May 19, 2003
HE, GARY HART
The author of I, Che Guevara, gets frisky again
JOHN J. MILLER
Some people are afraid of heights. Others are scared of spiders. Gary Hart has a different phobia, according to a quote on his website: “My greatest fear is never having another opportunity to serve my country.”
Yes, the former Democratic senator from Colorado is thinking about running for president. Again.
Most Americans haven’t heard about Hart since 1987, when his greatest fear should have been getting caught aboard the Monkey Business with Donna Rice. Hart had been a leading candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, but the scandal chased him out of politics for more than a decade. Now he’s back, still married to his wife of 44 years, and having waged a long and earnest campaign to be taken seriously once more.
The truth is that the 66-year-old Hart never dropped totally out of sight. Since quitting elective office, he’s written eight books, including three novels. He also completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at Oxford. The most important piece of his rehabilitation, however, came in 1998, when Bill Clinton appointed him co-chairman of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. Since the terrorist strikes, Hart has been a regular fixture on the cable-news talk shows, posing as an elder statesman and a prophet of the dangers to come. He looks the part, too — right down to the new wisps of gray in his familiar billowy hair.
But how well does he fill this role? There can be no doubt that Gary Hart is an intelligent man. Yet he also confirms the saying that bright minds don’t make little mistakes — they make huge ones, and sometimes many of them. Throughout his career, Hart has demonstrated nothing so much as an exquisite talent for big blunders. He’s kept on doing it right through the recent war with Iraq.
During his heyday in the 1980s, Hart was one of Washington’s leading anti-anti-Communists. “We must learn that in the Third World, the real enemy is hunger, poverty, and disease, not Communism,” he said in 1984. “Our goal in the Third World must be overcoming poverty, not overpowering Communism.” Hart has always had a soft spot for Fidel Castro. “Cuba is not totalitarian,” he told the Washington Post in 1982, “and it’s not democratic.” Asked his interviewer, “If Cuba is not a totalitarian government, what is it?” Hart answered, “I don’t know.”
In the 1990s, Hart met with Castro and agreed to serve as his secret envoy to the Clinton administration. He shared Castro’s concern that Cuban-Americans were plotting terrorism against him. “I became a kind of hollow log in which the Cuban government was sending messages to our government,” he would later explain.
By this time, Hart seems to have decided that Castro, in his heart of hearts, is really a democrat. At least, that’s the assumption of his novel I, Che Guevara, published in 2000 under the pseudonym John Blackthorn. The book — supposedly a thriller, but not in fact very thrilling — starts off with Castro announcing plans to hold free elections. “We have to pick some new leaders,” the dictator declares. The story then unfolds as a half-remembered figure from Cuba’s past begins roaming the island and describing a third way between the Communism of Castro’s rule and the capitalism of the Miami exiles. He is Che Guevara. (In real life, this icon of the Left was killed in 1967.) It’s awfully hard not to see Hart pouring a lot of himself into this character, who quotes Jefferson in his diary and speaks of the need to build a “true republic.” In other words, they read like excerpts from Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st Century America — Hart’s book based on his Oxford dissertation.
Two of his other books are on the military: a topic he specialized in during his Senate years, when he also routinely called for massive cuts in the defense appropriations that were winning the Cold War. Despite being a constant critic of this spending, Hart somehow also felt that it didn’t go far enough. A month after Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990, for instance, Hart predicted the fate of what would become Operation Desert Storm. “After twelve years on the Senate Armed Services Committee, I know we are not prepared to fight a war in the desert,” he told a Seattle audience. “Our weapons were designed to fight a war in Europe.” In a column for the New York Times, he predicted dire consequences: “Loss of lives, including American lives, would be substantial.”
If September 11 hadn’t happened, Hart would be little more than a footnote in political history as the philanderer whose sudden downfall was a prerequisite to Bill Clinton’s political survival. But the terrorist strikes helped revive his career, lending him a veneer of respectability. In February, a profile in The New York Times Magazine declared that Hart’s national-security commission had “essentially predicted the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.”
Hart’s commission does deserve some credit: It warned of terrorism at a time when more people should have cared. But it’s silly to say that Hart “essentially predicted” 9/11. “Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers,” because of “international terrorism,” the commission warned. This would happen “over the next quarter century.”
That doesn’t exactly rate as a bold pronouncement. It’s rather cautious — even hedging. It also doesn’t square with something Hart wrote in his 1998 book The Minuteman: “Why do we have 1.5 million men and women under arms with no major threat to our security?” One reason, of course, is to have the strength to knock off the Taliban — or any other regime that harbors or aids terrorists.
Even now, Hart misunderstands the problem of terrorism. In a January speech, he actually laid the blame for 9/11 on missile defense rather than, say, Islamic radicalism. “While we poured enormous capital into national missile defense — trying to hit a bullet with a bullet — our enemies turned our own technology against us,” he said. “Faith in technology handcuffed our imagination and lulled us to sleep.” Hart seems to have forgotten that even its most fervent advocates have never viewed missile defense as a way to counter the likes of Osama bin Laden. It would be rather like saying increased airport security ought to protect Los Angeles from North Korean missiles.
Still, logic isn’t really the point. At some level, Hart is still fighting the same old battles he fought with the Reagan administration. Moreover, like many liberals his age, Hart sees a lot of things through the lens of Vietnam — including this spring’s war against Saddam Hussein. “It cost us 50,000 American lives in Vietnam to learn the lesson that the American people must not be misled, lied to, or treated as incompetent on military engagements,” he said earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations. The public deserves “a candid statement by the commander in chief regarding the probable costs in human lives and national treasure of its commitment” in Iraq.
The Bush administration did release some cost estimates for the war, but the president himself never gave a figure for casualties. Gary Hart did, however. “There will be, maybe, five [thousand] to 10,000 American casualties,” he declared in November. (There were, in fact, 132 American deaths, and 32 British ones.) He foresaw bloody fighting in the streets of Baghdad. “If you saw Black Hawk Down, this is what we’re looking at,” he said in February. “And Mogadishu is a village compared to Baghdad. So transpose Black Hawk Down to the streets of a city the size of Paris.”
It’s hard to predict whether Hart really will run for president. The possibility first arose last fall. In January, on the Today show, he promised a decision “by March,” and started raising money. When March came around, however, he said he would need until April, because of the war. This was not implausible, and Hart was still sounding like a candidate. “I’m better prepared to be president than anyone in this race,” he insisted. Then the war came to the successful conclusion Hart did not expect. Nevertheless, in Iowa on April 8, Hart indicated that his announcement was still just a few days away. But then, on April 10, he applied the brakes. “I think now we’re going to wait a little,” he said, as if the waiting hadn’t been going on for some time.
It’s possible Hart has learned a core truth of American politics: that people are more interested in politicians who are thinking about running for president than in those who have decided not to run. If so, in the months ahead, Gary Hart can be expected to keep on giving it an awful lot of thought.