DENVER — There were a few tearful embraces, as though there had been a death in the family, but most of Gary Hart's campaign workers just stood clustered together, silent and emotionally drained as they awaited the man who was coming to read his political obituary.
Gary Warren Hart had left his home on Troublesome Gulch just after 9 a.m. Friday with his wife of 28 years, Lee, and had it not been for heavy traffic probably would have made it on time to deliver his brief speech.
But he was now 10 minutes late, and a few of his volunteer workers dared to hope aloud that he had changed his mind and was still a candidate for the presidency of the United States.
In the corner of the packed ballroom of the downtown Executive Tower Inn, Hart's press secretary, Kevin Sweeney, who had been a carpenter in San Francisco before joining the Hart campaign, tried to break the tension by holding up a sign whose red letters merely said: "John 3.16."
The staff laughed, knowing that such signs have become almost ubiquitous at televised national events.
The passage refers to God sacrificing his only begotten son. But on Friday, several staff members said it might as well have read: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
Hart, his campaign crumbled because of newspaper stories about his relationship with a Miami actress, finally appeared, serious and businesslike. For the briefest of moments it appeared that the 50-year-old former Colorado senator would not withdraw from the race. With both hands grasping the lectern, his voice steady and unwavering, he said he had tossed aside his prepared speech.
His army of loyalists--a brigade of young, mostly white professionals who had left jobs across the country to converge on the Denver headquarters--broke into wild cheers. "I knew he wouldn't quit!" whooped one of them.
But Hart held up his hands, motioning for silence, clearly indicating they had missed his meaning. He had changed the speech, but not the result.
Ten minutes later, his four-year pursuit of the presidency was over and with a simple, "Thank you," he left the room, once again a private citizen.
"I'm stunned," said Ivan Ebel, a volunteer who had worked the phones and the mail desk at Hart's national campaign headquarters in Denver.
Judged on 'Stumbles'
"You hear so many things, it's hard to know what to believe. I suppose I'm not angry at anyone. I'm just angry at how the system has evolved since Watergate. We don't judge our politicians on their ability to do a good job. We judge them on their stumbles."
Hart did not linger, but his aides did, not quite believing that the Hart candidacy was over just 25 days after it had officially begun. Besides, suddenly there was no urgent business to tend to, nowhere to go, really.
As a Mountain Bell crew was disconnecting the 50 special phone lines and the thousands of feet of cable it had installed in the ballroom during an all-night shift, a television reporter caught Sweeney, the press spokesman, by the door.
"Excuse me," she said. "We're doing a special tonight at 10:25. Is there any chance you could make an appearance?"
"I don't mean to be rude," Sweeney replied, "but at 10:25 on a Friday night, particularly this Friday night, I ain't doing television. At that hour I might embarrass you, me, everyone."
'Let's Go Home'
Early Thursday morning in New Hampshire, Hart had publicly announced he was putting his presidential efforts on hold. At the same time, he told Sweeney and William Shore, his personal assistant: "Come on, let's go home."
"I think all of us understood the implication of that remark," Sweeney said. The race was over.
In Denver on Thursday night, campaign manager William Dixon paid the staff its last wages and thanked the volunteers. Almost everyone said that if Hart decided tomorrow he was going to run after all, they would be back in a flash to work for him.
At Hart's Washington office--a four-story brick and brownstone town house a few blocks from the Capitol Hill home where the rapid unraveling of Hart's campaign began a week ago--staff members gathered upstairs Friday morning.
Trying to Avoid Tears
Ronald D. Elving, the campaign's Washington office director, appeared to struggle to avoid tears as he stood in a room filled with boxes of Hart buttons, bumper stickers and unsold copies of the candidate's book, "A New Democracy."
"I'm not angry any more," Elving said. "Tomorrow is going to be a beautiful day. I plan to take a long walk."
As the hour for Hart's speech approached, Elving asked visitors to leave.
The office doors remained locked for about 20 minutes after the speech ended, then Elving reappeared to talk briefly with reporters gathered on the building's steps. "A lot of people shared his (Hart's) feelings that a certain amount of burden had been lifted from their shoulders," Elving said.
A Few Stayed Behind
Back in Denver, most of the staff members meandered back to the campaign headquarters at 16th and Downing Streets for what they called a wake. One or two would stay behind to organize the campaign material for the archives at the University of Colorado. The others would soon be on their way home, denied a dream that had seemed so easily within reach just a week ago.
Hart's supporters had said this was their time to be alone and had asked reporters not to intrude. None did, and most of those who dropped by the headquarters to see what was going on read the hand-lettered sign posted on the glass lobby door, then after a few moments moved on. The sign said: "The Hart campaign is closed to the press all day today. Thanks."