Gary Hart still doesn't get it. He thinks that the quality of his ideas is what counts, even though it's concern about his character that keeps him from being the national political player he so obviously still wants to be.
His television appearance with Ted Koppel on ABC News' "Nightline" was many things. It was, foremost, the latest national example of synthetically induced electronic mass emotions and ephemeral images in the television age. It was television, the pervasive instrument of American culture, at its most illuminating and most dreadful. The endless flow of commercials in mind-numbing procession, touting scandal magazines, lingerie and filled with sexual innuendo, provided the perfect background for this kind of personal public exposure and degradation.
It was also part public confessional, part shameless real-life soap opera, part exercise in willing personal exploitation, part sad demonstration of the limits of talent.
More than anything else, it showed why Hart should not be president.
All of Hart's considerable gifts were on display during his long colloquy with Koppel: his intelligence, charm, articulateness, and familiarity with books and ideas. He can quote Hawthorne, Dickens and make pertinent biblical allusions: "He who is without sin . . . . " He did not seem defensive, combative, angry or resentful as he dealt with some of the most difficult personal questions that can be put to a politician. These were posed repeatedly, directly and fairly by the best television interviewer in the business.
Hart said thoughtful things about privacy in the lives of public figures. He displayed admirable, if hopelessly belated, candor in acknowledging indiscretions and obvious serious mistakes and was most impressive in refusing to comment on the specifics of infidelities or names. One can only imagine the tearful bathos of a Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker confessional in similar circumstances and be grateful that the public at least was spared that kind of performance.
In discussing his relationship with Donna Rice, he was incredible, in the literal meaning of that word, and somewhat insulting to Rice and to the nationwide audience. He would have the public believe that he barely knew the lady. Poor guy. They even plopped her in his lap and then snapped a picture. What's a politician to do? They also have to kiss babies offered them, don't they?
At the end, Hart was positively Nixonian when he addressed his children, through the television lens, and gave them a homily on courage. This bracing sermon was necessary, it would seem, because he had been unable to speak to them in the months since he ended his presidential quest after the Rice/Monkey Business business.
All of this was incidental to the insight that Hart unwittingly provided about himself. His message to the people was that he hungers to speak out on issues and is determined to find a way to do so. He continues to believe that it's not his personal behavior, but his knowledge and the superiority of his ideas, that matter. That's the new pillar of his political faith.
In fact, it's an old political idea and a bad one.
More than 2,300 years ago, Aristotle cautioned political leaders not to think that the public would support them solely because of their knowledge and wisdom. Although, as individuals, people may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge, he observed, "as a body they are as good or better," and then added:
"There are some arts whose products are not judged solely, or best, by the artists themselves, namely those artists whose products are recognized even by those who do not possess the art. For example: the knowledge of the house is not limited to the builder only. The user, or in other words the master, of the house will even be a better judge than the builder, just as the pilot will judge better of a rudder than the carpenter and the guest will judge better of a feast than the cook."
Hart's problem does not involve new ideas but his failure to understand the wisdom of old ones. People certainly respect intellect in their leaders, but they place a far greater premium on such personal characteristics as trustworthiness, believability and dependability. That's what Hart still doesn't seem to realize or won't accept.