In the plane going to New Hampshire before the 1984 primary, Gary Hart motioned to his organization: a CBS News correspondent and her crew. From here on out, Hart seemed to be saying, television would carry him to the nomination much as the big city bosses of old once did for others. Gary Hart was very nearly right.
Now Hart has almost no organization. He does not have a national headquarters or staff and has little money. He does not have a pollster or media adviser, and what endorsements he once had were withdrawn in the wake of the Donna Rice scandal. On paper, Hart stands no chance of winning the nomination but, for all his bookishness, paper means very little to Hart. It's television that catches his eye.
Hart saw early what other candidates have only now glimpsed. The political communities of old -- Republican, Democrat -- are disintegrating. A media community has taken their place. Hart recognized that back in the early 1980s, when his strategy for 1984 was to build a campaign organization whose purpose was not to win in the orthodox sense, but to attract media attention. A good organization in Iowa would give him a respectable showing there, and from then on, television would take over.
Hart's strategy nearly worked. He came in second in Iowa, caught the attention of the media and won in New Hampshire. Thereafter, his campaign was described as a prairie fire. Hart triumphed in states where his organization was skeletal. In Florida, he hopped from media market to media market, giving airport news conferences. The crowds were thin, reflecting poor organization, but the television audience was vast. A campaign existed in the ether.
This time Hart's task is even more daunting. He is tainted as a womanizer. Grave questions of character have been raised, and none answered to Hart's benefit. Yet the fact that Hart is once again in the race says as much about American politics as it does about Hart. "Free media" -- what you and I call news -- will substitute for organization. Like his friend Warren Beatty, Hart is a star. The camera cannot stay off him.
But for all of Hart's appreciation of the electronic media, he is also -- maybe quintessentially -- a writer. He has written two novels, and yet for his own political biography he could not provide an ending. His campaign stalled last May -- both a yarn interrupted and a race terminated. For the man as opposed to the politician, it was necessary to resume the campaign -- to become more than an asterisk in the record books. Hart must have figured that eventually questions about his personal life would stop. Like Chappaquiddick for Sen. Edward Kennedy, the issue would never go away, but the questions would eventually cease. How many times can they be asked?
Americans love a fighter, and Hart has shown he is that. "There is no shame in losing, only in quitting," he said. True. And losing, like winning, is at least an outcome. The book closes with satisfying resolution. But American politics is not a novel, just the stuff of one, and Hart's decision is ultimately self-indulgent. Reentering the race may be something he felt he had to do, but it's not something he should have done.
For all of Hart's talk of issues -- of military reform and education -- his is a quest for redemption. Issues like education have been taken up by others, and military reform is the stuff of a white paper, not of a presidential campaign. Only Hart, though, could save Hart. It seems not to matter to him that in so doing he could damage his party and the candidacies of others. Nor does it matter to him that his character flaws are really not private and sexual, but public.
Hart misstated his age. He fudged the reason for his name change -- Hartpence to Hart. He could not organize his last campaign, and toward the end, he had to recruit political mercenaries to run it -- people whose loyalty was to their own egos and not to the candidate. Hart seems more comfortable as an insurgent with almost an allergic reaction to success. No old-time organization would countenance such a campaign -- a candidacy by a man tragically ill-equipped to be president. For the moment, though, no organization is needed.
The American people are really about to see something new. In Hart, the poet's impenetrable soul combines with the prescient intellect of a media savant. His political community consists of anyone with a television set -- the most public and ethereal of organizations. And yet the candidate will be running for the most personal of reasons -- a man seeking both redemption and resolution. Only television can provide the end to the Gary Hart story. And only Hart can write it.