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The Good Fight: The Education of an American Reformer.

Trying to reivent himself as a 20th Century Jefferson Gary Hart again reveals his signal flaw.

There is a line in Gary Hart's evasive new autobiography that suggests what this book might and should have been. It comes just after one of the oblique constructions that illustrates what the book unfortunately became.

"The goal of public office may not be reached and opportunities for service may exist no more," Hart says, speaking of his life post-Donna Rice as though it were a 19thcentury melodrama. But then he ventures forth a bit from his box-turtle reserve: "No longer a candidate for national office, a reformer would find himself at an awkward age: too old to start again and too young to surrender."

These words suggest the tragic human dimension to a tale portrayed in the press as buffoonery and farce. Here was a man of unusual intelligence and breadth, very possibly on the threshold of the presidency, who in an act of adolescent bravado threw it all away. The manager of George McGovern's idealistic campaign against Richard Nixon now suffers a Nixon-like exile, not for felony but for something almost worse--acting like a fool. He's had to watch a young and--in his view--upstart governor from Arkansas claim the issues and mantle that he had so diligently prepared.

Sadly, Hart fails both to tell his own story honestly and to shoulder the blame for his mistakes. The telling line comes near the end of The Good Fight, almost as an afterthought. Until then he chooses to hide, with the same stubborn defiance that got him into his mess in the first place. He stonewalls to the point of erasing himself from his own autobiography, speaking instead through an idealized cipher he calls "the reformer."

Hart justifies this extraordinary ruse--as he does all things in his life--on grounds of high public purpose: Henry Adams used the same device, after all, in The Education of Henry Adams, the better to focus on the important issues at hand. "By seeking to diminish the author's role," Hart writes, "it is hoped the reader can clearly focus on the idea and the ideal of reform in America." Come on, Gary.

Shrinking from the pain of self-exposure-evading the one issue he has to address before he can be taken seriously again on any other--Hart stumbles into another fiasco-this time a literary one. Instead of dealing with himself, he idealizes himself into a White Knight: Gary the Pure, who embodies the noble tradition that began with Jefferson and is kept alive by the likes of Vaclav Havel.

For all its flaws, though, The Good Fight reminds us why Hart was an unusual and important figure in American public life--a man with a restless intelligence, an instinctive distrust of orthodoxy and experts, and a commitment to the public good in the best Jeffersonian tradition. The book is an intellectual autobiography (the author is disinclined toward any other kind), and Hart's mind draws from a deep well: John Wesley, Kirkegaard, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and, finally, the American reform tradition beginning with Jefferson and culminating in the idol of Hart's young adulthood, John Kennedy.

This is not mere intellectual name-dropping. Hart shows a genuine engagement with these writers, one epitomized by Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven," an intense and almost surreal narrative of a man chased like the biblical Jonah by the Absolute until he finally yields. The poem suggests the inner landscape of Hart's "reformer": essentially Protestant, engaged in a lonely, existential struggle against the forces of inertia and entrenched interest.

A reader would feel a little better, though, if Hart were not so relentlessly high-minded. As an adolescent, for example, wasn't he interested in anything besides John Wesley? One begins to suspect that the cards aren't all on the table, and that feeling grows through Hart's windy evocations of the Jeffersonian reform tradition on up through the influence of John Kennedy. Hart is of the generation just before the baby boom for which Kennedy's election was a defining moment; it caused the strands of his idealism to coalesce, he says, into a "secular mission" of public service and political reform.

The sentiment is sincere, as is everything in the hook. But noble sentiments hecome real when they take root in life, and that's the fight that's missing in Hart's Good Fight. A reader discovers practically nothing, for example, about how Hart got involved in the McGovern campaign and exactly what he learned from that undertaking. Everything just wafts forward, powered by a romanticized impulsion called "reform ."

