Gary Hart's 'Patriot': mock-Machiavelli

June 16, 1996|By Lars-Erik Nelson | Lars-Erik Nelson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Patriot" by Gary Hart. The Free Press, 186 pages. $21.

We live in a time of great change, and we must learn to master this change or we shall be its servant. We need leaders who combine wisdom, courage and virtue. We must shun narrow special interests and work toward the common good.

If these thoughts strike you as penetrating insights into the plight of modern America, then Gary Hart has written the book for you. You will learn that, "Poverty, misery and hunger offer the seed bed for violence." and "The wily sycophant is not a harmless creature."

On the other hand, you may already be muttering, "Where's the beef?"

Hart is the one-time wonder boy of Democratic politics, the engineer of Sen. George McGovern's unsuccessful 1972 campaign against President Richard Nixon, the fresh-faced "New Ideas" iconoclast who nearly derailed Walter Mondale from winning the Democratic nomination in 1984 and who then was driven from the field of politics - can it be? - eight years ago amid hoots about a woman named Donna Rice.

He offers his thoughts in the form of somewhat wistful advice to an unnamed political leader, perhaps President Clinton. It is no -- doubt a generously meant offering from a man already beginning to see himself, at age 59, as an elder statesman with no political future of his own. But, unless supremely well executed, this sort of stuff can sound - I hate to say this, Mr. Hart - Nixonian.

In style, "The Patriot" is a labored pastiche on Niccolo Machiavelli's great work, "The Prince," and it is written with mock-15th century rhetoric that borders on the truly awful. "The street called respect carries traffic in both directions," Hart observes. And, "Fortune works her will against all who would lead." Yes, and the weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Yet here and there in this mound of spaghetti, one finds the occasional tiny meatball: an interesting thought. With the end of the Cold War, America needs a positive rallying mission to replace the old opposition to communism. This is not particularly original, but the increasingly desperate reader will be grateful for any such little gift. There is an echo of Hart's own pioneering efforts at military reform, a plea to reduce spending on weapons that are both expensive and unusable.

It is not until his final chapter that he hits full stride, if only for a couple of steps. "The conundrum of modern political conservation [I believe he means "conservatism"] is that its superstitious worship of market forces brings about the disruption of the very families and communities that conservation claims to revere... Today's conservatism suffers from this fatal flaw: its economics are at war with its professed social values."

And: "Our country is adrift... Fearful that it has no new frontiers and entering its late middle age, America has no great purpose or unifying cause... it begins to divide among clans, tribes and gangs."

Good stuff! Worth a hard-hitting Op-Ed piece, or perhaps a magazine article. But not a whole book of mock-Machiavelli.

Lars-Erik Nelson, a Washington columnist for the New York Daily News, has covered Washington politics since 1981, for the News and Newsday. Before that, for several years he was diplomatic correspondent for Reuters.

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