Today’s posting is triggered by another piece of memorabilia: a flyer for an organizational meeting of "Yale Students with Hart" for April 15th, 1987. A friend and I had printed on the flyer: "Learn more about Senator Hart’s positions, and how you can help around the country this summer, next fall, and in 1988."
Perhaps it takes some explaining today, but the national politician who I still most wholeheartedly supported was the man referred to in that flyer, Colorado Senator Gary Hart. Hart’s 1984 race in which he nearly won the Democratic nomination and the aborted one of 1987 in which he would have won the presidency were absolutely formative for me. If you know how those campaigns went, then you know that the Deaniacs of last year do not have a monopoly on disappointment. Actually, I guess neither of those situations could remotely compare to what RFK fans went through in 1968, but fortunately I was only three years old for that one.
I was a student at Boulder High school in Colorado when Hart ran for president the first time in 1983. Unlike most people who discovered Hart through his presidential campaign, including the national press, Hart was already my senator, and a known commodity. I had rooted for his state-wide campaigns in 1974 and 1980, and I had followed his work in the Senate. Hart was an original New Democrat, when the term meant new ways of doing progressive things, rather than new positioning to the center of the left-right spectrum. He was smart, articulate, attractive, energizing, realistic rather than retrograde about inevitable economic change, knowledgeable about national security. He was the candidate of new ideas, and politically in the right place for me. I listened intently to his speeches and they resonated strongly with me. Somewhere along that time I also worked as an intern in the district office of my congressman, Tim Wirth, who I considered a similar, and similarly appealing, New Democrat.
My whole family also got involved, and emotionally involved, with the Hart campaign. I remember that my brother, a year behind me in school but more daring, traveled to neighboring states to volunteer for Hart.
My biggest chance to play a role came when I got to follow the path from precinct caucus to county and congressional district conventions. At the end of it I got to be a delegate for Hart to the Colorado Democratic State convention. I remember very well the excitement in the convention hall as it was rocked by many thousands of diehard homestate supporters. Hart carried 50 of the 51 delegates from the state. One went to Jackson in a compromise to avoid giving Mondale, the eventual nominee, any at all.
The race for the nomination in 1984 was close. It was an insider versus and outsider. You can read about it in the history books, including Mondale’s use of a Wendy’s commercial tagline "where’s the beef" to deflate Hart’s campaign of new ideas.
By the time the next campaign came around, in 1987, Hart was the frontrunner by far, and the presidency was an open seat race, ripe for Democratic takeover. My flyer for the April 15th, 1987 meeting came only a few days before the famous Miami Herald article of May 3rd. The Herald laid out their story of Hart’s involvement with Donna Rice, and after the sequence of events and pictures that followed he dropped out the race a few days later. It was crushing.
I got excited at the end of the year when I woke up to the radio reports that he was "back in the race!" The polls were not bad at first, but it was too late, and he was too wounded.
I admire Hart for continuing to accomplish a lot in the wake of the mess. He keeps cranking out books, he earned his PhD at Oxford, he has served on important national security commissions, he’s an international lawyer. I keep imagining that a Democratic president will put him in a cabinet position. I never felt angry with him for what happened. Just sad for him, for myself, for our politics, and for my country.