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Why Lee Hart Is Back : Her Inner Circle Describes How She Put Aside Scandal and Returned to the Campaign Trail

December 22, 1987| This story is based on reporting by Times staff writers Nikki Finke in Los Angeles, David DeVoss in Denver and Betty Cuniberti in Washington. It was written by Finke.

Also, by all accounts, the Harts were working through their marital problems. But friends who saw Lee Hart during this period found that she needed no comforting. "I took Lee and a few of her friends out to lunch just to get away from politics. I had intended to offer my support," recalls Dottie Lamm, wife of former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, "but she had the strength to deal with problems herself."

Those who saw the Harts together last summer and fall said they showed no evidence of marital strain. John Emerson joined them at the 50th birthday party for Buie Sewall, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, and found them "very relaxed. It was just fun, social hugs and kisses." And when Wren and Tim Wirth went horseback riding with the Harts in Eldorado Springs this fall, "They were just fine together," Wren Wirth recalls. "There was lots of laughter. We had a ball."

By all accounts, if Lee Hart was angry at anyone during this time, it was at the media. "She was pretty bitter about the press, and I'll tell you why," says Emerson. "They were like a pack of wolves, literally, in terms of the physical, coming after her family. It was a visceral reaction."

And, in talking with her inner circle, Lee Hart clearly believed that the media had treated her husband badly. "She felt that Gary in some ways had been set up by the press," one friend recalls.

Wren Wirth thinks Lee Hart was "more angry at the meddling" than at her husband's relationship with Donna Rice. "She considered it a situation that was private that was made a big to-do by the press."

Even so, she agreed to speak to the Journalism and Women Symposium over the Labor Day weekend. But when three journalists said they would not honor a longstanding rule that her comments would be off the record, she canceled. "This confirmed all Lee's doubts about journalists," says Tricia Flynn, who had extended the invitation. "Lee was very sad and complained that nobody would allow her to be an ordinary person."

But did the Harts want to become just "ordinary" people after so many years in national politics? Gary Hart didn't. And Lee Hart did and didn't, according to friends.

"I think she really thought he was finished, and that the chances of him coming back in the next eight years was very unlikely. Their whole lives have been geared to this goal so long that suddenly having it taken away from them was very disorienting. For both of them."

Within the context of their marriage, running again seemed plausible. For one thing, Sally Henkel believes, the press no longer had the power to wound her.

"How much more can they hurt them? There's no more hurt to be had," Henkel notes. "The papers could be filled with information that most of us would consider to be additionally damaging. But the impact has already been made, the healing process has already been completed and there's no more opening of the wound."

Though Lee Hart began hinting to her closest confidantes at Thanksgiving that her husband might enter the New Hampshire primary, the decision was not made until Dec. 6. "The three of us were sitting in the living room," Andrea says, "and the filing deadline was less than a week away. I asked Dad if it was a green light. He said, 'Do you want me to do it?' "

Andrea was squarely behind it. "If I was angry at him for anything, it was that he got out," the daughter explains. But Lee Hart was the one who raised the red flag, "What was most important to her was that we realize it would be hard to go through it again," Andrea recalls.

In the end, though, Lee Hart went along. "She was as much in support of Dad as anyone could be," Andrea says. "That was probably one of the main reasons why Dad decided to do it."

When her friend and neighbor Tricia Flynn expressed reservations, Lee dismissed them summarily. "For her," Flynn says, "it was one more sacrifice."

It was not the first time she had sacrificed to further his career.

When Oletha (Lee) Ludwig met Gary Hartpence on the campus of Bethany Nazarene College in Oklahoma, the only thing the two students shared was a strict upbringing in conservative Kansas.

Raised in Kansas City, she was gregarious and politically attuned. Her father had been general secretary of the Nazarene Church, and her older sister, Martha Keys, would later become a member of Congress. Hartpence was a gangly loner from a hick town called Ottawa.

In 1958, two months after graduation, they married and set out for Connecticut where Gary, who later changed his name to Hart, had a scholarship to Yale Divinity School.

Supported by his wife, who earned $4,000 a year teaching English, Hart immersed himself in a world of ideas, leaving her behind intellectually, friends say.

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