A Study in Contradictions: Gary Hart Comes to Berkeley

By Richard Brenneman
Friday April 07, 2006

As he embarks on a fifth career—teaching—while avidly pursuing his fourth—writing—one-time presidential contender Gary Hart came to Berkeley Wednesday to discuss his latest book and talk about the subjects of his first and third careers, religion and po litics. 

Recently retired from his second career—law—Hart is best known as the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate whose campaign foundered aboard a ship called Monkey Business. 

He came to Berkeley this week stumping for his latest book, God and Caesa r in America. 

The slender (86-page) paperback resembles in form the political tracts of an earlier era that began with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a 46-page call to action that eventually reached almost every American reader during the Revolutionary War. 

God and Caesar examines the nature and consequences of the capture of the Republican Party by the religious right. 

It’s one of four books Hart has written in a span of 16 months. A prolific writer, Hart has penned both serious tomes and political thri llers.  

Unlike Bill Clinton, whose rock star presence set fans beaming during his Cody’s book signing appearance in July 2004, Hart was more professorial than charismatic when he addressed fans at the store Wednesday afternoon. 

Between an on-air intervi ew at KPFA and his talk to fans at Cody’s Books on Telegraph, Hart took an hour to talk to a reporter over a cup of tea at the Caffe Mediterraneum. 


Popular message 

The former Colorado Senator’s message is a popular one in Berkeley, a ringing endorsement of the separation of church and state and an exposition of the activist Christianity of the 1960s that marshaled behind the civil rights and anti-war movements. 

Like former President Jimmy Carter in his recently published Our Endangered Values, Hart cal ls for a resurgence of a Christianity based on the compassionate values of the Sermon on the Mount. 

“The Fundamentalists are Old Testament people,” he said. “They are not New Testament. The same people who fought to keep Terry Schiavo alive are for the d eath penalty. You don’t find any of that in the gospel of Jesus. It’s impossible to believe Jesus would’ve supported the death penalty.” 

Hart said he blames himself for not writing about the issue five or 10 years ago, and notes that his book is one of s everal recently or about to be published on the subject by liberal writers. 

“When I was getting involved in politics, you didn’t talk about religion,” he said. 

Later, during his talk at the book store, he recalled that John F. Kennedy—whose activism Har t said had inspired him to abandon the ministry for a secular career—had been reviled from the pulpits of his home town. 

“Preachers said that if he was elected, the Pope would be in the White House,” he said. As now the current occupant of the White House consults clergy before making Supreme Court nominations. 



For the author of a book that makes a powerful argument for the peaceful and pietist Jesus, the pacificist Christ of the Sermon on the Mount, Hart is coy about his own beliefs. 

“I have no affiliation,” he said. “I’m eclectic. I don’t find any specific doctrine or creed that meets my needs. Like a lot of Americans—including Ronald Reagan—I create my own religion.” 

Born into a “dirt poor” family in a small farm town in Kansas, Ha rt first felt his calling was the ministry, the legacy of his upbringing in the Church of the Nazarene, a strait-laced sect that split from the Methodists and teaches that obedient Christians can live in a state of absolution from original sin. 

Hart attended the a church college in Bethany, Okla., graduating in 1958, and followed up with a Yale divinity degree in 1961. That same year he shortened his birth name from Hartpence to Hart and enrolled in Yale Law School. 

He began his legal career with the U.S. Justice and the Interior Departments, then entered private practice in Colorado. In 1972, he burst onto the national scene as the manager of Democrat George McGovern’s presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. 

Two years later, in his first run for office, Hart was elected to the Senate from Colorado, where he served two terms. 

He lost out to Walter Mondale in his first presidential campaign in 1984, and was considered the front runner four years later when rumors of adultery began to reach the ear s of the press. 


Monkey Business 

What followed still clearly rankles 22 years later. 

When New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne raised the question during an interview, the journalist wrote that Hart responded, “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anyone wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll get very bored.” 

Two Miami Herald reporters who were doing just that uncovered a clandestine rendezvous with a part-time model 21 years younger than the 50-year-old contender. Then a photo surfaced of Hart and his inamorata aboard a yacht called Monkey Business. His campaign never recovered. 

“It wasn’t a challenge,” Hart said of his remarks to Dionne. “I said, ‘I’m a senator running for president. I’m a very busy man. I don’t have any free time and you’re welcome to join me on my daily rounds.’ And I was being followed before it ever got into print. I was not stupid. I was elected two times to the Senate. 

“I don’t think any candidate was ever staked out before, and no one has done it since. What if I’d dared them to kill me? Would they have taken me up on it?” 


Civil formality 

Commentators have repeatedly described Hart as formal, and sometimes as distant, and he decries what he perceives as the lack of formality and civility in contemporary cul ture. 

“People are not civil any more. You see it when you’re driving, and going in and out of doorways at stores. People will knock you down. Sometimes I don’t know where I am any more,” he said. “Certainly not in Kansas. 

The often vitriolic comments ma de on his posts at the huffington.com blog are another sign of the lack of civility that so concerns him. “About of third of them are vicious,” he said.  

Where he does find comfort is in small towns, which is one of the reasons he has chosen to live in K ittredge, Colo., a hamlet of just over 800 souls that reminds him of his farm town childhood. 

“Everybody knows each other, and maybe that’s a corrective. It kept people in line. People didn’t want to be perceived in a negative light,” he said. 

A reporter born in an even smaller Kansas farm town nine years later and a hundred or so miles to the west might be inclined to agree. 


New career  

In the fall, Hart will take up his newest career—teaching—as the occupant of an endowed chair at the University of Colorado named for his senatorial successor, Tim Wirth. 

Will it be his last career? 

“No,” he said. “I’ve got something else to do, but I can’t figure out what it is yet.” 

Another run for office, perhaps? 

“No, no more runs,” he said. “Been there, done that.” 


God and Caesar in America, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, CO, $9.95. 



Photograph by Richard Brenneman