Hart was born in Ottawa, Kansas to Nina Pritchard and Carl Riley Hartpence, a farm equipment salesman. He changed his last name to "Hart" in 1961. He grew up in and attended the public schools of Ottawa. He also attended Bethany Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University), located in Bethany, Oklahoma, graduating in 1958. He graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1961 and Yale University Law School in 1964.
He became an attorney for the United States Department of Justice from 1964 to 1965, and was admitted to the Colorado and District of Columbia bars in 1965.
He was special assistant to the solicitor of the United States Department of the Interior from 1965 to 1967. He then engaged in private law practice in Denver, Colorado on and off over the next seven years, while managing U.S. Senator George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. He ran for and was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1974 and was reelected to a second term in 1980 before he began his own presidential runs.
George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign
Hart occasionally calls himself the inventor of the Iowa caucuses, and he is certainly one of the figures who transformed Iowa from a marginal event into an early gauge of candidate strength. Following the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, U.S. Senator George McGovern of South Dakota co-chaired a commission that revised the Democratic presidential nomination structure, making the process more democratic and weakening the influence of such old-style party bosses as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who were once able to hand pick national convention delegates and dictate the way they voted. The new rules made caucuses an open process, in which relative newcomers could participate easily, without paying dues to established party organizations. That meant that a candidate who challenged the party establishment had a chance to win delegates if he or she set up an effective grass roots organization to identify supporters and get them to precinct caucus meetings. For the next presidential election, in 1972, McGovern decided to run himself, using his knowledge of the new caucus and primary structure to his advantage. McGovern started his campaign at the bottom of the polls behind more prominent frontrunners like Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. McGovern named Hart his campaign manager. Along with Rick Stearns, an expert on the new system, they decided on a strategy to focus on the newly important Iowa caucuses. They predicted that a strong showing in Iowa would give the campaign momentum that would propel them toward the nomination and weaken Muskie. Indeed,the strategy worked - setting a trend of focusing on the Iowa caucuses that has continued to this day - and the McGovern campaign took advantage of the Iowa results (and Muskie's perceived meltdown) to win the nomination.
However, Hart could not steer McGovern to the presidency. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
1984 presidential campaign
In Februrary 1983, during his second term, Hart announced his candidacy for president in the 1984 presidential election. At the time of his announcement, Hart was a little-known Senator and barely received above 1% in the polls against better-known candidates such as Walter Mondale, John Glenn, and Reverend Jesse Jackson. To counter this situation, Hart started campaigning early in New Hampshire, making a then-unprecedented canvassing tour in late September, months before the primary. This strategy attracted national media attention to his campaign, and by late 1983, he had risen moderately in the polls to the middle of the field, mostly at the expense of the sinking candidacies of John Glenn and Alan Cranston. Mondale won the Iowa caucus in late January, but Hart polled a respectable 16%. Two weeks later, in the New Hampshire primary, he shocked much of the party establishment and the media by defeating Mondale by ten percentage points. Hart instantly became the main challenger to Mondale for the nomination, and appeared to have the momentum on his side.
Hart's campaign was disorganized and chronically in debt, to a final count of $5 million. In states like Illinois where delegates were elected directly by primary voters, Hart often had incomplete delegate slates. Hart's "new ideas" were criticized as too vague and centrist by many Democrats. Shortly after he became the new front runner, it was revealed that Hart had changed his last name from Hartpence to Hart, had often listed 1937 instead of 1936 as his birth date, and had changed his signature several times. This, along with two separations from his wife, Lee, caused some to question Hart's "flake factor".
The two men swapped victories in the primaries, with Hart getting exposure as a candidate with "new ideas" and Mondale rallying the party establishment to his side. The two men fought to a draw in the Super Tuesday primaries, with Hart winning states in the West, Florida, and New England. Mondale fought back and began ridiculing what he claimed to be the emptiness of Hart's ideas. In the most famous television moment of the campaign, he ridiculed Hart's "new ideas" by quoting a line from a popular Wendy's television commercial at the time: "Where's the beef?". Mondale's remark was not effectively countered by Hart's campaign, and when Hart -- who was seen by many voters as a fresh, honest alternative to typical politicians -- ran stereotyped negative TV commercials against Mondale in the crucial Illinois primary, his campaign descended to the level of ordinary politics that Mondale represented, and Hart's appeal as a new kind of Democrat never quite entirely recovered. Once primaries in the delegate-rich states of New York and Pennsylvania arrived, Mondale's vast fund-raising superiority as the party-establishment candidate helped him overcome Hart's greater attractiveness as a fresher political face. Nevertheless Hart bounced back in states where there was a greater appetite for change, and he won primaries in Ohio and California. By the time the Democratic convention arrived, Mondale had a lead in total delegates that Hart was not quite able to overcome, and Mondale was nominated. But this race for the nomination was the closest in two generations, and most felt that when Mondale later was trounced in the election against Ronald Reagan, winning only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, that Hart and younger, more independent candidates like him represented the future of the party.
