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'Come On In' : Gary and Lee Hart Offer a Rare Look at Their Private Life in Troublesome Gulch

January 22, 1988|KEITH LOVE | Times Political Writer

The scene was a baggage carrousel at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. It was nearly midnight and the place was forlorn, almost deserted. Outside, the wind whipped at piles of dirty snow.

Gary Hart stood waiting for his luggage to drop.

By his side--as she is almost always now--was his wife, Lee. Nearby were three reporters who had traveled with Hart for weeks and had come to share a certain amount of camaraderie with him. As the reporters' bags arrived, they discussed which bar they would head for to have a nightcap.

Meanwhile, Lee Hart, a charming, ebullient person who likes to talk, started up yet another conversation with her husband about his renewed presidential campaign. Hart listened, but the look and the little wave he gave the reporters as they departed was unmistakable: Take me with you. Please.

As he enters the second month of his renewed quest for the Democratic nomination, Hart is on an odyssey, one that has as much to do with getting his self-respect back as it does with the long-shot possibility of winning the White House. It is an odyssey in which Hart faces a couple of paradoxical--and poignant--situations.

Wife Has to Be There

For this to work at all, given his departure from the race last May over reports of his "womanizing," Hart has to have his wife by his side. That is less painful than some might assume because the Harts' 29-year marriage appears surprisingly strong. But it is also true that they have always given each other a lot of space.

And there isn't much space right now.

Also, Hart needs reporters even as he rails at them. Their offense, as he sees it, was the invasion of his privacy last May when the Miami Herald staked out his Washington townhouse and discovered him in the company of Miami model Donna Rice. But without the media there is no one to relay the image of the warm response he receives wherever he campaigns. And there is no one to report his indignation and his challenge to those who say he has no place in the campaign.

So, sometimes the Harts cannot resist talking to reporters. They enjoy getting into spirited discussions, and one such argument recently led to a startling proposal from two people who have always guarded their privacy, especially from the press.

"I want you to come up to our house and we'll finish talking about this," Lee Hart said to this reporter during a flight from Boston to Denver. We were arguing over whether Hart could overcome the unfavorable rating that many people give him in polls, even as some of them make him their first choice in the Democratic race.

Hart looked dubious about his wife's invitation, then finally left it up to her.

But it was Hart himself who called a few days later. "Why don't you go up early and Lee will show you around the place," he said. "I've got some stuff to do at my law office and I'll be in later."

The invitation provoked some ambivalence. Was this a setup to provide a look at the happy Hart family at home? Hart would call that another cynical thought from a cynical reporter. But there have been so many stories about Hart's dual personality, his mix of idealism and calculation, that the doubts continued as he gave instructions for finding his home.

In the end, of course, it was an opportunity that couldn't be turned down.

Kittredge is about 45 minutes west of Denver on the way to the big Colorado ski resorts. The residents, many of whom wear cowboy boots and leather vests, are a mix of folks with genuine rural roots, a few leftover hippies and some well-heeled lawyer types who like being able to live in the woods and still be close to Denver.

With its steep, meandering roads branching off in several directions from the main highway, it looks a little like Topanga Canyon. The Harts' cabin is in a canyon called Troublesome Gulch.

Lee Hart waved a greeting from the back of her Jeep station wagon as she picked up a sack of groceries.

"This is the place," she shouted. "You found it. Pull back the gate and come on in. Leave it open for Gary."

The car spun in the snow and ice that covered the final yards of the driveway. Up on the hillside was a small log cabin with a hand-carved wooden sign over the door: "Three Pines."

Gary Hart's sanctum sanctorum.

Built in 1910, it was once a stagecoach stop between Kittredge and Evergreen. The Harts moved there from Bethesda, Md., after Hart decided not to seek a third U. S. Senate term in 1986. And since they have sold the infamous Washington townhouse, the cabin is their only residence.

It is so small that most of their possessions are jammed into a stone storage building nearby.

Lee Hart came down dressed in a red ski jacket and jeans to lead a walk around the property.

The Harts' dogs, Smoky and MacArthur, plowed through the drifts to a ditch where Lee Hart had found an ailing raccoon earlier in the day.

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