Gary Hart, saying he had made "a very, very bad mistake," apologized before a national television audience Tuesday night for the behavior that led to his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race last May and said he will not re-enter the contest.
"I am not a candidate for President," Hart said on ABC's "Nightline." "I am out."
And, in an extraordinary statement for an American politician, Hart admitted that he had not been always faithful to his wife, Lee, during their rocky 29-year marriage.
But, appearing defiant at times and contrite at others, the former Colorado senator refused to answer "Nightline" host Ted Koppel's direct question of whether he had had sexual relations with Miami model Donna Rice.
Hart, who was the overwhelming front-runner in the Democratic race last spring, abruptly ended his campaign after newspaper reporters staked out his Washington town house on May 2 and 3 and reported that he had been alone in the house overnight with Rice .
"If the question is," Hart replied to Koppel, "during the 29 years of my marriage, including two public separations, have I been absolutely and totally faithful to my wife, I regret to say the answer is no.
"But, am I going to answer any specific question about any individual? No, I do not have to answer that and . . . I would say to the press, never ask another candidate that question. It is not another person's business except the candidate and his spouse."
But while lecturing the press in that instance and several others, Hart also tried to bury the hatchet with the media, which he had angrily denounced when he quit the race.
Early in the show he said he accepted full blame for what had happened to him.
"I am . . . deeply sorry for causing the events that led to my withdrawal from the race," Hart said. "I will always bear a responsibility for those actions. I do not blame anyone else and I apologize for those actions."
Speculation that Hart might re-enter the race for the presidency was fueled in recent weeks by a statement from his former campaign manager, William Dixon, that Hart was contemplating such a move.
Hart said, "I have no plans to run for President," but added, "I want to be part of the debate. I think it would be silly to go back to Troublesome Gulch (his Colorado home) and hide. I'm not going to do that."
"I've been given some talent," he said. "I can't waste those talents. I've got to figure out a way to use those talents. There's one higher office than President, and that's patriot. I'm going to make speeches and I'm going to try to have an impact."
He added: "I can make that contribution. That's all I want to do."
Hart complained that rumors could be started about any political candidate and urged the press to be mindful of that.
But Koppel reminded him that rumors that Hart was a "womanizer" had circulated for years, and that sometimes the appearance of impropriety can make news.
Hart responded that "I made a serious mistake. I should have not been in the company of any woman not my wife who was not a friend of mine or my wife . . . . I should not have been with Miss Rice."
When asked why he had spent time with Rice and other friends at a Miami yacht club, Hart said, "I should not have been in that situation . . . . I had let my guard down.
"I am not perfect," Hart said. "I am human . . . I have sinned."
When Koppel gave Hart the chance to wind up the program with a statement, the former candidate's voice broke as he apologized to his son and daughter "and other young people" for his actions and for not being able to finish the run for the presidency. "We are not defeated and we will not be. I will find some way, I promise you, to continue on," Hart said.
He said he was guilty of bad judgment but that his transgressions were far less serious than mistakes made by President Reagan and members of his Administration.
"No troops were sent into combat to die unnecessarily, no laws were broken, no papers were shredded, no money changed hands, no one lied to Congress--and every one of those things happened under this Administration," he said.
"I exercised bad judgment, but--as I've indicated--not as bad as some others."
'He Is Greatly Relieved'
Los Angeles lawyer John Emerson, Hart's former deputy campaign manager, talked with Hart after the program and said "he is greatly relieved. He wants this to be behind him."
In a June 19 telephone interview with The Times, Hart said he believed the American public would eventually grow tired of the gossip about him and would be receptive to his efforts to make speeches on domestic and foreign policy even though he was no longer a candidate.
Hart will give the first of those speeches Thursday, when he discusses U.S.-Soviet relations before the Philadelphia World Affairs Council.
He said also in the Times interview that he wanted to give speeches about domestic policy, "and then I am going to go around the country and give a kind of all-purpose speech on the future of this country and the changes we have to make."