1988 presidential campaign and the Donna Rice affair
Hart declined to run for a third term in the Senate, leaving office in early 1987 with the intent of running for president again. In January 1987, he was the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in the U.S. 1988 presidential election. It seemed that only Democratic party efforts to recruit New York Governor Mario Cuomo could thwart his nomination. Hart had put in a strong showing in the 1984 presidential election, and had refined his campaign in the intervening years.
Hart officially declared his candidacy on April 13, 1987. Rumors began circulating nearly immediately that Hart was having an extramarital affair. In an interview that appeared in the New York Times on May 3,1987 Hart responded to the rumors by daring the press corps: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." The Miami Herald had been investigating Hart's rumored womanizing for weeks before the "dare" appeared in the New York Times. Two reporters from the Miami Herald had staked out his residence and observed an attractive young woman coming out of Hart's Washington, D.C., townhouse on the evening of May 2. The Herald published the story on Sunday, May 3, the same day Hart's dare appeared in print, and the scandal spread rapidly through the national media. Hart and his allies attacked the Herald for rushing the story into print, claiming that it had unfairly judged the situation without finding out the true facts. Hart claimed that the reporters had not watched both entrances to his home and could not have seen when the young woman entered and left the building. The Miami Herald reporter had flown to Washington, D.C. on the same flight as the woman, identified as Donna Rice. Hart was dogged with questions regarding his views on marital infidelity. In public, his wife, Lee, supported him, claiming the relationship with the young woman was innocent. A poll of voters in New Hampshire for the New Hampshire Primary showed that Hart's support had dropped in half, from 32% to 17%, placing him suddenly ten points behind Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
On May 5, the Herald received a further tip that Hart had spent a night in Bimini on a yacht called the Monkey Business with a woman who was not his wife. The Herald obtained photographs of Hart aboard the Monkey Business with then-29-year-old model Donna Rice, sitting in over-50 year-old Hart's lap. The photographs were subsequently published in the National Enquirer. On May 8, 1987, a week after the Donna Rice story broke, Hart dropped out of the race. At a press conference, he lashed out at the media, saying "I said that I bend, but I don't break, and believe me, I'm not broken." A Gallup Poll found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of the U.S. respondents it surveyed thought the media treatment of Hart was "unfair." A little over half (53%) responded that marital infidelity had little to do with a president's ability to govern.
Not everyone was impressed with Hart's diatribe against the press. Television writer Paul Slansky noted that Hart had tried to deflect blame from himself for his downfall to the media, and that he offered no apology to betrayed supporters who now suddenly had to find other candidates to back. To many observers, the press conference was redolent of Richard Nixon's "Last Press Conference" of November 7, 1962, in which Nixon blamed the media for his loss in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. Hart, in fact, received a letter from Nixon himself commending him for "handling a difficult situation uncommonly well".
In December 1987, Hart returned to the race, declaring "Let's let the people decide!" He competed in the New Hampshire primary and received 4,888 votes, approximately 4%. After the Super Tuesday contests on March 8, he withdrew from the campaign a second time.
After withdrawing from the race, Hart resumed the practice of law. He remained moderately active in politics, serving on the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism, also known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, commissioned on behalf of Bill Clinton in 1998 to study U.S. homeland security. The commission issued several findings calling for broad changes to security policy, but many were not heeded until the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made the vulnerabilities in U.S. defenses obvious.
He earned a D.Phil. in Politics degree at St Antony's College, Oxford University in 2001.
At the behest of two Harvard graduate students, Will Polkinghorn and Antwaun Smith, Hart considered running in the 2004 presidential election, but decided against seeking the nomination in May 2003. Despite his decision not to run, the exploratory process generated considerable attention.
According to an October 23, 2004 National Journal article and later reports in the Washington Post, Hart was mentioned as a probable Cabinet appointment if Democrat John Kerry won the Presidency. He was considered a top candidate for either Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of Homeland Security, or Secretary of Defense. He is still considered a leading contender for the intelligence job if a Democrat wins the 2008 presidential election.
On his own website he has described himself in these terms: "Gary Hart - statesman, scholar, attorney, writer - is a Renaissance man of new ideas". Since May 2005 he has been a contributing blogger at The Huffington Post. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. It was announced in January 2006 that Hart will hold an endowed professorship at the University of Colorado.
He is the author of James Monroe, part of the Times Books series on the American presidents, ISBN 0-8050-6960-7, published October 2005.
Gary Hart is an Honorary Fellow of the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin.
Hart is a resident of Kittredge, Colorado.