If every mouth in America dropped open in disbelief at the same moment, would the atmosphere thin? Would the ozone hole widen? Science was offered a chance to find out at 12:05 p.m. on Dec. 15, when Gary Hart stepped before a microphone in Concord, N.H., and announced, with nary a mention of the naughty little affair that sent him into exile last May, that he was back in the presidential race. The very man who clouded the 1988 campaign with questions of character was trying to stage a comeback on the issues—wielding position papers like a fig leaf to cover questions about his personal weaknesses.
“I would want this for an epitaph,” said Hart. “He educated the people.” Well, why not? We learned a lot from him in 1987, though not precisely what we expected. First he updated the definition of “self-destructive behavior” when he dared the press to “put a tail on me,” then flew Donna Rice to Washington for a replay of bedtime in Bimini. Then we got a lesson in post-modern manners when he claimed that “the woman in question” had been a virtual stranger who inexplicably “dropped into my lap” on that fateful Caribbean cruise. “I chose not to dump her off,” he told Night-line’s Ted Koppel, “and the picture was taken.”
All that was hard enough to believe, but now Hart really has us wondering. Is he so addicted to campaigning that the quiet rhythms of private life these last seven months worked like water torture, slowly driving him crazy? Would he really put his family, and especially his long-suffering wife, Lee, through the emotional gauntlet ahead just to qualify for federal campaign funds? Or could it be that he has decided to enlist us all as witnesses to a strange public penance? Hart noted proudly that he has come forward this time penniless, staff-less—everything but shoeless—to stand before voters and endure their slings and arrows. So now Hart’s a pilgrim—is this progress?