Senator Gary Hart; A dark horse who wrote the book on dark horses

In a roomful of politicians, he is the one man you would not spot as a pol. There is no huge fist of people wrapped around him, crowding to talk, to touch, to be part of the banter and backslapping. Gary Hart stands still and they come to him, one or two at a time. He is the tall guy with auburn hair over there by the door, the quiet man who listens a lot, nods, smiles like a cowboy facing into the sun, then speaks softly. When he speaks it's liable to sound more like the brave-new-world ideas of a think tank than ''The Last Hurrah'' of traditional politics.

''The easy path is the beaten path, but the beaten path seldom leads to the future,'' read Gary Hart's words on a campaign poster tacked up near the door of this Westport, Conn., house. He is in the wilds of Westport stalking the presidency, but stalking it ever so softly. His longtime friends Doug and Anne Shrader have invited some of the top Democrats in Connecticut for dinner and a look at the Democratic senator from Colorado, who is an ''unannounced'' candidate for the presidency of the United States. So after the Brie and canapes on the terrace, after the Veal Chausseur and salad and pecan tarts, they serve up Gary Hart.

The living room of the Colonial house is full of comfortable antiques, books, family pictures, and political muscle. The muscle tenses as Hart steps forward to talk, wearing a carefully tailored navy blue suit, white shirt, navy tie, and composed smile. Only his hands betray his anxiety: The long fingers are steepled together like those of a minister about to lead a congregation.

In a way he had led a congregation a few hours earlier, when he delivered a talk on economics in the soaring brick Marquand Chapel of Yale Divinity School, where he once studied. The New Haven chapel was full of upraised, idealistic young faces. On the Connecticut stop, the atmosphere is friendly, but some of the faces are blase, skeptical.

''What's a senator from Colorado doing up here in Connecticut?'' asks one. Then a powerful, white-haired Irish politician who's leery of degrees mutters, ''The only time I ever had anything to do with Yale was a parking ticket in front of it.'' He had grieved at John Kennedy's funeral, supported his brother Bobby after that, but didn't think Teddy could make it. He sighs, watching Hart with speculative eyes. A challenger asks Hart what Ralph Nader meant when he called former Rep. Toby Moffett ''the Gary Hart of the Northeast.'' ''He meant something good,'' says Hart, laughing it off. But did he, the challenger comes back, are you sure? Hart says with equanimity that he takes it as a compliment. When it is suggested that Nader is talking about Hart doing a consumer flip-flop , supporting oil deregulation now, Hart only notes wryly that his position is different from Nader's. Ralph Nader is a purist, and it's easy to be a purist when you're not running for office, Hart tells the group.

This group knows Gary Hart is readying himself for a try at the Oval Office and they are there for a political version of show-and-tell. Hart calls for a renaissance of the Democratic Party, not just telling people what you've done for them in the '30s, '40s, and '50s but offering new solutions for the '80s and '90s. He suggests that although the nation has tilted to the right, those who have cut back support of the traditional party position of caring for people will lose in the long run. He outlines his own positions, sandwiching in a few anecdotes, talking easily and affably after the initial icebreaker, kidding that some of them had heard Paul Newman would be there but instead. . . . They laugh.

When the voices of the guests begin to fade away in the night air, a few of Hart's staff gather around anxiously to compare notes. Was it good for him, they ask, was it good for him? Hart is at this difficult and delicate pre-announcement stage in a presidential campaign, laying the foundation, as lawyers say, for his case among the party power brokers.

One of those in the room is Kingman Brewster, former president of Yale and ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Ambassador Brewster says he's impressed by Hart's seriousness and the scope as well as thoughtfulness of his grasp of domestic and foreign affairs. For Hart the next stage is an early winter fund-raiser at a $500-a-plate dinner in Hollywood, more of the same in New York and Washington, then slogging through the snow in New Hampshire in December for the first of campaign travels to 1984's early primary states. On behalf of other politicians he has made 80 trips to 31 states in the last 18 months. When Ted Kennedy recently dropped out of the '84 race, Hart praised his senatorial achievements and said, ''My decision continues to be based on whatever I have to offer this nation as a candidate, not on who my competition is.'' He will officially announce that decision in late February or early March.

Gary Hart knows how crucial an early leap into a presidential campaign is. After all, he wrote the Baedeker on it in his book ''Right From the Start.'' As George McGovern's campaign manager he is acknowledged to have run a brilliant grass-roots campaign for the Democratic nomination that propelled McGovern from dark-horse obscurity to the 1972 candidacy. The book has become a blueprint for presidential aspirants, among them former President Jimmy Carter, who told Hart once that he used the book himself in '76.

