WASHINGTON — "It's a crazy old world, isn't it?" asked Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).
While support for Gary Hart and his born-again candidacy was as scant as Donna Rice's swimwear Tuesday, Washington's inner circle reacted to the sudden announcement with surprise, anger, cynicism and disbelief--and often with humor.
Within moments, the word moving through the Capitol was that Rice had a new record out, "My Boyfriend's Back."
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) jokingly asked fellow senator and former presidential contender Joseph R. Biden Jr. if he planned to make a similar announcement.
"Today at 3," Biden answered with a grin, just before the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Supreme Court nominee Anthony M. Kennedy.
Others didn't see the humor. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) calls it "the worst new idea of 1987--Gary Hart for president."
"I think this act is even more foolish than the one that compelled him to get out of the race," fumed a former Democratic congressman, having lunch at La Colline, a Capitol Hill haunt where Hart has dined. "It reflects horribly on the slate of candidates, as if they truly are a group of dwarfs. It's sad for his family and the country to bring all this up again. Doesn't he know when enough's enough?"
The attorney dining with him added, "The other candidates have a right to be critical of his motives, and the arrogance of it."
"Yes, arrogance is the right word," the ex-congressman said.
Bartender Daun Boucher and Father David Boileau, a Catholic professor of media ethics, seemed to be the only Hart sympathizers among the La Colline lunchtime crowd.
"I think it's great. Good luck to him," said Boucher. "What he did before was his personal business."
Boileau said, "I think it's a good idea from the point of view that the media has to learn to handle the issues. The things he did in private are a matter for confession, not public penance."
At a nearby table, Jamie Pound, a Republican political consultant, recounted with horror how he heard the beginning of the Hart announcement story on his car radio and then drove into a tunnel, losing the broadcast.
Around Pound's office, the reaction was one of "embarrassment and disbelief," Pound said. "I think it's a mistake. He's confused. In some ways this is like the Kennedy thing. People will let Ted Kennedy be Ted Kennedy as long as he doesn't run for president. This is not a plus for the process."
Pound's lunch companion, lobbyist Jay Howell, said the announcement means "Donna's back."
"This is great for her career," Pound agreed. "We're not sure what her career is, but whatever it is, it has a new light. I think his wife has been through enough. I hope they've had a major reconciliation."
Hart's wife, Lee, was much in evidence at the televised announcement, wearing a bright-red coat, "so it matched the color of her face," said a former aide to Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio).
"I think he's doing it to retire his debt," the former aide said. "I think it's real transparent. But why would anyone want to give him money?"
A public-interest lobbyist at La Colline said he was astoundedd when he heard Hart's announcement: "My first reaction was that he's doing it to clear up his debts. Most of the talk I've heard is of embarrassment and disbelief."
"I don't why he's assuming he can ignore the problem," said the former congressman. "The problem is not Miss Rice. The problem is, he told falsehoods. I'm sorry for his wife and children. He really has nothing new to offer. He says he does, but it's such nonsense."
La Colline co-owner Paul Zucconi, asked if Hart had ever brought Rice in with him when he dined there, said, "I would not comment on that one way or another."