One month short of his 78th birthday, and 27 years after his self-immolation, Gary Hart has been given a present of sorts by writer Matt Bai, who in All the Truth Is Out recasts the past as Hart wants to see it, a great man brought low by a change (for the worse) in the national zeitgeist that deprived the United States of a truly great leader, and a great mind of its mission in life.
This isn’t the first time that this take has been ventured—the late Richard Ben Cramer made Hart the hero of What It Takes, his 1992 door-stopping account of the 1988 presidential race and its many participants—but this is the first stand-alone effort, and also the first to be seen against the backdrop of the collapse of the presidency of Barack Obama, who is in some ways a Hart-like politician, though their failings are not all alike. Whatever his faults, Obama would have dropped dead many times over before he posed in a Monkey Business T-shirt with a blonde in his lap, but as political phenomena they share some points of contact: the phenomenal rise, the aspirational note, the appeal to the hopes of a new generation, and the claim to great brains plus the stylistic appeal of a pop culture icon, which played to the wish of a key demographic to be trendy and grave at one time. Each got his start in the Iowa caucuses, when he sandbagged an older and more baggy-eyed veteran presumed to be the frontrunner: Obama in 2008 when he stunned Hillary Clinton, and Hart in 1984 when he finished second to former vice president Walter F. Mondale and went on to savage him in New Hampshire only a few weeks after that. What else and what more may they have in common? Let us go back to that long-ago season, to look for what we can find.
To begin with, each burst on the scene as a quasi-messiah, a sage and a rock star in one. “Hart is no longer simply a candidate. . . . He is a political phenomenon—in part a craze, but also something beyond that,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in the New Yorker on April 12, 1984. “Nothing like what has happened in the past week has ever happened before in American politics. No candidate has ever been so quickly transformed into such a political force . . . or become the -subject of so much excitement. . . . The very fact that numerous people now tell reporters they favor Hart even though they don’t know much, or even anything, about him, is part of the phenomenon. He is young, good looking and fresh, and offers himself as someone who will change the ‘old ways.’ ”
Does this sound familiar? Hart was the “ink blot candidate” onto whom people could project their own aspirations, and Obama would describe himself as a Rorschach test in which people could see what they wished. Hart was telegenic, and so was Obama, both slim and supple men who wore their clothes well. “His high cheekbones and lean face are just right for the cameras, and his cool demeanor is just right for the medium,” Drew said of Hart. “Americans love something new—an attractive and articulate something new. . . . Americans are addicted to the idea that things can be better. . . . By condemning the old ways . . . he is suggesting that there is a . . . reason things have not gone better, and that he can change that.” Does this sound familiar? It does.