thing one can find only in the American West or the Arabian desert—into which Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA had ingeniously carved what is now a famous American amphitheater. The rocks were brilliantly lit in the midday sun, which burned our uncovered heads as we trudged up a steep incline toward the amphitheater’s entrance.
I found myself breathing heavily in the mile-high air, but I was more aware of Hart, who labored audibly despite his legendary ruggedness. Wouldn’t it be his luck to collapse in the company of a journalist, a member of the fraternity he had resented all these years? The most famous picture from Hart’s first presidential campaign, where he came from nowhere in 1984 to stalemate Walter Mondale and overturn the aging Democratic establishment in the process, was the one from New Hampshire in which the flannel-clad candidate had just managed to hurl an ax through a log from a distance of forty feet. (At least Hart remembered it as being forty feet. No one was going to quibble with him now.) Hart had been youthful even in middle age, his chestnut hair evocatively Kennedyesque, his smile magnetic and knowing.
Glancing sidelong at the seventy- two- year- old Hart now, though, I saw that he had developed a paunch and was slightly stooped, his arms swinging crookedly at his sides. He wore black pants and a black Nike polo shirt, from which tufts of chest hair sprouted near the unbuttoned collar. His famous mane, still intact but now white and unruly, framed a sunburned, square-jawed face. From a short distance, you could easily have mistaken this older Hart for Charlton Heston.
“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. He had a strange mannerism, which some of his longtime acolytes still liked to ape good-naturedly, in which he would raise his bushy eyebrows several times in quick succession before making some wry observation. Flicker flicker flicker, the eyebrows went. “Those reporters looked like they were going to drop,” he said in his Kansas-bred twang.
I tried to imagine the podium 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 had insisted on standing alone against the mountainous backdrop, near the amphitheatre he had called “a symbol of what a benevolent government can do.” Pledging to run a campaign of ideas, he had added, in words that later seemed ominous: “Since we are running for the highest and most important office in the land, all of us must try to hold ourselves to the very highest possible standards of integrity and ethics, and soundness of judgment and ideas, of policies, of imagination, and vision for the future.”
Standing amid that outcropping, Hart had been as close to a lock for the nomination—and likely the presidency—as any challenger of the modern era. According to Gallup, the leading polling firm of the day, Hart had a double- digit lead over the rest of the potential Democratic field; the second and third most popular choices, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca and New York governor Mario Cuomo, weren’t even running. 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 thirteen points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided.
In its annual survey the previous year, Gallup placed Hart fourteenth on the list of the most admired men in America, a few places ahead of Bill Cosby, Tip O’Neill and Clint Eastwood, and within striking distance of Ted Kennedy and the Bishop Desmond Tutu. He would have been hard to stop.
“Must have been a hell of a backdrop,” I said. Hart said nothing further, and after an awkward moment, I let it drop.
We took a quick tour of the amphitheater, and then Hart led me back onto the road. Here the mountain pass serpentined for miles as it climbed to seven thousand feet above sea level, with nothing but rock facings and fir trees for long stretches of the ride. I flipped on the radio in my rented four- wheeler and hit the “seek” button until I landed on the public radio station one can almost always find in such places, nestled near the low end of the dial. The American media at that moment was obsessed with the case of Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s governor and a guy who had been considered a likely Republican presidential candidate until his life had recently unraveled on national television. Sanford, who had been quite the moralizer during the scandal over Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern years earlier, had apparently been carrying on his own long extramarital affair with an Argentinian woman, which came to light when he disappeared from the state for several days, apparently because he had fallen deeply in love and lost all sense of time or self-preservation.
Now, on Planet Money, a reporter was talking to a behavioral economist named Tim Harford, an Oxford professor who had apparently decided it was worth his time to apply his skills to the phenomenon of adultery. According to Harford, illicit relationships were the function of a simple cost- benefit equation; people stayed in them when the benefits outweighed the costs, and got out of them when the reverse was true. After Harford went on about this theory at some length, the interviewer, in the studiously understated tone of public radio reporters everywhere, asked him a question. Why, if this business about costs and benefits were true, didn’t politicians ever seem to learn from their mistakes? Why cheat on your wife when you know that the cost to your career ambitions would very likely be catastrophic?
Politicians screwed up his modeling, Harford admitted. Clearly there were mysterious human factors at play, beyond our scientific reach.
There was, of course, something surreal about hearing this conversation while simultaneously maintaining a respectful distance behind Gary Hart’s red Escape. As anyone alive during the 1980s knew, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, had been taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal of his own making, an alleged affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the boat beside which they had been photographed together—Monkey Business. This was Hart’s enduring legacy, the inevitable first line in his front- page obituary, no matter what else he did thereafter, even if he cured cancer or found the unified string theory or went completely bonkers and tried to hijack an airplane midflight.
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. A top Democratic strategist in town had once described Hart to me as “the most important politician of his generation who didn’t become president.” But such descriptions were generally punctuated by a smirk or a sad shake of the head. Hardly a modern scandal passed, whether it involved a politician or athlete or 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.
