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Back From Political Exile, Gary Hart Brings a Warning

November 24, 2002|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Gary Hart wants to scare you.

The former Democratic senator from Colorado has emerged from political exile to become the Cassandra of terrorism, issuing bleak predictions about the next attack on American soil.

He made national news last month when a task force he co-chaired issued a chilling report on terrorism in the U.S. "In all likelihood," the report warned, "the next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy."

But the report didn't generate enough urgency to suit Hart, so he has been crusading to keep it alive -- appearing on talk shows, giving speeches and writing newspaper editorials.

"We are scarcely safer today than when we were first attacked," he wrote in last Sunday's Denver Post. "And now we face the real prospect of a major war and the trigger that war will provide to those waiting for motivation and occasion to kill Americans in their homes."

While trying to scare Americans out of their complacency, Hart seems to have given himself a jolt. He has rediscovered his voice and rekindled his passion for public service. In the process, he has stirred rumors of another presidential run -- rumors Hart has done nothing to discourage.

Days after the release of the terrorism report, he addressed Colorado business and academic leaders at a lunch sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the University of Colorado at Denver Business School. Stepping to the lectern, Hart declared: "Today I am announcing my candidacy for the pres -- ooh, sorry, wrong speech."

There was a burst of nervous laughter, followed by enthusiastic applause, which Hart visibly enjoyed.

Given the rout of Democrats in the midterm elections this month, and the subsequent scramble for new leadership, Hart's reemergence has intrigued voters and political observers here. And their reaction has intrigued Hart. In an interview at Coudert Bros., the high-powered international law firm where he has a corner office, Hart admits that he has grown restless in exile. "There are only two positions in politics in America: on the field or on the sidelines. And on the sidelines," he says, "you are not heard."

Still, he won't say just how he intends to make himself heard. Nor will he reveal specific plans he's making. "It's not about politics," he says. "It's about public service. I've tried to find a way to help my country. And I'll continue to do that."

He laments the lack of options for seasoned politicians who want to keep contributing.

"There is no ground for statesmanship in this country," he says. "Most people, after they've been in politics, disappear. One didn't hear much from Fritz Mondale until two weeks ago. One has heard very little from Mike Dukakis."

In the nearly 15 years since his presidential campaign was derailed by a sex scandal, Hart says he has tried not to disappear. He has written six books. He has earned a doctorate from Oxford University. He has offered advice to politicians willing to listen. "I gave Bill Clinton all kinds of ideas," he says, "including to intervene in Ireland, which he took and ran with."

Hart, 64, looks fit and well rested. Married to Lee, his wife of 44 years, he still lives in Troublesome Gulch, a community in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. His wild Beethoven hair has grown more unruly and more gray, but his voice has deepened to a professorial timbre.

The first time he helped assemble a report on terrorism was in January 2001. Appointed by Clinton to co-chair a commission on national security, Hart and former GOP Sen. Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, plus experts from both major parties, issued an unequivocal prediction: The U.S. will be attacked on its own soil, and the loss of life will be catastrophic.

The prediction went largely ignored -- until terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year. Then Hart found himself hailed as a prophet.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently asked Hart and Rudman to tackle the same topic again. The Hart-Rudman task force issued its report Oct. 25 with an ominously familiar finding: More than one year after Sept. 11, 2001, the report asserts, the country still is unprepared.

The report catalogs many gaping holes in homeland defense: Security at ports remains lax; water and food supplies continue to be vulnerable; energy distribution centers provide easy targets; and local law enforcement officials receive scant funding, inadequate training and no intelligence about terrorists on "watch lists."

Aside from governmental vigilance, Hart stresses the need for an alert citizenry. "The tag line of every speech I've given over the last two years on this subject is: 'You in this audience are now front-line soldiers.'

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