Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Gary Hart Calls Upon Democrats at the Stanford Bookstore

By George Powell 9.27.06
Photo by George Powell

For a person who has never been president, or even his party's nominee, Gary Hart projects a presidential aura. Approachable, personable, but with a touch of “Hail to the Chief.” For those who are still a bit unfamiliar with Hart and his background, sitting in the audience of about 50 at the Stanford Bookstore Sept. 27 would have made you want to remember more, know more.

The man (who will be 70 in November) has been a U.S. Senator from Colorado (1975-1987), written 17 books, is a professor at the University of Colorado, and finished a strong second to Walter Mondale for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.

The book he's currently promoting, The Courage of Our Convictions: A Manifesto for Democrats , is passionate, erudite, and liberal in the very best sense of the word, reflecting the traits of its author.

Hart left both lectern and microphone unused as he stood before the audience to deliver a pithy summary of the book's thesis.

Hart's book, by his own admission, was written to answer a question he was constantly having to answer, “When are the Democrats going to say something? What do the Democrats stand for?”

In the book's introduction, Hart says: “What do we stand for indeed? It has become painfully apparent that the great Democratic Party, the dominant party of the 20th century, the party that led America through two world wars and much of the Cold War, has become mute. The best Democrats lack all conviction, or at least all courage to state what those convictions are, while the worst conservatives, those full of passionate intensity, fill the vacuum in governance.”

The answer, according to Hart, is to return to the tried and true principles of four great Democratic presidents—Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—and not to shy away from their considerable accomplishments.

Hart says early in the book: “Franklin Roosevelt established a national community based on social justice. Harry Truman created international networks that repaired the damage of World War II and defeated communism. John Kennedy recaptured the ideal of the republic and the sense of civic duty. Lyndon Johnson recognized that all citizens are entitled to equality before the law. To expect to enter this pantheon, the next Democratic leader must now undertake all these tasks.”

Given the near total moral bankruptcy of the Bush administration, the task should be easy. But Hart finds a big challenge in the articulation by Democrats.

In 2006, it's now apparent that during a political campaign, the only way to cut through the cacophony of competing voices in today's infinite information space is to adopt a single, easily repeated, unified message. The Republicans, thanks in no small part to campaign guru Karl Rove, have such a strategy down pat. The Democrats, according to Hart, do not.

Hart theorizes that swing voters will not listen to any specific plans of a political party until they know where that party stands and what it stands for.

According to Hart, the current Republican stance is “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.” Democrats, Hart says, once had “purpose, integrity and honor,” but support of civil rights in the 1960s along with the Vietnam war shattered the “heyday” of the Democratic Party.

Hart himself is in a good position now to push the Democrats into forging a unified statement of principles. But he also was in a somewhat better position in 1987, and he faltered. The early front-runner that year, Hart was derailed by the Donna Rice affair, involving allegations of infidelity which forced him to drop out of the presidential race. By the time he returned in time for the New Hampshire primary in early 1988, he garnered only a smattering of votes and Michael Dukakis became the Democratic choice.

This smashup in Hart's career was not mentioned in his bookstore appearance. It's as far away in time, nearly 20 years, as President Bush's alleged drinking and coke-snorting, and Bush was selected president in 2000.

If Hart had been president, things might be different for the Democrats. However, circumstances have led to a different outcome, and whatever happened in Hart's past does not change the fact that he has something important and necessary to say today. The Democratic Party would be doing itself a favor to heed his cry.

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