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Round 2--Hart Plays Out Another Weakness: Vanity

December 16, 1987|JACK BEATTY | Jack Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly

When last we saw Gary Hart, he was a victim of Lust, that most beguiling of the Seven Deadly Sins. Now, in his dramatic 11th-hour re-entry into the presidential race, he returns as a monument to the folly of Vanity, in its sense both as emptiness and as self-regard. In a brief address announcing his new candidacy, Hart said that as President he would be a national teacher. Well, he won't be President, but he still has something to teach us about a common human failing that politicians embody in tumescent proportions.

To begin with, Hart's case should cause us partly to supplement a dollop of the conventional wisdom about politicians, and partly to expand on it. The dollop that I have in mind is associated with the late Harold Laswell, a pioneer in the psychoanalytic understanding of politics. Politicians, Laswell taught, are driven to solve on the public stage, if only symbolically, problems that they are unable to solve in their personal lives. That explanatory construct fits Hart rather nicely.

This self-destructive man, whose conflicts between instinct and reason are the stuff of Johnny Carson's jokes, wants to bring rationality to American politics, and indeed to American society generally. This creature of drives wants to build a campaign, so he said in his announcement, on "ideas." This flagrant Lothario calls for national "reform." He wants to do for us, in short, what he can't do for himself--reform, bring order out of chaos, let reason rule over instinct.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 18, 1987 Home Edition Metro Part 2 Page 11 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 11 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of the late Harold G. Lasswell was misspelled on this page Wednesday.

So far as it goes, then, Laswell's theory helps us to understand the motivation for Hart's quixotic decision. (As so, no doubt, do crasser considerations having something to do with the availability of federal matching funds to help candidate Hart pay off his debt as well as finance his rehabilitation.) But the pre-psychoanalytic idea of Vanity also sheds light on Hart's motivation, and I for one am glad to have this old verity back on the boards.

In his memoirs former Secretary of State Dean Acheson says that after he left public life, after the spotlight that had so long been upon him had been snapped off, he felt as if he had undergone a kind of death. Life without the elixir of renown was savorless. Perhaps Gary Hart felt the chill of that public death, and so at the certain risk of ridicule had to clamber back into the cockpit of celebrity, that theater of Vanity. A public man lives by vanity. He craves for the world to notice him. And if the world, noticing, mocks? Well, better that it mock than not notice at all. Better humiliation than oblivion.

Last week, buried in the local news section of the New York Times, there was a little story about Gary Hart. It seems that Hart gave a lecture--for a fee of $10,000--at a New Jersey college, and only a handful of students came to hear him speak. They'd come now, you can bet on it, and in coming fill for a moment some of the emptiness of Gary Hart, and gratify his blinding self-regard.

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