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Ambivalence and Ambition : Hart Seems Devoted to Life of Contradictions

May 10, 1987|RICHARD E. MEYER and BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writers

Gary Hart has long seemed many different men, at least two of them at war; one seeking the highest prize on the political landscape, the other curiously determined to throw it all away.

Had the first made it to the White House, it would have been a classic American story: the success of a poor boy from the heartland on fire with religion and ideas and ambition. At 21, he left rural Kansas for Yale. At 34, he managed a presidential campaign. At 37, he was elected to the Senate. At 50, he was the Democratic front-runner for the presidency itself.

But the second Gary Hart's peculiar, self-destructive flaws outpaced his spectacular promise. Faced with charges of womanizing, his campaign in tatters, on Friday he called it quits.

"Clearly, under present circumstances, this campaign cannot go on," he said, leaving the nation to puzzle: How could an experienced politician with so much to lose behave in a manner that raised so many questions? How could he risk it all so carelessly?

There may be no clear lens into the answers, but there are plenty of clues. They are scattered across the terrain of a lifetime, in Kansas and Colorado and Washington, in the observations of rivals and friends, in the defiant words of Hart himself.

"I am who I am. Take it or leave it," he said. ". . . I guess I've become some kind of a rare bird, some extraordinary creature that has to be dissected by those who analyze politics to find out what makes him tick."

Unusual Indeed

That scrutiny is inevitable, for Hart has been unusual indeed.

He has been not only a man of contradictions, but also one seemingly dedicated to them, as if every paradox was a signpost of intelligence. A meticulous custodian of facts, he has also been a font of pointless deceptions.

For Hart, ambivalence was ambition's constant companion. He desperately wanted to be President but detested the grunt work of politics. As a campaigner, even as a senator, he often disengaged himself at critical times, becoming aloof and disdainful.

He made many poor judgments, some the inevitable mistakes of a demanding life but others an eerie, self-destructive unraveling. He was a candidate whose rhetoric sought the high ground of new ideas and whose actions made character the central issue of the campaign.

From the first, Hart felt ambivalent about his calling.

A Democrat, he was born in Ottawa, Kan., a town so Republican that his uncles had to re-register to vote for him. Ottawa counts 11,561 residents. Early on, Hart had visions larger than that.

"What's going to happen to us if we live and die here?" he once asked Duane Hoobing when they were youngsters. Hart likes to compare growing up in Ottawa to the TV program "Happy Days." And he did, indeed, spend time riding up and down Main Street and sipping malts at the Dutch Maid. But when Hart was still a fifth-grader, he set a goal: That year, he would read 100 books.

And he did.

Early on, his serious side warred with the Main Street cruiser.

He ran for senior class president and lost--to Hoobing. It was the serious side, Hoobing recalls, that cost Hart the election. "He was not outgoing enough," Hoobing says. "It taught Gary to smile more."

Had Religion

Still, he couldn't loosen up much. He had religion.

It was an austere faith, the creed of his mother, Nina. She was a fastidious, devout member of the Church of the Nazarene. Hart describes her as warm and humorous, a woman who loved life--the "salt of the earth," he calls her. But his mother also forswore makeup. And she wore no jewelry. Her standards were high. By the dictates of her faith, she outlawed smoking. She banned drinking. She told her son he could neither dance nor see movies.

"She was a pretty tough lady," says Joe Lee, a boyhood friend. She made Gary wear long-sleeve shirts. She made him wear button-down collars. She made him come home earlier than his friends.

And, although Hart says his mother "was never pushy," she let him know that she wanted him to be a minister.

He began carrying a Bible with his schoolbooks. His adopted sister recalls that, by the time Gary had turned 16, he was preaching at the Nazarene church.

Jitterbugged With Friends

But he was ambivalent about piety. Some nights, he sneaked out to a local airstrip with friends, opened the car doors, turned up the radio and jitterbugged.

During the summer after his senior year, he bleached his hair yellow. He fled Ottawa and raced off to Colorado, reportedly at 105 m.p.h. in a green Dodge.

Ambivalent, he came home in a week.

In 1953, he finally left Ottawa for Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma. Affiliated with the Nazarene Church, it had 1,400 students, a cluster of three-story buildings and a chapel where students worshiped twice a week.

There Hart came under the influence of philosophy professor J. Prescott Johnson, who introduced young Hart and several other bright students to the classical Greek philosophers and ultimately to the works of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th-Century Danish religious thinker.

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