February 3, 2016.
“Colorado Demoncratic Senator Gary Hart at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, California. Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem are at the table. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder is standing at right.” Photo by Nancy Wong via Wikipedia.
Gary Hart was running for President when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1984 and he came to the University to speak sometime before the caucuses. I went to hear him. I can still picture him in my mind: his big brown head above the heads of all around him, his long-jawed face deeply tanned, his smile broad and bright, youthful but not boyish, ruggedly handsome as the cowboy he wasn’t in any way despite being from cowboy country and with nothing about him suggesting the divinity student and aspiring minister he’d once been. But for the life of me I can’t remember what I thought of him or of his prospects of winning in the caucuses, taking the nomination, and defeating Reagan in the general election come November.
Considering who else was running---Walter Mondale, George McGovern, John Glenn, Fritz Hollings (Yes, the Democrats had two candidates who went by the name of Fritz.), Jesse Jackson, Alan Cranston, Reuben Askew---you’d think Hart would have been my guy or at least the guy I was most drawn to, unless it was Jackson, but I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered that.
It may be that I didn’t feel strongly about any of them because I didn’t think any of them had a hope in hell of beating Reagan and I was reserving my hopes and affections for 1988.
But it’s still curious to me that I didn’t caucus for Hart.
I caucused for George McGovern.
That was pure sentimentalism on my part. I did it for Pop Mannion. Pop had headed a slate of McGovern delegates in 1972. The slate lost. My sentimental hope was that I’d help send a McGovern delegate to the national convention who’d cast the vote for McGovern Pop hadn’t been able to in ‘72. There was zero chance that would happen, even if McGovern had survived the first round at our precinct. Which he didn’t.
So the question I’m asking myself is how did I end up with the Mondale people in the second round after our little McGovern group was declared unviable?
Why didn’t I join the Hart people?
I’d like to think I wasn’t particularly drawn to Hart because I was out and out against him.
I don’t see how I could have been for any Democrat who’d run for the United States Senate on a platform of “open contempt” for the legacies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Hart was the rock star of the 1974 Democratic candidates. He wore expensive cowboy boots with his silk suits. Not really a populist, he was, however, a reformer: his big campaign play was publishing the names of his opponent’s contributors and the amounts they gave. Evans and Novak said Hart’s “abandoning abrasive liberal ideology for a bland moderate facade” was actually subterfuge. Clearly they had not read the book he’d published the year before about the McGovern campaign, Right from the Start. “American liberalism,” he had written in it, was “near bankruptcy.” And George McGovern, while he brought into liberal politics the greatest organizers in a generation, “did not bring in a new generation of thinkers. he did not because it isn’t there.” Hart’s billboards read, “They had their turn. Now it’s our turn.” His outmaneuvered opponent, the once-popular two-term conservative incumbent Peter Dominick, said Hart seemed to be “trying to get to the right of Attila the Hun.”
Hart seemed almost angrier at other Democrats than at Republicans. His stock speech, “The End of the New Deal,” argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory---that “if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.” It included lines like “The ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was passed in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke. But such claims did appeal to the preconceptions of people who Hart claimed must become the new base of the Democratic Party: those in the affluent suburbs, whose political power had been quietly expanding during the 1960s through redistricting and reapportionment. He called those who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality,” who still thought the workers, farmers, and blacks of the New Deal coalition were where the votes were, “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” He held them in open contempt.
That’s from Rick Perlstein's indispensable The Invisible Bridge:The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and Hart sounds like Paul Ryan in that passage, doesn’t he?
And Ronald Reagan.
Still, it seems odd to me that I’d have preferred Walter Mondale to to the dynamic and charismatic Hart no matter how much Hart was still sounding like the most egregious sort of New Democrat. Good old Fritz? Jimmy Carter’s Vice-President? Bland, predictable, no fire in the belly Fritz? And in 1984, Hart, along with the other Democrats in the race, would have been running hard against Reagan so maybe he’d changed his tune. I doubt that, though, considering he was touting himself as the candidate of “New Ideas” which implied Mondale was the candidate of the old ideas and Mondale was an unabashed and unapologetic son of the New Deal who’d have been proud to call himself an “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrat”.
Maybe it isn’t so odd that I preferred Mondale.
But it does seem odd that I don’t remember struggling with the choice of what group to caucus with next after McGovern was eliminated.
Maybe that choice wasn’t there to make.
It’s possible that there were no Hart people in that church basement that night.
