Trump and the Hart-less presidency
As we fantasize about a parallel universe, where America is not a joke and our president cares about other human beings, the same questions keep swirling in our heads.
What has happened to this country? Can he be stopped? When will it end? How the hell did we get here?
While the rest of us obsess on what happened in 2016 and what will happen Tuesday, Gary Hart is bedeviled by what happened in 1987, and whether the tabloid mania sparked by his liaison with Donna Rice led down a rattlesnakefilled path straight to our tabloid president.
Hart, and a new Jason Reitman movie about the Rice imbroglio, “The Front Runner,” both pose the question: Is there a direct connection between Hart’s fall and Trump’s rise?
If Hart had won in ’88, would Dick Cheney have finished his career with a golden parachute at Halliburton instead of a dark plunge into deranged global domination? Would we have been spared from two wars against Saddam, Sept.
11, ISIS and the climate catastrophe?
“I bear a very heavy burden of responsibility,” Hart says at The Fort restaurant outside of Denver. “If all that stuff had not happened and if I had been elected, there would have been no Gulf War. H.W. wouldn’t have been president. W wouldn’t have been president. Everything would have changed. I don’t say that to aggrandize myself. It’s just, history changed.
“And that has haunted me for 30 years. I had only one talent and it wasn’t traditional politics — I could see farther ahead than anybody.”
You could dismiss this as “sans moi, le deluge” grandiosity. But, whatever his flaws, the former senator from Colorado was a political Nostradamus. He foresaw the rise of Silicon Valley and the demise of Detroit. He lunched in LA with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1983.
As early as the ’70s, he recalled, “a few of us were forecasting that globalization and the shift of the economic base from Detroit to Silicon Valley was going to have huge impact on our country sociologically and politically.’’
He oversaw a bipartisan panel on threats facing the nation that delivered its final report on Jan. 31, 2001. “The first finding was America will be attacked by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction and Americans will die on American soil, possibly in large numbers,” he said. “We saw Colin Powell. We saw Rumsfeld. We saw Condi Rice.” He said he warned Rice at the White House again on Sept. 6, 2001. “Guess who didn’t listen? George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Always keep one thing in mind: 9/11 could have been prevented.”
Hart is 81 now, which is a jolt when you see him, because he hasn’t been in the public eye much in the decades since that totemic image of Rice smiling on his lap on a pier in Bimini, while he was wearing a “Monkey Business” crew T-shirt. He rejected the skeezy redemption offered by the scandal food chain.
Before Hart, we had FDR, LBJ and JFK, who did not suffer politically for dalliances because the mostly male press corps had a bro-code and a blind eye. After Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump got through frenzies about sexual transgressions by enduring the ridicule, enlisting their wives to defend them on TV, and attacking their accusers.
But the scratchy Hart wasn’t made that way. The adultery story enhanced the sense that he was an enigma, a storyline that developed when the press learned that he had changed his name from Hartpence and fudged his age by a year.
Hart maintained that “there was no relationship” with Rice. Rice — who became an evangelical and supports Trump — told People this week, “I’m just not discussing it.” But a married candidate can’t have a gorgeous young model f ly up to D.C. from Miami for the weekend to visit his house — “the infamous townhouse,’’ as Hart’s son dryly calls it — and not attract questions if they are seen. In the Clinton years, some journalists wrote that we should separate “public character” from “private character” and acknowledge, as with the Founding Fathers, you could be a good leader, even if your private life was questionable. But last year, in the midst of the #Metoo reckoning, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand criticized Al Franken after he was accused of groping and faux-groping for a joke picture, and told The New York Times that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Lewinsky matter.
The standards remain subjective, inconsistently applied and partisan. Although Hart would like the media to have a serious discussion about what is and is not permitted, the culture has flown past that.
If Hart didn’t get to be president, he’s still prescient. I didn’t want to leave without asking what he thinks the next great threat will be.
“Cyber,” he shot back. “Could be banks. Could be transportation systems. Could be communications systems. It’s going to happen.”