‘Was Gary Hart Set Up?’: Readers Respond

Former senators Gary Hart (left) and Warren Rudman, in 2002. A year earlier their Hart-Rudman Commission had warned incoming president George W. Bush that terrorists were planning a major attack on U.S. soil. (Win McNamee / Reuters)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) has an article by me on a tantalizing “what if?” question involving the course of modern history. The article is called “Was Gary Hart Set Up?”, and its point is to ask what different forks national and world history might have taken, if a long-ago but recently revealed deathbed confession, from the 1980s-era Republican operative Lee Atwater, actually were true.

James Savage, a staffer of the Miami Herald who was involved in the events I describe, then wrote in to complain about the story. You can read his letter, and my reply, here.

Now, some of the wide array of reader mail that has arrived. First, a reader in Florida parallels the argument in Matt Bai’s book All the Truth Is Out, that the Hart stakeout was a turning point in American political and journalistic history:

I have always regarded the Hart “scandal” to be the beginning of a terrible turn in political reporting. Until then, the press had respected at least some privacy on the part of political figures with regard to personal peccadilloes — e.g., Eisenhower, Kennedy, FDR. With Hart, the press (beginning with my hometown paper [the Herald]) realized that sex sells papers, and afterwards everyone was fair game.

Front page of The Miami Herald on May 3, 1987, the it broke the Hart-Rice story. Screen shot from a reader in Florida.

The problem is that anyone with a skeleton in the closet or “human imperfections” of the sort taken for granted in less Puritan societies will now never offer him/herself for public office. We are left with a talent pool which is greatly shrunk, and political machinations such as were displayed in the recent Kavanaugh hearings promise to shrink it further.

If the press had been willing to respect Gary Hart’s privacy (and he in fact was my preferred choice at the time) the speculations you offer regarding “what might have been” would be tested by history.

I offer no suggestion for changing things. Only regret.

A novelistic reality. From another reader who remembers the politics of that era:

Re: your article on Gary Hart. I was thinking that those who hadn't been following politics at the time might have thought you were exaggerating Gary Hart's chances of capturing the Democratic nomination, and defeating George H. W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election.

In fact, I don't think this was at all unrealistic; a few years later (likely in the early '90s) I read a Jeffrey Archer novel from the Gary-Hart-as-rising-star era - c. 1987. The novel was set a few years in the future, say around 1990. The American president is, of course, Gary Hart. This sort of wrong prediction is always amusing in retrospect. But Jeffrey Archer, as you'll know, is a former British politician, a prolific author, and an astute political observer. I respect his opinion very much. (Sorry, I don't remember which book of Archer's this was.)

Only tangentially related, I've often wondered how many voters were put off Al Gore in 2000 because there seemed to be something untrustworthy in his appearance. Gore's hooded lizard-like eyes reminded me of the villain in Crocodile Dundee, which had come out in late 1986. In that era of video rentals, I'm sure his (the villain's) face was still fresh in the collective mind of the American voting public.

...It's always interesting to speculate on what might have been.

To respond to the reader’s first point, I believe the Jeffrey Archer book he is thinking of is First Among Equals. To respond to the second, re: Al Gore’s look, the connection between physical appearance and political success is significant but mysterious. For this moment’s illustration of the importance and the mystery: the Texas Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke.

Tragedy personified. A person with some connection to the Hart campaign wrote a very long dispatch, of which this is a representative sample:

Given [Hart’s] theological education and his deep intellectual roots in theology; he is the archetypical Shakespearean tragedy personified.

He was deeply flawed as an individual: but had he become President, I firmly believe our nation would have been globally so far ahead of the curve internationally; our economy would now be soaring, & our labor force ahead of the world, and our military so appropriately positioned.

Long ago, we would have avoided our dependence on foreign oil and the transfer of our wealth overseas; as we did under the Reagan Administration...

Our leaders’ decisions then got us to where we stand tragically today.

On Lee Atwater. From another reader involved in the politics of that era:

Just another reason to hate [Atwater], and what he stood for and what he did.

I understand that on his deathbed he finally got hold of a conscience somewhere but there are certain people that I’m not inclined to be merciful about and he’s one of them. I’ll leave the mercy business to God.

However I’ve often thought Atwater was one person who really deserves a full scale biography, so that people don’t forget him. The Willie Horton ad alone should by rights be a stain on the entire Republican party, but for a large portion of them it’s a badge of honor. As President Trump said just the other day it doesn’t matter if you win.

I just wish Lee Atwater were alive to see the latest incarnation of his legacy.

Knowing that the world is evil. Finally for now, a long dispatch from a reader in the Northeast:

I think your article raises some important issues as to the future of the country and of the two main parties.

I have always considered myself fairly liberal and left-leaning in general. However, that has always been coupled by constantly being aghast at the naivety and downright real-world stupidity of the Left.

The list of the Left's blindness to the real world is too long to mention. Suffice to say that the the following old saw is true enough: The left believes in the need for change and progress, but that people are already inherently good, whereas the Right believes in the status quo and that people are fundamentally corrupt.

Bluntly, the Left believes in change, even though we are all good, and the Right believes in only the present, even though we are all bad. Yes, the logic doesn't make sense for either side.

You have mentioned it before in terms of foreign policy, that what is needed, and what Obama had at least in foreign policy, is a "tragic imagination". That is an ability to see the underlying tragedy of the world, and not to think that a human solution will cure all problems (and especially not cure all problems quickly).

The continual failure of the Left to achieve its domestic aims is more often than not due to a failure of having a "tragic imagination" in domestic policies.

My wife commented during the Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinsky scandal that "didn't he know people were out to get him?" For Bill Clinton to to have an affair is one thing, which may or may not be forgiven on a personal basis. But his blindness to the fact that his very real and powerful enemies would use it as a tool against him is politically unforgivable….

The problem is that Trump understands that point: that the world is out to get him. One could argue that in his case the world has a good deal better case than for most people, but the fact still is that Trump at least understands how the world works….

The question about Gary Hart is, with all due respect, how could someone that demonstrably smart insightful about the world not know how the world really works? How could he not know that good is surrounded by evil? …

The worst outcome from the Trump experience is for the country to simply vigorously repeat the mistakes of the past: for the Right to believe in nothing but the attainment of power in an admittedly evil world, and for the Left to live in a pie-in-the-sky naivete about the perfectibility of all humans….

Trump knows the world is evil, and only wants what power that can be gotten from in it. Naivete is not the correct response. Neither is a cynical grasp of power for yourself. I think professionalism is the real answer: how to get closer to lofty goals in this fallen world. It is a question of whether the Left will figure that out this time.