Before Gary Hart formally announced last spring that he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination, he hosted a weekend camping retreat in the mountains near San Juan Capistrano for his inner circle.
One night, as the group gathered around the fire, "there was an open discussion and everyone was throwing in their two cents," recalls John Emerson, then Hart's deputy campaign manager and now a deputy Los Angeles city attorney. At one point, Hart's wife, Lee, hurt by womanizing rumors that were already surfacing, launched into an emotional soliloquy.
"She talked about her belief in Gary and what he had to offer. And tears were streaming down her face," Emerson says. "And she said, 'That's why, no matter how tough it is, and how much the pain, I will campaign from morning till night across this country for this cause.' "
That's the sort of story that friends, family and former aides tell about Lee Hart today to explain why she was back on the campaign trail with her husband last week, attempting to revive a campaign that disintegrated eight months ago over rumors of his sexual infidelity.
To many, her appearance alongside him in New Hampshire and South Dakota was almost as astonishing as his decision to re-enter the presidential race. "It's like getting hit in the back of the head for months, and then asking to take it front on," says Los Angeles businessman Rick Allen, former California coordinator for the Hart campaign.
'Ultimate True Believer'
But friends say it's typical Lee Hart. They describe a 51-year-old mother of two who has more faith in her often rocky 30-year marriage than she has in the press; a veteran campaigner who is "the ultimate true believer" in her husband's presidential timber, even if it means sacrificing her privacy for his ambition; and a loyal wife who was able to forgive her husband's adultery even while maintaining a strong sense of denial about it.
"One of the things that made me the angriest this year was when people said, 'Well, she's going to stick with her husband, because she's a dishrag,' " Gary Hart said Sunday on "60 Minutes." "No one who knows her would call her that or suggest she was weak in any way. (She's a) very strong woman."
Lee Hart, who declined a request for an interview, offered this defiant explanation on a street corner in Portland, Me.: "Obviously, I am not here because anyone forced me to be. I wanted to be here. I have never wanted my husband to be President. But I have put my personal feelings aside, because I believe very much that the country deserves to hear his voice."
Shortly after Gary Hart withdrew from the presidential race last May, the wife of another Democratic contender imagined herself in Lee Hart's situation. "If I were Lee, my self-respect would say, 'I've gotta leave this guy,' " she mused in an off-the-record interview.
John Emerson found much the same attitude in Los Angeles. "The minute I came back here from Denver, everyone said, 'Well, when are they getting divorced?' " he recalls. "And I was always convinced they wouldn't. Because when you come through a crisis like this, it either blows you apart or it binds you closer. And it was clear from the outset that this was going to be a bonding experience for both of them."
In fact, friends and family say Lee Hart never talked about divorce. "Oh God, I don't think so," says Wren Wirth, wife of Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) and a friend of the couple for more than a decade. "Not a chance; not even a hint," agrees Patricia Duff-Medavoy, who helped mobilize Hollywood's big contributors behind Hart in 1984 along with her husband, Orion Pictures executive vice president Mike Medavoy.
Instead, Lee Hart's friends see her decision to stick with her husband as typical of a generation of women who came of age before the modern-day women's movement gained momentum and who may have had jobs over the years but not full-fledged careers.
"Lee is a person who knows what it means to make decisions for the better of the team rather than ascribe to the notions of the women's movement saying, 'I come first,' " says Sally Henkel, a longtime confidante and the wife of the Cleveland attorney who managed Hart's 1984 presidential bid.
Echoes Wren Wirth: "You don't break up your marriage over something like that. . . . I think people our age and from the center of the country have a very different view of marriage. Marriage is marriage and it's a commitment and you stick with it. You have good times and bad times, you turn on your strength of character and you come through it."
When the Miami Herald published stories linking Gary Hart with Miami model Donna Rice, Linda Spangler, a family friend in charge of Lee Hart's campaign schedule, rushed out to the Hart family home on a road known as Troublesome Gulch in Kittredge, 27 miles west of Denver.