The Hart of the matter

The tall, slender man with the distinct profile looked familiar, even in the darkened upper level of the church.

It was October 2012, and I was covering a prayer service for Sen. George McGovern at the First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls. Vice President Joe Biden left the campaign trail, as he and President Barack Obama sought second terms, to attend, as did Sen. Tim Johnson, former Sen. Jim Abourezk, former Sen. Tom Daschle, former Rep. Stephanie Herserth Sandlin and numerous other distinguished people.

But the man in the upper level wasn’t among the speakers, nor was he seated with the political celebrities by the McGovern family. He was observing. I recognized him and moved through the church in attempt to interview him as the service drew to a close. He somehow sensed what I wanted, and quietly slipped out of the church and disappeared into the night.

It was Gary Hart.

The former Colorado senator first reached national prominence in 1972 when he served as McGovern’s campaign manager. They lost that race, crushed in a landslide that re-elected President Richard Nixon, but both emerged from the defeat, while Nixon soon resigned and retreated in disgrace.

Hart joined McGovern in the Senate and in 1984, they found themselves rivals for the Democratic nomination for president. Both were defeated by former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale, who, like McGovern in 1972, was routed in the election.

By 1987, Hart was the clear choice of most Democrats to be their nominee in 1988. He appeared on the fast track to the White House. But then came news stories on his tangled personal life and the photos of Donna Rice and Hart on the unfortunately named boat Monkey Business.

Hart, a handsome, dashing senator who had been close to Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty during the 1972 campaign, was the subject of a lot of gossip about his extramarital dalliances. He and his wife Lee, had separated twice, and there were questions about his aloof nature and the facts that he had changed his name from “Hartpence” while shaving a year off his age.

But it was his wandering eye that led to his downfall.

“It was well known around Washington, or at least well accepted, that Hart liked women, and that not all the women he liked were his wife,” journalist Matt Bai wrote in his book on Hart.

Presidents like Jefferson, FDR and JFK, among a flock of other politicians, had counted on the press usually respecting (which meant ignoring) their personal life. Hart was betting on that, too, until the Miami Herald, acting on a tip, staked out his townhouse and caught him with Rice, a pretty blonde model, actress and party gal.

Hart raged against the reporters and bemoaned the scrutiny his private life was getting. But within a few days, the front runner was an also-ran. Politics, and coverage of it, had changed forever.

Hart, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, said what happened was about more than the end of a political campaign. “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve,” he said.

His sudden downfall is told in a new movie “The Front Runner,” based on Bai’s book, “All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.” It was published in 2014.

The day after the McGovern prayer service, Hart did speak at McGovern’s funeral. He was eloquent and impressive, and eulogized his one-time boss, rival and enduring friend in a brief address.

I had interviewed Hart earlier in 2012 as part of a series I wrote on the 40th anniversary of the 1972 McGovern campaign. Hart answered questions while telling me several times to read his book on the race to get the complete story. I didn’t have time to do so for that week’s article, but I do intend to do so, along with seeing “The Front Runner.”

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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