Politics '84 is a long way from Kansas for Oletha (Lee) Hart

LEE Hart, her long, brown hair tossing in the breeze, told the small crowd at Baptist Bible College that her husband, Gary, is the presidential candidate who could both ''carry the country'' and ''lead into the future.

''A new generation means all of us,'' she said, striking up a variation of her husband's campaign theme. ''It isn't chronological. It's a new generation of spirit, of creative thinking in resolving problems.''

Mrs. Hart, whose speaking style is more gracious than oratorical, soon ended her formal message and moved to the main objective of her short visit, spreading good will by mingling with the crowd. Cheerfully dispensing autographs, she repeatedly asked to be reminded of the date. ''Sixteenth. Oh yes, sweet 16, that's how I'll remember it,'' she said to herself.

Spotting a baby, Mrs. Hart said, ''Oh, you've got hearts on your dress. How wonderful!''

From first glance, Oletha (Lee) Hart cuts an image that contrasts sharply with that of her husband. While the Democratic senator from Colorado is ruggedly handsome and serious to the point of solemnity, his wife and former college sweetheart has an elegant and refined beauty and ready smile. While he is reserved and self-contained, she is extroverted and spontaneous.

''I express my feelings more quickly and demonstratively than Gary,'' she observed in an interview, while flying from Charleston to her next campaign stop.

''Gary is first of all an extremely serious, reflective person,'' she said, tracing those traits to the economic struggles of his family. She hastened to add, ''But he combines that with a sense of humor always. He doesn't take himself so seriously that he can't stand back.''

Born in Lawrence, Kan., in 1936, Mrs. Hart was reared in Kansas City, Mo. She described her home life there as warm and happy. Her father, Sylvester T. Ludwig, was an ordained minister and official in the Church of the Nazarene and for a short time was president of Oklahoma's Bethany Nazarene College, which both Gary and Lee attended.

''My mother (Clara Ludwig) was one of 10 children, born and raised on a farm, '' she said, noting that she has ''strong rural roots.''

Religion was the central focus of her early family life. That meant going to church on Wednesday nights and twice on Sundays. It also meant forgoing dancing, movies, and card playing.

''I have no regrets,'' she said of her religious training, although she and Gary now attend the Presbyterian Church. ''I'm deeply grateful, for it helped develop my thinking and make me the person I am today.''

Mrs. Hart's sister, former Kansas Rep. Martha E. Keys, recalls, ''Our father was democratic, warm, and outgoing. He taught us very much to make our own decisions.''

There were no hints in the Ludwig home that both daughters would end up in politics. ''Some of that early training, that good Protestant work ethic, gives you the feeling that you ought to do something worthwhile, that you ought to make a contribution,'' says Mrs. Keys, who now lives in Virginia.

Soon after graduating from college, Lee and Gary married and moved to New Haven, Conn., where he attended first divinity school and then law school at Yale University. The couple had little money. ''We were struggling,'' Mrs. Hart said, recalling that her husband took a job at the post office that sometimes meant working all night. Life eased a bit when she began teaching high school English.

Politics first entered their lives in 1960, she said, when ''John Kennedy turned a lot of people on to public service.'' The Harts were living at the married students' dormitory, where a group of couples gathered once a month for dinner and political talk. ''Most of his friends were for Adlai Stevenson or Richard Nixon,'' she said, remembering the heated debates on those occasions. Gary was a volunteer for the Kennedy campaign.

After the graduate school years, Mrs. Hart became a full-time homemaker, raising Andrea and John, born in 1964 and 1966. When Gary managed the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, she took an active part as an alternate delegate to the nominating convention.

Gary's decision to enter politics didn't surprise her. ''He always was geared toward a life of service.''

She conceded that the choice has taken a toll on home life. ''Obviously when you're gone as much as he is, you don't have that much time'' for being a parent , she said of her husband. ''He loves his children deeply. He was always concerned about being gone and took quality time (with them).

''Andrea and John really idolize their father and respect him tremendously and love him deeply,'' she said. The two children are also quite different individuals, she said. Andrea follows her mother's love of athletics. (Her mother was an ''outdoors'' type of child who spent much time riding her bicycle, according to her sister. Mrs. Hart said she would have been delighted if girls' sports had been emphasized in the '50s as they are today.)

John, just graduating from high school, has taken up karate. ''Gary has tried to see him'' qualify for the various belts, said Mrs. Hart, and he has also taken his son on trips ''when it was possible.

''I think there is a very, very great and strong bond between Gary and Andrea and John,'' she said. Andrea has taken a year off from school to campaign for her dad. ''From what I hear, she has done a terrific job,'' said Mrs. Hart. Because they campaign separately, she has not been able to watch her daughter.

Mrs. Hart's own involvement in the senatorial life has been chiefly in campaigning for her husband. ''Lee hasn't participated that much with the other (Senate) wives,'' says Rita Hollings, the wife of Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina and a favorite tennis partner of Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Hollings notes that Mrs. Hart was occupied first with raising her children and later with her work as a real-estate agent in Potomac, Md.

As the Harts have acknowledged, the bond between husband and wife has undergone strains, including two separations. ''I think the separations have been a tremendously important developmental process in our marriage,'' Mrs. Hart said. ''I have absolutely no regret for those times. It was necessary for us.''

She added, ''Each of us was able to look at the other person from another perspective. Sometimes what you need is time and space to do that.''

The reconciliation, coming before the presidential marathon began, was unrelated to the campaign, she said. ''Our greatest concern was for the happiness of the four of us. Politics never entered into our decision.''

The campaign has strengthened their ties, she said. ''I believe as strongly in it as Gary does. We share equally a compassion for those less fortunate, concern for fairness, and equality for all. To be able to share in a cause together has meant a great deal, and in so sharing, it can only strengthen a relationship.''

The year 1983 brought its share of discouragements for the couple.

''It was frustrating. We knew there was tremendous support there for Gary,'' she said, adding that her husband was convinced that the average voter would not focus on the races until 1984. Yet news reports pronounced the nomination sewn up for Walter Mondale.

''I remember one time in August or September, during the dark days, Gary coming home and saying 'I just can't get out of this race. There's too much out there,' '' Mrs. Hart said.

More recently, her frustrations with the news media hover on the coverage of two Hart inconsistencies, one involving his birthdate (it is one year earlier than his official biography says) and the other his explanation for shortening his name, originally Hartpence. He says his family wanted the change, but others say he initiated it.

''The press is so cynical,'' said his wife. ''A certain amount of cynicism is healthy. But you look for a rock under every bush.

''I don't mean you, personally,'' she told her interviewer, checking her zeal in defense of her husband. ''People out there think it's ludicrous that so much is being made of it,'' she said. ''How many people have changed their names?'' As for the age question, she said, ''That's been a joke in the family for years.''

Should Hart prevail in the race for the Democratic nomination and then win the White House, the forthright Mrs. Hart would almost certainly be a highly visible First Lady. Asked for her thoughts on the subject, she at first demurred. ''It's too early. We have a long road ahead,'' she said, but then sketched out a vision.

''It's a tremendous opportunity to have influence for good,'' she said, predicting that she would be an ''active First Lady, involved in many things I feel so deeply about.'' On top of her list is the public schools.

She has also been a supporter of women's rights. ''I do feel very strongly about women being involved in the electoral process, equal opportunity in education, in jobs and in pay,'' she said.

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