A notable exception is an incident early in Hart's Senate career. Hart was elected in 1974 as part of the much-vaunted "Watergate Class ." (He credits his victory to his bold reform platform, not mentioning the prior grass-roots campaign against the Winter Olympics which helped create a political base in Colorado for Democrats like himself.) He quickly showed his political independence. His first legislative dilemma concerned the efforts of liberals to change Senate rules to make it easier to break conservative filibusters. Naturally, Hart felt drawn toward the liberal side. But Mike Mansfield, then the Majority Leader, won him over with his quiet argument that to fiddle with procedure, however vexatious, was to compromise the institutional integrity of the Senate.

Surely it didn't hurt Hart's prospects as a young senator to side with Mansfield; that's the kind of self-effacing detail that Gary the Pure glosses over. Still, the episode shows Hart at his best--willing to question his own liberal assumptions and McGovernist instincts (and alienating traditional Democratic constituencies in the process). Hart went on to become a leader of what are now called "New Democrats," but who are really Democrats in the Kennedy, rather than the McGovern or Hubert Humphrey, mold. He saw early on that the New Deal pieties wouldn't work any more, and embraced themes sounded often in this magazine. Democrats couldn't simply heap more burdens upon the nation's productive economy through taxes and regulations, for example; nor was the old Keynesian "stimulus" enough. They had to foster entrepreneurs and the productive economy generally through investment in new technologies and the like. Similarly, it wasn't enough for liberals to oppose the Pentagon. They needed a better concept of defense, not just a diminished one. Hart pushed for a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, generally considered a bastion for hawks, and became a leader in the "Military Reform" movement.

Hart on military reform comes on like Jimmy Conners in his prime: taut, aggressive, and sharp-edged. He points out that nations rarely reform their militaries until they've suffered a major defeat, which the U.S. hasn't yet. He skewers the Reagan weapons build-up and observes that Congress has to pay more attention to less contractor-intensive matters such as strategy and personnel. America's rapid victory in the Gulf War was due not to new weapons, he says, but rather to a strategic doctrine called "maneuver warfare" that he helped champion. Maneuver warfare is the doctrine that surprise works better than attrition: "Historical examples are the battles fought by Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee's cavalry forces, practically every war fought by the Israelis, and the early fights of Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali and invented rope-a-dope, which when one thinks about it is essentially attrition warfare in reverse").

That's Hart when his mind is engaged in the concrete. He has an uncommon ability to link the details of policy to large and evocative themes. But when he strays from subjects he really knows, like defense, he lapses into grumpy, B-level jeremiads against George Bush, short attention spans, sound-bite politics, "cleverness," and all the other things we already know are bad. Prominent people don't always grasp that the thoughts buzzing orchestrally in their brains are not uniformly brilliant.

Harts notion of '"reform," moreover, is gauzy and Romantic. Many Reaganites, for example, saw themselves as reformers, too. To them, the economic marketplace is a kind of cosmic purgative that fullfills Jefferson's call for a revolution every 20 years (which is a gauzy and Romantic notion, too). Articulating in a common-sense manner exactly why this notion doesn't cut it--why change must be social and political rather than just economic--is a challenge Democrats still face. Hart hasn't brought them much closer.

But the biggest problem is Hart's aversion to discussing reform as experience rather than just idea. He tells no stories of legislative battles and hardly mentions his political campaigns. It would be useful to know, for example, exactly how "the reformer" translated his national agenda into his politics in Colorado. This, after all, is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. There's no shortage of good ideas in Washington, but rather a shortage of political horsepower to accomplish them.

Hart's "reformer" is really a philosopher-prince who prefers the cool slopes of Olympus to the heated battles down below. There's nothing inherently wrong with this; the Senate needs philosophers as much as it needs legislative mechanics. But Hart's self-superiority can be hard to take. Time and again he portrays himself as the lone voice of virtue rising in vain against the venality and hide-bound thinking around him. Even when he's basically right--as when he calls for an oil import fee and a tax break for new domestic production by independents--he could at least acknowledge that such positions are not politically hurtful to a senator from Colorado. Hart under-cuts his own virtue by making too much of it.

