Trump and the Hart-less pres­i­dency

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - PERSPECTIVE - MAUREEN DOWD Den­ver

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.”

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