WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Gary Hart answered the "Big A" question Tuesday night, but his startling admission of adultery on national television made some uneasy in this capital of political gossip.
"In a way," said one congressional aide who saw ABC-TV newsman Ted Koppel's interview, "it was, 'Watch the guy squirm.' "
"There was something uneasy about the whole thing," said Andrea Camp, press secretary to disaffected Hart supporter Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.).
"In 29 years of marriage, including two separations," Hart asked himself on TV in meticulous detail, "have I been absolutely and totally faithful to my wife? I regret to say the answer is no."
Hart declined, however, to specifically answer questions on his relationship with Miami model Donna Rice.
But to the great relief of some Democrats, he did manage to also say no to the other big question: Are you about to run for President?
"He's an extremely intelligent man. He has to know it's impossible for him to get back in," said a Republican Senate aide. "I think he's doing it for his ego. He's a politician who can't let go. It was sad."
"It was a non-event," said Bill Livingstone, press secretary to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). "People were not expecting him to join the seven dwarfs (as the seven Democratic contenders for the presidency are sometimes called). People had already suspected that that (adultery) was what was happening.
"There was no news. He had already written his political obituary. The most he can hope for is to make speeches, try to influence the direction of policy and pay back his million-dollar debts."
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said he did not watch the broadcast.
Jean Clark of the National Organization for Women said she meant to watch but fell asleep, having spent a fatiguing afternoon in jail after protesting the Pope's upcoming visit.
At the singles bar Champions in fashionable Georgetown, co-owner Michael O'Harro said his patrons watched but did not cheer the way they might for, say, the Redskins.
Smirks, Not Laughs
"People were smirking, but not laughing," he said. "My customers are like preppy, 21 to 35, and he doesn't have any credibility left with that audience. The consensus was that he dug himself a grave, he was very stupid, he was trying his best to get back in the public's good graces and it's not going to work.
"If he were single and having an affair with a beautiful woman, people would think it was fine. But he's married, running around on his wife. People would watch the program, then get back in their conversations. They had heard it all before, a man trying to cover his tracks and win some sympathy. I don't think my customer base is sympathetic to Gary Hart."
The customer base at the Democratic National Committee wasn't exactly sending flowers, either.
"I think there were clearly a lot of Democrats who feared that a re-entry into the race held the potential for some negative impact on our nominating process by turning it into a series of Gary Hart personality stories and delving into the Donna Rice story repeatedly, week after week," said Terry Michael, news and information director of the committee, who said he watched "out of mild curiosity."
Because the committee switchboard was malfunctioning, Michael added, he could not tell if people had been calling to respond to the Hart interview.
"People are still in the mood here of getting back from vacations, not quite focusing yet on life," said Michael. "I think he (Hart) probably came out on the plus side, because he did apologize fairly straightforwardly. His only mistake was attempting to somehow generalize that the reaction to Donna Rice was a sexist reaction that people have about any man and woman being together who are not married, that people jump to conclusions. I think he appeared to be defensive there, trying to make an excuse again there."
When Hart seemed to imply that sexism had played a role in the public's unfairly judging his relationship with Rice, Koppel told him there would be "snorting and thigh-slapping as you try to couch this issue in equal rights."
Irene Natividad, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, agreed. "The snorting on my end far outweighed any other reaction," said Natividad. "It was a painful performance for him and it still left a lot of people dubious about the exact nature of his activities.
"There is a great deal of anger and bitterness on the part of women campaign professionals about the impact of what he has done to the role of women in campaigns. We have gone so far, and now it's always going to be questionable how much time you spend with a candidate of the opposite sex.
"Like some men, he's got women in different categories, in different pockets. Wives and mothers are in one category, colleagues are in another and playmates are in another. I don't think he realizes they're part of the same gender."
Meanwhile, in New York, Donna Rice unveiled her commercials for a jeans company Wednesday but remained mum on the subject of Hart.
In an appearance for No Excuses jeans, Rice refused to talk about Hart and was whisked from the Water Club in a limousine after smiling for photographers and saying, according to wire reports: "For a change, I can say it's really good to see all of you here today. I never realized the press was so fashion-conscious."
In one 15-second commercial for the sportswear line owned by New Retail Concepts Inc., Rice says, "I've got a lot to say. But 15 seconds? Not enough time." In another, she says "I make no excuses. I only wear them."