That seems unlikely, doesn’t it? But maybe it was a tactical decision by the Hart campaign. Maybe he didn’t have the troops in place. Maybe he was really running for the nomination in 1988. Mondale was the presumptive nominee, although I’m not sure how “inevitable” his nomination was thought to be, and, of course, the almost universal assumption was that Reagan would win re-election with relative ease. Hart may not have made a play for every precinct in order to save time, energy, and effort, intending only to make a respectable show of it to enhance his position coming out of the gate next time. I can’t tell you.
I can’t tell you the state of his organization or what his thinking was about his chances, although I feel should know. It’s not as if I wasn’t following the election. I was all up in the news, as the great Wev McEwan likes to say. One of my many favorite things about my time in Iowa was being able to read the Des Moines Register and the Chicago Tribune every morning. But there’s a good reason I don’t remember much about that election season.
My mind was on other things that naturally left a more lasting impression.
My loftier thoughts were focused on matters literary. It was more important to me to understand what Chekhov was thinking when he wrote “The Duel” than what any politician was thinking as he plotted his road to higher office.
And my time and energy were taken up with matters romantic.
I was busy having fun being a young writer in love and in lust.
Within a few weeks of the caucuses I was down in Florida, enjoying spring break in Miami and Key West with the future Mrs M (the Blonde as was). I remember those two weeks in vivid detail.
Still, it bothers me I don’t remember the other stuff. I’d like to know what I was thinking, just for curiosity’s and vanity’s sake.
I’d like to know if I was as smart about politics as I thought I was.
I’d like to know if I was right.
Or at least what I wrong about so that maybe I would know to adjust my thinking to make myself a little more right---or less wrong---now.
I could find out, I suppose. Sometimes I get mad at my grad student self for not having started keeping a journal. But I wrote lots of letters. Long letters. You think my blog posts are long? Ask my friends who sometimes got letters from me of thirty pages what long is. So maybe I wrote to one of them about the caucuses. I could ask around to see if any of them kept my letters but it’s not really worth it. What I personally remember isn’t as important as what actually happened.
Hart came in second in the caucuses, with 16.5 percent of the vote, which doesn’t sound like much but it was a much better showing than was expected. It didn’t just set him up for 1988, it gave him a significant boost going into the ‘84 New Hampshire primary which he won. Handily. He beat Mondale by very close to 10 percentage points, 37.28 to 27.86, and from there the campaign became a real race. Finally, it wasn’t close, but Hart won in 25 states and stayed in it all the way to the convention, and at that point there seemed no doubt that he’d be the Democratic nominee come 1988.
Unless that rising star Mario Cuomo got in it.
But here’s the thing, again.
I don’t remember any of that race. My memories skip from caucus night to the convention and Geraldine Ferraro being nominated for Vice-President and then from there to Ferraro herself turning up at a rally at the University shortly before Election Day and then to me walking past a frat house on Election Day that had a big sign on a bed sheet strung across it that said “Come to the Reagan Victory Party Tonight! Democrats Welcome!”
The only specific thing I remember from the primary campaign was the first time I heard Mondale’s “Where’s the beef” ad.
It was during that spring break trip to Florida. I was driving up to a Waffle House in South Beach to meet the future Mrs M, who was getting off her overnight shift at the news service where she was working, for breakfast. I can still see that Waffle House through the windshield of the car. But the memory isn’t connected to Hart or to the campaign in general. It isn’t a political memory at all.
The future Mrs M was cultivating a terrific tan that needed constant admiration.
So that’s it. My memoir of the time I caucused in Iowa. Not much to it. Like I said, for personal reasons I wish I could remember more, but I don’t think it would make a better story if I did. 1988, on the other hand…
I have much clearer memories of that awful election year. But, once again, I don’t remember how I felt about Gary Hart, except angry.
Hart, as you probably remember, was the presumptive nominee when the campaign season started. And you certainly remember why he no longer was before the campaign really got underway.
But beside being furious at him for throwing away not just his own chances but the Democrats’ chances of taking back the White House, I don’t remember what I thought about Hart or even if I supported him.
And in going over it all again as I’ve been writing this, I’ve got to thinking.
Maybe this isn’t saying something about me and my memories.
Maybe it says something about Hart himself.
Maybe I don’t remember what I thought about him because he was hard to know what to think about him.
He was a very weird guy.
But that’s another post.
Just for nostalgia’s sake: Here’s the Wendy’s commercial whose tagline Mondale used against Gary Hart and his “New Ideas” in the 1984 primary campaign.