Fall from Grace

Seven days in May end with a front runner's implosion

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They kissed again, softly at first, then almost violently. He was amazed at the passion in a woman so self-contained, seemingly so remote. Then she broke off and walked quickly to the chair where he had placed her coat. "It is time," she said. "I must go now, quickly . . ."

Although he had seen no one, Connaughton sensed they had been watched entering and leaving his apartment building. He had not seen, in the entryway four doors up the street, the slight man in the dark blue coat and the broad- brimmed hat.

-- The Strategies of Zeus, by Gary Hart, 1987

"If I had intended a relationship with this woman, believe me -- I have written spy novels, I'm not stupid . . . I wouldn't have done it this way."

-- Hart's press conference last Wednesday

The destruction of a public man holds a terrible fascination. One watches transfixed, yet ashamed, as personal dignity gives way to political desperation and hard-won respect is replaced by ribald laughter. It is an ugly spectacle, part Greek tragedy and part game-show television. Character becomes fate as hubris is defined anew. Yet the rituals of humiliation are straight Marshall McLuhan; the medium is the message as the cornered politician endures the prescribed sequence of televised statements, beginning with a tight-lipped acknowledgment of errors in judgment and ending with defiant surrender. So the political process is purified yet again, another heretic is hounded from public life. Some may see a rough frontier justice in the speedy verdict. But others may notice that a less than ennobling odor surrounded the entire affair, and wonder what it is about modern democracy that seems to require living victims.

For Gary Hart, the end came with breathtaking speed. As the week began, he was the overwhelming front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, a Gulliver surrounded by political Lilliputians. But then came the most harrowing public ordeal ever endured by a modern presidential contender: a media trial that made George Romney's "brainwashing" and Edmund Muskie's public tears seem almost laughable in comparison. Like Hester Prynne, Hart stood in the public dock accused of adultery.

Of course, the initial charges were slightly more fastidious. A stakeout by a team of Miami Herald reporters yielded a front-page story claiming that Hart had spent most of the weekend with a comely blond, a part-time actress named Donna Rice, 29, whose half-clad modeling photos soon graced newsstands across the country. Hart was forced to concede that he had also taken an overnight boat trip from Miami to Bimini with Rice and two other people on a yacht called Monkey Business. But the final blow came when a Washington Post reporter called campaign officials midweek with evidence of a recent liaison between Hart and a Washington woman. The threat of further revelations prompted Hart and his plucky wife Lee to suspend campaigning in New Hampshire and fly to Denver for the ritual hoisting of the white flag.

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