Gary Hart, as good as he wants to be regarded

June 13, 1993|By Paul West

THE GOOD FIGHT: THE EDUCATION OF AN AMERICA REFORMER.

Gary Hart.

Random House.

327 pages. $23. In a way, Gary Hart is the Richard Nixon of the Me Generation. He practiced deceit and was ultimately undone by his character flaws, not the least of which was hubris. Now, in Nixonian fashion, he's returned from political oblivion with a newly published memoir that attempts to prove that he was right all along.

Mr. Hart, of course, was found out before he got to the White House. Had he not been brought down by his own reckless philandering ("Put a tail on me," he dared reporters), it is reasonable to assume that he could have, indeed would have, won the presidency in 1988. That, in fact, seems to be the main reason for this sour, whiny book.

At his best, Gary Hart was an engaging politician. He had a quick mind and a keen understanding of the public mood. As a senator and presidential candidate during the 1970s and 1980s, he promoted "new ideas," or at least the idea of new ideas (it was the "new," more than the ideas, he seemed to be selling). Once, he was asked if he wasn't "too cerebral" to be president. "Well," he retorted, taking aim at then-President Ronald Reagan, "we've tried the other way."

Unfortunately, "The Good Fight: The Education of an American Reformer" is not Mr. Hart at his best. Beyond a provocative chapter about the "culture of cleverness" in America today, the book raises more questions than it answers about Mr. Hart's life in politics. One cannot help thinking that his real purpose was to make the rest of us feel as bad as he does about the tragedy that denied the nation his leadership.

What kind of president would he have made? Mr. Hart reveals that he would have, among other things, negotiated a massive arms control treaty with the Soviet Union and a sweeping new Middle East peace agreement, reformed the nation's education and health care systems, and overhauled the income tax and the military establishment. And that would just be in the first term.

It was Mr. Hart's Gatsby-like self-invention as a politician (shedding his past, changing his name, moving to Colorado) that first raised doubts about his character. While avoiding any mention of those controversies, Mr. Hart offers an alternate explanation. His entire career, he writes, was driven less by ambition than a desire to do good. "The Good Fight" is designed to prove that he's always been "the reformer," which happens to be the way he describes himself throughout the book. It is a device both awkward and revealing, a reminder of just how strange this man is. (He chose the third person, he explains, out of reticence and in protest against the egocentricity of our age. As Henry Adams did in his "Education," he adds.)

An intellectual autobiography is a fitting format for Mr. Hart, who has always been more at ease with ideas than people. In tracing his intellectual development, he likens himself to other great thinkers who defied the status quo: Jefferson, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard and John Wesley. These men, he says, were his mentors. It was they, along with John F. Kennedy, who were the inspiration for his life in government.

Not too surprisingly, his book is singularly unrevealing about the people around him, his family and friends, or about Mr. Hart himself. He has always resisted the efforts of others to examine his life. And it appears that he is either unable, or unwilling, to examine himself. In a rare bit of insight, he confesses that he has often wondered just why his whole life seems to have been driven by an "intense need" to change the world. The only explanation he can come up with, he writes, is that "this is just the way things are."

Mr. Hart describes a peculiar pattern of personal behavior in which, discouraged by setbacks or defeat, he repeatedly gave up on politics, only to return, however reluctantly, for one more try. He left the federal government, where he'd been working as a lawyer, after JFK's assassination; quit politics after Bobby Kennedy was killed; gave up again after running the 1972 McGovern campaign and left the 1988 presidential race under fire, only to revive his candidacy months later (a particularly sad episode which he fails to mention at all). Although, at 57, he is hardly too old for public service -- he is more than 13 years younger than Sen. Bob Dole, the leading Republican at the moment -- it would be an even bigger comeback than Richard Nixon pulled off if Mr. Hart were to return to political life. Not that he seems to have any illusions about that; he writes (several times) that his career in public life is over, something the very title of the book is designed to indicate. (A cynical reviewer cannot help noting, however, that Mr. Hart never mentions by name any of the Democratic senators whom he accuses of collaborating with the Reagan Republicans during the 1980s; no sense needlessly burning bridges, after all.)

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