Within hours of the stock market’s 500-point nosedive, the following joke began making the rounds: Question: “How do you attract a yuppie stockbroker’s attention?” Answer: “Hey, waiter!” With slight modification the joke also applies to Kevin Sweeney, 29, who was Gary Hart’s press secretary until the candidacy collapsed after the Donna Rice debacle. Since September, Sweeney has been waiting tables at Lily’s Cafe, an upscale eatery in San Francisco’s financial district.
“I haven’t dropped any trays or broken anything yet,” says the lanky redhead of his weekday job, which pays $3.35 an hour, plus tips. Sweeney is easygoing, good-humored and unapologetic about his current line of work, which, he says, pays the bills while he takes a breather to figure out what he wants to do next. Sweeney says he has turned down numerous job offers from other candidates, although he occasionally accepts invitations to lecture or work on short-term political jobs. He admits he was initially “devastated” by Hart’s withdrawal, and now says he’d like to prove that he can make or lose money in some other profession. Pointing to the long hours and little pay that come with most campaigns, Sweeney says jokingly, “I’ve already proven I could lose money in politics.”
In less than a week, he says, “I went from fairly close to the top of American politics” to the pits. Three days after the Miami Herald first reported Hart’s dalliance with Rice, Sweeney recalls, Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor told him that the newspaper had evidence linking Hart to yet another woman and was ready to publish a story. Sweeney telephoned Hart at a Vermont hotel and told him the news. Hart, says Sweeney, said simply, “Let’s go home.” The next morning Sweeney climbed up on a bench outside Littleton, N.H., and announced that his boss had returned to Colorado with his wife and that the campaign was on hold. Then Sweeney walked off alone to some railroad tracks, sat down, buried his head in his hands and cried. “I was hurt, sure,” he says. “And I was angry. In very press secretary-like terms, there were visceral reactions that were not positive.”
A bachelor, Sweeney says that after the campaign was officially halted a day later, he immersed himself in a flyfishing course, then spent part of the summer bicycling from Copenhagen to St. Tropez. “Gary Hart made a mistake, and he’s sorry,” says Sweeney. “He doesn’t need my anger. He doesn’t need to hear, ‘I told you so.’ ” As for his own role in Hart’s drama, Sweeney says, “I’d heard the rumors, and I’d tried to find out if it was true that Hart was a womanizer. I told him it was likely that he was going to be followed. Clearly, he had been warned. He made a serious mistake in judgment. Judgment doesn’t look so good in a bikini.” But Sweeney adds that even though Rice’s friend Lynn Armandt “says Gary Hart and Rice slept together, Hart told me nothing happened. And I take him at his word.”
Still, “Hart has admitted to adultery,” says Sweeney. “I think adultery is wrong and that bugs me. But if you’re going to take a sexual relationship and put it under a magnifying glass and say this is what defines character, you’re wrong. There have been many great and loving husbands who were horrible Presidents, and there have been many people who were not solid in their relationships but were great leaders. But my head is not in the sand. If the American people were given a chance to vote [on Hart’s continued candidacy], they’d have probably said, ‘Go home.’ ”
One of six children, Sweeney was raised in San Bruno, Calif., by his mother, Marian, a high school registrar. His father, a maintenance worker, died when Kevin was 3. Sweeney caught the political bug while working his way through the University of California at Berkeley and spending three months of his senior year in Washington as a congressional intern. After graduating with a political science degree in 1980, he worked off and on as a waiter between stints at research and political jobs. A Hart fan by 1983, he volunteered to work on the Senator’s 1984 presidential campaign “100 hours a week” for free. “I had this romantic vision,” he says. “I was working for a candidate I believed in. I thought in a very small way I was making the country a better place.”
After Hart dropped out in 1984, Sweeney returned to waiting tables. When Hart began prepping for 1988, he asked Sweeney to be his press secretary. “I don’t feel burned by Hart or politics,” Sweeney says. “I wasn’t brought down. The Hart campaign ended. My personal life went on.”
Nevertheless, Sweeney realizes that the dust from Hart’s crash hasn’t settled completely. For example, when it was reported that Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste had had three affairs, Sweeney was deluged with calls. “I knew I was forever typecast as a defender of adultery,” he says. Recalling the clothing endorsement job Donna Rice recently landed, Sweeney says, “If I find myself in another one of these situations, I may even get an offer from No Excuses jeans.”