But the deeper cavity in the center of The Good Fight is the personal issue he refuses to address. Irrelevant to the future of America? Yes, but not to Hart's standing to take the status quo to task. If the reform impulse burned so deeply in his soul, then couldn't he have observed the minimal levels of probity needed to keep his presidential campaign on track? Toward the end of the book, Hart addresses the question in a few grudging paragraphs. "The reformer" he writes through gritted teeth, "continues to bear a sense of great responsibility to his family and supporters for his mistake in permitting a chain of events to be set up that would make a continuation of a serious national campaign of ideas, issues, and reforms impossible."

That could have been drafted by an account executive at Burson-Marsteller. A "chain of events"? The problem was Hart. But no, he says the blame lies less with himself than with the press, which blew the affair out of proportion and routinely violates the privacy of public figures. "The First Amendment," Hart notes, "provides the press a shield, not a sword."

He's right, of course. He's also right when he says that the relevant clues to a candidate's "character" lie principally "in the very visible conduct of public service," not in his personal affairs. The media's obsession with bedroom matters has done nothing to improve the quality of elected officials or of government generally, and probably has diminished both. But if the media act like imbeciles, then it takes an imbecile to the tenth power not to understand this, especially after 12 years in the Senate.

By laundering his own identity through the idealized "reformer," Hart appears to glomb onto the pantheon of reformers he extols in these pages: Jefferson, Kennedy, Gorbachev, Havel. "About some leaders there is a dimension beyond the reach of conventional criticism," he says, referring to the revelations regarding Kennedy's private life but very likely thinking also of his own. The comparison with Kennedy is a continuing theme. Hart saw his 1984 primary campaign against Walter Mondale, for example, as a rerun of Kennedy's 1960 campaign against Hubert Humphrey. One senses he felt entitled to the indulgences Kennedy routinely got away with, too. But Kennedy was savvy enough to know how far he could go; he played within the rules of the game as it existed at that time. It is hard to imagine Kennedy inviting the press to observe his personal life--as Hart did--and then bringing a Donna Rice to Washington for a weekend.

Whatever else one says about Kennedy, moreover--and this goes for Clinton, too--there was no dark divide between his affairs with women and his embrace of life as a whole. Kennedy genuinely liked people, was curious about them and their motives, enjoyed politics as a game as well as a way to get things done. For Hart, by contrast, Donna Rice seems to exist across some dark chasm from the austere and lonely broodings of his mind. Strange as this may sound, Hart is in many ways a Victorian moralist ("cultural revolution made him skittish," he writes of the sixties) and as with the Victorians, his sense of duty and honor seems to have bred its opposite in the less visible corners of his life.

I write this sadly, because the pre-Rice Gary Hart was a political figure I truly admired. He had a genuine prophetic quality, a reflective side not common in Washington, a capacity to be in the game but not of it. I would have voted for him for president, fingers crossed. (His Louisiana lobbyist pal William Broadhurst worried me more than Donna Rice did.)

Perhaps that's why The Good Fight makes me feel let down a second time. When I finished it, I thought of a Sunday morning on Capitol Hill about 10 years ago. While sitting in a coffee shop, I noticed a hulking, bear-like figure in his overcoat walking slowly with a lady at his side. It was Tip O'Neill, out for his constitutional with his wife.

There was a humanity and warmth that one generally does not associate with Capitol Hill, especially in recent years. O'Neill represented much in politics that Gary Hart detested: the smoky back rooms, the deals, the hoary New Deal orthodoxies, the catering to interest groups. Tip probably doesn't know Kirkegaard from Ted Kluzewski. Yet he represented certain human qualities from which reformers of all stripes might well profit--the pedestrian virtues and basic human affinities that can count as much as jazzy ideas about energy and the budget and defense. H.L. Mencken said something about politicians once that reformers need to ponder: "The most pleasant men--and by far the most honest of them--are those that are looked on as 'machine pols.'"
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Author:Rowe, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:2372
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