Who is Gary Hart? It's a tough question

Gary Hart's fast-moving presidential campaign sails Down East to Maine in search of its next big haul of votes on Sunday. The senator's top aides look for ''at least'' a second-place finish in the caucuses there.

Even as Senator Hart gains speed, however, many Americans are asking: Who is this young man who suddenly blew away the Mondale machine in New Hampshire?

In Washington, where Hart has served as senator from Colorado for nine years, he is known as quiet, hardworking, and someone who keeps to himself.

He has also been described as ''arrogant,'' a label that angers his staff. Others call him reserved and shy, which, his staff agrees, is true.

Hart certainly doesn't fit the typical image of the outgoing politician who feels at home in the cloakrooms of Capitol Hill and on the Washington party circuit. He's no hail fellow well met who will pat his colleagues on the back or make small talk with ease.

One problem with Hart's reserved style is that many of his fellow senators don't feel they really know him - they don't know what makes him tick. For example, a senate staff member observes that Hart's voting on defense issues seemed to turn more pro-military a few years ago. Several staff members at the time debated among themselves whether Hart had changed his stance out of conviction, or political opportunism. They never settled the argument. None of them felt close enough to Hart to be sure.

The senator himself says he is closest in political philosophy to people like Democratic Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, and Carl M. Levin of Michigan.

''The commonality of this generation elected in the '70s is that we've had to grapple with some issues that people who came up in the '50s and '60s hadn't had to,'' Hart said in an earlier Monitor interview. ''The whole issue of reindustrialization, the transformation of our environment, the entrance of women and minorities into the workplace, the education question, a lot of issues of that sort.''

Yet even among the fellow senators that Hart named, he is something of a mystery.

''He's kind of a loner,'' says a senate staff member who works for one of the '70s senators. ''I can't think of anyone he runs with. I don't really know what he believes. There's a certain value, when you talk about the White House, of having a collegial fellow or gal in there. That way, you know what the person is really all about.''

Hart is going for the nation's top job. Could he win the top job in the Senate - either minority or majority leader - among those who perhaps know him as well as anyone? ''I seriously doubt it,'' said one Capitol Hill staff member. ''Never,'' said another. ''He'd have a very difficult time,'' commented a third. The problem is simply that Hart's fellow senators don't feel close enough to him , don't know what he is all about.

Hart's own staff members attribute such perceptions to their boss's shyness. He also values his privacy highly. His favorite recreation is simply watching a movie - ''all movies . . . especially old cowboy movies.''

An anecdote or two may help shed more light on this very private man.

A few months ago, when this reporter was interviewing the senator in his office, it was observed that Hart's greatest political appeal seemed to be with young voters. As we talked, Hart had his cowboy boots propped up on a small table. The reporter joked that Hart apparently was also going for the older, Adlai Stevenson-era Democratic voter, since both of his soles, like Stevenson's, had large holes worn in them.

Hart chuckled a little, but he seemed somewhat embarrassed. The boots immediately came off the table, and for the rest of the interview they remained planted flat on the floor, the holey soles out of sight.

About six years ago, the senator was this reporter's guest at a large dinner given by White House correspondents. It was a good opportunity to get to know Hart. But there was little casual chitchat. Rather, we spent most of the evening talking seriously about major issues of the day. The senator seemed to prefer it that way.

After the dinner, Hart peppered the reporter for a time with brief notes and copies of his speeches describing concepts he was developing on defense, the economy. and other subjects. Hart definitely takes his lawmaking duties very, very seriously.

Hart's ideas on a number of subjects have recently been spelled out in detail in his book, ''The New Democracy.''

The book, from a critic's standpoint, suffers from almost overpowering dullness. But many of the ideas are interesting if one can get through it. The book is probably the easiest one-stop method of getting to know what Hart is thinking about for the future of America.

Even many reporters, however, feel they know little about this man who could be the next president of the United States. As Hart's votes were piling up on election night in New Hampshire, several reporters were vowing to look more closely at the candidate, who earlier in his life changed his last name from Hartpence. Reporters promised to dig into such small details as Hart's birthdate. Why, they ask, does his own literature, as well as his entry in ''Who's Who in America,'' say he was born in 1937, when he told a reporter recently he was born in 1936?

Hart has been described in several ways. Because of his interest in defense, one wag called him a ''Scoop Jackson with blow-dried hair,'' a reference to the late Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, who led the fight among Democrats for a strong military posture.

Hart was amused by that description. Personally, he rejects simplistic labels such as ''liberal'' or ''moderate.''

''I have tried, and the closest I have come is Western, independent, Jeffersonian democrat,'' Hart says.

Very briefly, from speeches, interviews, and other sources, here's what Hart had said about a few other topics, and about himself. On the issues:

Central America. ''The US government is pursuing the wrong policies in Central America, because it is focused on the wrong enemy. The principal enemy in Central America is not communism - it is poverty.''

The Reagan White House. ''(President Franklin D.) Roosevelt started the country on an egalitarian path. . . . Reagan has reversed that. The whole purpose of Reaganomics was to return the country to a pre-Roosevelt period, a laissez faire, dog-eat-dog society.''

Jobs. ''The battle between Reagan and the other Democrats is how to distribute the stagnant pie (of the American economy). I am the only one talking about how to make the pie grow again.'' Hart would boost federal outlays for research, give more help to small business, and look for ways to direct pension-fund assets into venture capital projects.

On Hart himself:

Religion: ''I am not a regular churchgoer, or active in a church. But surely you can't grow up in a religious household, which I did . . . and do three years of graduate work in the philosophy of religion without that having a lot of impact on your life. I think it had a lot to do with my sense of public service.''

Important books: Hart says the greatest impact of books on his life has come from John Steinbeck's ''Grapes of Wrath'' and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's ''The Brothers Karamazov.''

Favorite sport: tennis.

Favorite presidents: John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.

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