I felt a stab of anxiety now as I stared at the outline of his head, just visible above his car’s cushioned headrest. Hart was exactly the kind of guy who would listen to NPR while traveling back and forth to Denver several times a week; he might not even know that other stations existed. I imagined him now, listening to Professor Harford hold forth with great gravitas on the folly of promiscuous politicians. Perhaps Hart felt tempted to simply yank the wheel to his left and plunge into the steep ravine below, to make sure once and for all that he would never again have to endure the musings of those who professed to know what made a man fit to serve. Or maybe Hart had long ago resigned himself to such discussions and was grateful simply to have escaped, in this instance, the almost automatic allusion to his once promising career.
Soon the expanse of scrub and rock on either side of the canyon road gave way to a village with a five-and-dime, a feed store, an animal hospital, and a nursery, and then Hart turned right onto Troublesome Gulch Road. Old cabins with penned animals sat alongside newish, seven-bedroom monstrosities along the gravel drive, and our tires kicked up plumes of dust as we made our way to the place where the road ended at a wood gate, immediately in front of us. Other than the sign that greeted us—PRIVATE ROAD KEEP OFF—the only hint that anyone of note lived here was the security keypad that Hart now bypassed using some device inside the Escape, so that the gate swung open and he waved for me to follow.
We rumbled past the old, 1,200-square-foot cabin where Hart and his wife, Lee, used to live, the sparse kind you normally think of when you hear about bygone politicians and their log cabins. That’s where the Harts found themselves barricaded for days in 1987, hiding behind covered windows while choppers circled overhead. Further up the road sat the grander cabin the Harts built almost immediately after his forced retirement. The campaign supporter who had promised to secure a loan for the full 167 acres disappeared after the scandal. It was Warren Beatty, Hart’s close friend from his days on the McGovern campaign and one of the few to stick with him, who lent them the money, which Hart quickly repaid.
The cabin was a two-level, two-bedroom affair fashioned from one hundred tons of beetle- killed Rocky Mountain pine. Four rambunctious dogs, including one the size of a love seat and another that was missing an eye, jumped and splayed around Lee as she greeted us in the kitchen. “Mrs. Hart,” as her husband unfailingly referred to her (or sometimes “the widow Hart,” if he was feeling sardonic), explained to me that their son, John, kept collecting the dogs from shelters. “Apache, down!” Hart shouted in annoyance as the largest one tried to knock me backward. “C’mon, Patch!” Then to Lee, with exasperation: “Babe, get the dog.”
Lee was a year older than Hart and still pretty in a timeless, prairie sort of way. The Harts met at Bethany, a small Nazarene college in Oklahoma, where Lee was something of a celebrity, her father having been a church elder and past president of the college (and where Hart very narrowly lost his first political race, for student body president, because he had allegedly been present at a gathering where an open can of beer had been spotted—an allegation he would deny, persuasively, for the rest of his days). Together they had made an unthinkable journey from those days of small-town Bible groups to the halls of Yale, where Hart started at the Divinity School and went on to study law, and ultimately to the Capitol, swept forward by the social upheaval of the age and Hart’s emergence as a political celebrity and then a senator and presidential candidate. They had nearly lost each other in the historical current. But all of that seemed distant now, as Hart and his wife of fifty years wrestled the dogs outside and bustled about the kitchen preparing a lunch of chicken over greens, grandparents given to habitual patter and comforting routine.
We strolled out onto the front deck, the three of us, and listened to the birds chirping and the stillness beneath. Hart pointed across the meadow to where the rushing creek had recently swelled and washed away a layer of soil, leaving roots perilously exposed beneath towering pines. This was how Troublesome Gulch got its name, he explained. A small fox approached and sat back on its hind legs, peering up at us expectantly. Lee rose and went inside to retrieve a piece of raw chicken, then tossed it like a horseshoe out onto the grass, where the grateful fox snapped it up and did a little dance. The couple looked out at the fox admiringly, Hart making a show of mild disapproval at this daily perversion of nature, but clearly pleased by the spectacle nonetheless.
It was right about then that we heard an awful thwunk, and Lee Hart gasped. She ran to the window. What had happened was this: in anticipation of my arrival, Lee had lifted the automatic shades on the towering glass windows that spanned the width of the living room, from floor to ceiling. In case we decided to talk indoors, on the couches next to the replica of Thomas Jefferson’s bookstand in Monticello, she had wanted me to be able to take in the view of the meadow and the creek and the old wooden footbridge beyond. But without its shade to blunt the midday glare, the darkened glass wall now reflected the distant trees as faithfully as a mirror, and a small bird had mistaken that reflected image for the real thing and hurled himself into it kamikaze-style. The thing lay there now on the deck, motionless as a dishrag.
“Oh, no!” Lee said, something cracking inside her. “Oh, no!” she said again. She knelt down, cooing through the onset of tears. The fox turned its head sidelong. The creek burbled on indifferently. I felt powerless and somehow responsible, utterly untrained for such an event. I imagined the Harts might see this as an omen of my return, and maybe it was.
Hart never flinched. He rushed over and lifted the bird in his cupped hands. He walked toward the edge of the deck and gently stroked the feathers, as Lee looked on from one side and I the other. His long torso hovered over the patient and obscured our view as he softly set the bird down on the railing. “He’s breathing,” Hart assured his wife in a soothing, protective tone. Lee finally exhaled, deeply, and retreated a few steps. “He’ll be fine,” Hart said firmly.
And I believed it, too, until Hart shot me a furtive, conspiratorial look and shook his head quickly, as if to say: Not a chance in hell.
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