Politics Today: With something to say, Gary Hart looks for a platform


DENVER -- In a year when seven Democratic senators in various degrees of frustration have announced they won't seek re-election in 1996, why would former Sen. Gary Hart even think about running for the Senate again next year?

Mr. Hart, heavier and grayer now than when he ran for president in 1988 but still looking like the man in the Marlboro ad, frets over "this highly inflated story." Only half in jest, he says, "When you want coverage you don't get it, and when you don't want it, you get it."

Mr. Hart says he "probably won't" run, but insists he's still thinking about it, out of deference to unnamed friends and supporters who've asked him to seek the seat to be vacated by retiring Colorado Republican Hank Brown.

The notion of Gary Hart wanting to return to the Senate, and inviting a recycling of all the stories of personal indiscretions that scuttled his 1988 presidential bid, seems to strike him as less self-flagellating than it does others.

While he acknowledges the old stories would be aired again, he notes: "I had a message in the '80s that many in the party believed should have been listened to." That fact should count for something, too, he says.

In a search for a way to contribute to progressive reform of his Democratic Party, Mr. Hart says, the idea of a Senate race is only one option. He says he asked Sen. Bob Kerrey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, whether there were six like-minded Democrats with whom he could work on party reform if he returned.

"He said yes," Mr. Hart reports, with a wry grin. "The first name was Bill Bradley" -- one of the seven who have since decided to call it quits.

Mr. Hart insists he is "not motivated by careerism" but by public service, "and when you have that motivation it doesn't go away." He is also advancing his reformist ideas in books and speeches, and he muses about the vastly increasing avenues of communications now available through new technologies. His local radio show, in which he reviews books and ideas and talks with their authors, may be syndicated, he says.

Like the Kevin Costner character in "Field of Dreams," who insisted that if he built a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, the players would come, Mr. Hart believes that "If you have something to say, and if you're at the right place at the right time, there will be an audience." Many Colorado Democrats doubt, though, that voters will think the Senate is the right place for him after all that has happened.

Wanted: Achesons and Marshalls

What Mr. Hart has to say currently is that the United States has lagged in building institutions for the 1990s to cope with the new realities of the post-Cold War era. Like Harry Truman after World War II, he says, Bill Clinton should be leading the Western coalition toward new economic and security institutions, including a multinational force to deal with crises like Bosnia.

He says Mr. Clinton could be the Truman of the '90s if he could find his own Dean Achesons and George Marshalls to advise him as these men counseled Truman in the defense and rebuilding of Western Europe. The idea leads him to deplore America's failure to make better use of some of its most progressive thinkers, like his old boss, George McGovern (and himself?). He ponders why some of the party's best men, like Senators Bradley, Jay Rockefeller and Sam Nunn and former Gov. Mario Cuomo, declined to seek the presidency.

One of Mr. Hart's conclusions is not surprising, considering his own history. "Nobody's perfect," he says, "and the standards of perfection are too high."

Still, he is not giving up on public service in some form, or on his own party. Unlike Senator Bradley, he says, "I'm not quite ready to say there is no hope for the Democratic Party." But he adds that if the party "doesn't once again become the reform party in America, we'll have a third party within five or ten years," organized in 50 states and running candidates for Congress.

What the movement lacks, he says, is a charismatic leader and a manifesto defining what it stands for today: "They don't have a Thomas Jefferson who can write down what they believe in . . . where to go and how to get there." The same could be said for Mr. Hart's own Democratic Party. While his hopes to be its charismatic leader have been dashed, he clearly wants to have a role in writing the new manifesto the party so conspicuously lacks, and needs, today.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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