Here's what Hart said in ''Right From the Start'' about campaigning: ''To become President of the United States you have to want it almost more than anything in the world. You must possess the dedication of a martyr, the determination of a marathon runner, the stamina of a football linebacker, the precision of a heart surgeon, and the fortitude of a guerrilla commander.'' Does he? At this writing he says that ''if I decide to run, I would not run unless I felt I had those qualities and that commitment.''

Gary Hart is frequently described in the press as remote and cool, one of the new breed of ''neo-liberals'' who put economic issues first, social programs second, and who say of the New Deal: enough already. But to see him come striding off the Senate floor one Friday after a dust-up with administration policies is to see a man who burns like a prairie fire with conviction. A flush rises in his redhead's weathered tan as he talks about how the country would be different if he were president:

''I see the government as a problem-solver, where the current incumbent sees it as the enemy. I've never understood, quite, the mentality of people who say they love their country and hate their government. This President's been here almost two years now and he talks about the government as if it's a foreign power. He is the government. What happens to this country between the period 1981 and 1984 is his responsibility. . . . This President's motto seems to be: The buck stops somewhere else. The buck stops somewhere in the past.

''So I would think that any administration I would have anything to do with would be problem solving, would engage hopefully the best creative talents of the country, it would seek to reawaken the idealism of the people in the country , particularly the young people, make public service a respectable activity, seek to be active and effective in a whole variety of areas, fundamental areas of solving economic problems, reinvigorating and reindustrializing this country, stimulating growth and expansion and entrepreneurship and invention, new technologies, seeking excellence in education and the arts. I'd say the word was trying to tap the latent and currently repressed idealism in the American character.'' Repressed?

''Of course. This is a negative administration. It's against everything except big business and, I guess, concentrated wealth. I don't know anything that this President has done or said that would inspire anyone to try to do anything better except make more money. It's a highly materialistic administration that worships wealth, that seems to think there is no higher value for the nation than getting rich. It doesn't seem to have a concept of what our nation is all about, except as a generator of money for a handful of people. It doesn't inspire any common effort or sense of commonwealth.'' For a man often described as a cool pragmatist he sounds angry.

''Yes, I am angry. I don't like anybody to seek to govern or to claim to govern the country with base or limited goals and objectives, and I think that's what this administration is trying to do. It's uninspiring, it's unchallenging, it's motivated by, as I indicated, personal greed. And it seeks to suggest in their words, that's what made this country great. . . . You probably could not find a much greater contrast in those areas that I mentioned than between a Reagan administration and a Hart administration.'' That, he explains as an aside , is not an attack on Reagan personally but on his administration's policies.

Hart is sitting, as he talks, in the President's Room off the floor of the Senate, a room resonant with history and grandeur with its inlaid murals, massive gilded chandelier, red velvet curtains, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Hart sits, backlit, on one of the dimpled brown leather couches.

A friend has said that Gary Hart is more attractive at a distance than close up. While it's true he has a distant, chiseled handsomeness that makes him as telegenic as his superstar friends Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, a close-up reveals something beyond an attractive facade. He lacks that ego swagger that sometimes comes with the territory in the Senate. His staff calls him Gary; he rarely uses the title senator, doesn't seem to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the office. He seems more intent on the ideas he wants to get out than his own image, so that his bright blue eyes are sometimes fierce as a malamute's when defending a position. Close-up he is surprisingly intense, in a leashed way. With the russet hair goes thin skin. As one friend murmurs, ''He is not fond of criticism.'' He can be prickly as a thistle, on occasion. But he keeps whatever temper there is tamped down. His friend, Washington lawyer Harold Himmelman, remembers Hart campaigning for a New Jersey Democrat one sizzling 105 degree day in July. Hart stood in front of a barbecue pit, but he still kept his cool with a heckler. What rises to the surface instead of temper is a crackling, ironic wit paired with a driving determination. The senator from Colorado is, in his own maverick way, a formidable man.

He snorts when the talk swings to what he calls the infamous Esquire article on ''The Neoliberal Club'' (a term he loathes) in Congress, which lists Hart as its leader among fellow Democratic senators like Max Baucus (Montana), Bill Bradley (New Jersey), and Paul Tsongas (Massachusetts), and Rep. Tim Wirth (Colorado). ''Those labels are put on by people on the outside looking in, not by people on the inside looking out. . . . I call myself an independent Western Jeffersonian Democrat. . . . I think out of our various positions comes a common theme, and that is a stress on military reform, a more effective military , the need for economic growth in the '80s, to accommodate the changing world economy, the need for energy independence, the need for increased education, the need for environmental protection.'' Hart serves on the Senate Budget, Armed Services, and Environment and Public Works Committees.

Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island assesses him as ''a very effective senator, particularly on something like the Clean Air Act - he was head of the Air Quality Commission and knows his subject. . . . (He's) a very thoughtful, able participant in discussions, not a person who makes a speech just to hear his own voice.'' Chafee considers Hart ''a big spender, no question about it,'' but still sees him as presidential timber. Chafee sums up: ''He's not a backslapper; he's sort of a loner by inclination and temperament, but I have a lot of respect for him.''

If you poll a delegation of Hart's longtime friends, the different facets of his character emerge. To Marcia Johnston, who has known him since the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign, he's no aloof loner. Mrs. Johnston, former deputy director of the American Film Institute, says he is both philosophical and caring, also a wonderfully funny storyteller with an uproarious laugh. Among his favorites are tales about his granddaddy the Kansas sheriff, who led posses in the 1880s and taught Hart always to sit with his back to the wall and keep his powder dry. Speaking of his serious side, Mrs. Johnston says Hart refuses to demagogue issues and polarize opinion, that his goal is ''finding solutions.'' She calls him ''concerned and passionate in a public sense about issues he cares deeply about, like nuclear disarmament.''

Mark Hogan, former lieutenant governor of Colorado and one-time state chairman of the Democratic Party, is organizing and fund raising quietly for Hart, as several of Hart's friends are. Remembering the senator's zeal for victory in a tennis game (''He wiped up the court with me''), Mr. Hogan suggests that Hart's determination is fierce enough to win even the presidency. When Hart first ran for the Senate, he says, ''others would be working the room, slapping backs. But Gary picked up people and began organizing without a lot of fanfare.'' Pause. ''All he did was win.'' This contrasts with Elizabeth Drew's observation, in her New Yorker magazine coverage of the Democratic mini-convention last summer, that Hart ''could not capture the crowd'' as he spoke.

Former Senator McGovern handpicked Hart to run the campaign which won him the Democratic presidential nomination. McGovern, who may run himself, calls Hart ''thoughtful, moderate, innovative'' and suggests that ''Gary's best shot (at the presidency) will probably come further down the road,'' after he earns some national recognition.

But the Colorado Kid seems to be saddling up for a wild, hard gallop in a race he is determined to win. Gary Hart is, after all, the son of an Ottawa, Kan., rancher (later in the farm machinery business). Born Gary Hartpence of Republican parents with Irish roots, he grew up in that small, quiet, rural Kansas town in the '50s in an atmosphere he compares to the TV program ''Happy Days.'' Hart now attends a Presbyterian church, but he was brought up as a member of the Church of the Nazarene, a conservative Methodist sect; he graduated from Nazarene-founded Bethany College. There he met and married Lee Ludwig. Hart's sister-in-law says he runs to win: ''Gary never does anything that isn't for real.'' The Harts have two children, Andrea, 18, a freshman at the University of Maryland, and John, 16, a high school student in Chevy Chase, Md.

The Harts have been officially separated for a year. But Mrs. Hart, a tall, willowy blond with the candor and contemporary good looks of actress Jill Clayburgh, appeared with the senator on his Connecticut trip as well as at a December fund-raiser in California, so there is speculation about a reconciliation.

After Bethany College Hart had gone to Yale Divinity School, immersing himself in Kierkegaard - not to preach, but to teach religion and philosophy. Switching to literature at Yale, he wrote a long paper on William Faulkner's humor which won high honors. Then he decided he didn't want to teach. After a taste of politics as a John Kennedy campaign volunteer, he entered Yale Law School, graduated, shortened his name, and changed the direction of his life. After three years in Washington (at the Department of Justice and then Interior) he practiced law in Colorado till McGovern tapped him to run his campaign; Hart's own political career was launched like a rocket.

Through it all, he is still the guy who loves Tchaikovsky, cowboy boots, chocolate, sculpturing, and the Irish poetry of W.B. Yeats. In his almost austere Senate office a well-worn copy of Yeats's collected poems sits next to ''The Living Bible.'' A movie buff, he ticks off his favorites: ''High Noon,'' ''Lawrence of Arabia,'' ''Casablanca,'' all three about altruists as heroes. Is he an altruist? No thanks. ''I am not some dreamy idealist on one hand, nor a calculating, cunning pragmatist on the other. I think of myself . . . and John Kennedy's description of himself comes pretty close . . . as an idealist without illusions.''

As he said in one particularly thoughtful moment: ''I was thinking last night there are no final victories. You can get a bill passed, but in a year, five years, 10 years, someone's going to come back and try to get it changed. . . . The Constitution of the United States, you'd think that if there were a document in our society that was unambiguous and unchangeable, that would be it. But it's under assault all the time.''

''In politics there are no final victories, you have to look for those somewhere else,'' says this man who would be president.

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