The Old New Face

He's still the political outsider, and he's still testing the presidential waters. But for Gary Hart, the past is always just one question away.

February 04, 2003|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Sally Reed, executive director of Friends of Libraries U.S.A., is perky for 8:30 on a Saturday morning in a hotel convention room. Why not? The library organization has a full spread of authors for the $45-a-plate crowd of, presumably, friends of libraries. Elegant Diane Rehm is here from Washington, mystery writer Edna Buchanan is in from Miami, and preacher/professor Michael Eric Dyson will rap about his book, Why I Love Black Women. There is also a ruddy, 66-year-old author who looks like he might have once been famous, or infamous.

Gary Hart is back in the house.

"I think he's looking for a ground-swelling, so let's push him all the way to the White House," Reed says by way of introducing the former Colorado senator, the former two-time presidential hopeful of the 1980s. "Let him know you are behind him all the way!" And perhaps because it's 8:30 and every cup is not yet running over with coffee, the ground does not swell. This is not a political rally or town hall meeting. This is a book signing - with scrambled eggs and pucks of hash browns thrown into the mix.

At 8:50 a.m., Hart walks to the microphone. It's been a long time - 15 years. He's gotten ... we've gotten ... older. He still looks presidential but woolly. He still seems like the smartest guy in the room. "I'm here to announce my candidacy for the - sorry ... . wrong speech," Hart says. And perhaps because it's 8:50 and every cup is not yet running over with coffee refills, the ground still does not swell, not even after Hart's laugh line.

He's here to plug his $26 book from Oxford University Press, a Jeffersonian homage titled The Restoration of the Republic. Hart will speak for 15 minutes about civic virtue - "the need and duty for Americans to participate in their government. We have to earn our rights by performing our duties."

He will speak of the corruption of the political process by special interest groups. He will mention the "citizen soldiers" of our republic - the firefighters and police officers on the front lines of national security. He will say 60 percent of eligible voters didn't vote in the last presidential election (don't more Americans vote for the American Idol?). Hart will speak intelligently and will run no risk of being interrupted by applause every fourth thought.

He came to sign books (oh, they lined up for him), but he also stopped in Philadelphia to let people know he has bigger thoughts. Once the "New Face" of the Democratic party, Hart is now a seasoned face but still a self-proclaimed insurgent, a Washington outsider. This year, he went on the speaking trail, and depending on public response and money-raising ingenuity, Hart might run a third time for president.

"There are people who hope I do this. I don't want to let them down," says Hart, days after his Philadelphia speech.

What could change Hart's mind?

Plenty, he says. For one thing, he lives quite comfortably outside Denver in a log cabin with his wife of 44 years, Lee. He could continue doing what he does now: practicing international law by day and writing thrillers under the pen name John Blackthorn by night. He could teach at Yale again. He could earn another degree - he received a doctorate from Oxford University a few years back. He could make his 101st trip to Russia. He could chair other commissions - he co-chaired national security commissions that forewarned of terrorist attacks.

He could find along the way that close friends think it isn't such a smart idea after all to run against arguably more viable Democratic hopefuls such as John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. Hart could discover that his envisioned "small contributor base" might not raise enough money to buy a single envisioned TV ad.

He could discover - and has - that the past is one question away.

Nearly 16 years ago, his second presidential campaign went up in the smoke from a yacht named Monkey Business. His relationship with model Donna Rice (now Donna Rice Hughes of Alexandria, Va., an activist against Internet child pornography) sunk his hopes for the White House. Before the "blue dress," there had been "monkey business." In Hart's test media case, the "character issue" was born.

The book signings and planned policy speeches are one way of gauging, he says, whether people still feel let down by past disclosures regarding his private life. He had dared the press to catch him and, well, the press did by staking out his Washington townhouse. Then, on June 2, 1987, Hart and Rice made the cover of the National Enquirer. She was on his lap, arm around his shoulder, his arm around her waist, mutual smiling.

If every third person came up to him and brought up the Rice affair, Hart says he certainly would lean against running. But so far, he says, "the issue never comes up" - except with the media.

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