Gary Hart Takes a Few More Swings
By Alec MacGillis
Gary Hart stepped squarely into the Democratic primary fray 10 days ago when he fired off a broadside against Hillary Clinton accusing her of disloyalty to the Democratic cause for suggesting that John McCain is better qualified to be commander in chief than is Barack Obama, Hart's chosen candidate.
Clinton, Hart charged, had broken the hard and fast rule to "not provide ammunition to the opposition party that can be used to destroy your party's nominee," and had instead "essentially said that the Democratic party deserves to lose unless it nominates her."
Much has happened since then, some of it linked to Hart's unsuccessful 1984 challenge of Walter Mondale, to which the Obama-Clinton battle has so often been compared. Mondale running mate Geraldine Ferraro declared last week that Obama was doing as well as he was because he was black, and then responded to the ensuing firestorm by charging the Obama campaign with oversensitivity that amounted to its own brand of racism. And Harvard's Orlando Patterson penned a controversial op-ed arguing that Clinton's "3 a.m." ad, a clear echo of a scare ad that Mondale used against Hart, was reminiscent of a "racist movie epic that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan" because it included images of sleeping white children (unlike the Mondale ad, which zeroed in on a ringing telephone, sans sleeping angels).
In an interview this afternoon, Hart remained upset about Clinton's attacks on Obama's national security credentials, which have continued since the former Colorado senator's March 7 missive. He predicted big trouble if Clinton's attacks succeeded in persuading superdelegates to pick her instead of Obama, in the event that he preserves a lead in pledged delegates.
"If he wins a majority of votes and majority of states and pledged delegates and doesn't get the nomination, then that nomination may not be worth much," Hart said. "You can triumph in the party and not triumph in the country. Mondale got the nomination and he lost 49 states. The means they are using to get the nomination, they may pay for it later on."
But Hart also had some thoughts on the most recent developments. He said he had not seen a racial message in the Clinton ad, but said that might just be a question of perspective. "You'd have to be black and have a black experience to understand how African Americans experience statements and events," he said. Patterson, he said, viewed the ad as presenting "a white child sleeping in a bed and in effect saying, 'Do you want this black man making her secure,' which is very subtle racism. Now, I didn't think that. But if your skin is a different color, maybe you do."
Last week the Clinton campaign responded to Patterson's statement, in his op-ed, that "[t]he ad could easily have removed its racist sub-message by including images of a black child, mother or father" by pointing out that the ad did, in fact, include an African American child.
Hart said he wasn't sure how much impact the ad had on Obama's narrow loss of the popular vote in Texas, where the ad ran, just as he wasn't sure what the effect of the Mondale "red phone" ad was in 1984. "I don't know whether it worked or not -- I didn't get the nomination," he said.
At the very least, he said, Clinton's ad had focused undecided voters on the question of Obama's preparation to be commander in chief, a question that was due to arise at some point. He predicted Obama would be doing more in the coming weeks to try to get across that threshold. "You'll see him make some very important speeches, you'll be seeing him listening to retired military officers, maybe even some retired intelligence officers, not just seeing him posing on stage with him, but really listening to them," Hart said. "I hope he visits some military installations, not just for an hour, but spends half a day at one of them."
Hart said he was surprised by Ferraro's comments, and in particular by her decision to press on with a high-visibility defense of them. "That didn't sound to me like who she is," he said of the initial statement. "Now, the heat of combat will do that, people will say stupid things. The interesting thing to me was that she didn't cut her losses and just say, 'That was dumb and stupid.'"
Hart was relatively sanguine about the latest explosion on Obama's side of the line, reports of incendiary comments from the past few years by Obama's Chicago pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "It's got to run its course," Hart said. "If another Wall Street firm collapses, it'll move it off the front page."
But, he joked, he may be available to step in to fill Wright's shoes if necessary: "I'm a graduate from Yale Divinity School, so I'm going to offer to be [Obama's] spiritual adviser."
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