Former U.S. senator Gary Hart

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Former Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate discusses the need for Americans to work to improve the nation’s future even if they don’t reap the benefits in their lifetime.

A former two-term Colorado senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Gary Hart is the author of several books, including the memoir The Thunder and the Sunshine. He's known for his work in international law and business and is a national security expert, who chaired the Council on Foreign Relations task force on homeland security and co-chaired the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. Hart is currently a professor at the University of Colorado and chair of the American Security Project. He also maintains the Matters of Principle blog.



Tavis: Gary Hart is, of course, a former U.S. senator from Colorado and a Democratic presidential candidate back in ’84 and 1988. He is now a professor at the University of Colorado – Denver and the author of the new text “The Thunder and the Sunshine: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life.” He joins us tonight from Denver. Senator Hart, good to have you back on this program, sir.
Gary Hart: It’s a pleasure, Mr. Smiley. Thank you for your hospitality.
Tavis: (Laughs) My honor to have you. Let me start with this question of the Democrats and how, or if in fact they can, get their mojo back. You’ve been around 40 years in elective politics and so you’ve seen these kinds of ebbs and flows a number of times. What strikes you about what happened to Democrats in November, and again, can they get their mojo back?
Hart: I think the Democratic Party, as always, must define the future in terms that the American people can understand. There is a sense in this country that we are stagnant, that we are, if anything, moving in circles and not forward, not only for our generation but for our children and future generations.
What my party has to do, and indeed all of those in public office, is construct a narrative that explains to the American people how investment today profits this country in the future and offers us more hope and promise, and that investment must first of all be in our people, and particularly our young people – their education and their health. That’s the backbone of the country.
We have to invest in the infrastructure, in our transportation systems, in our environment, in new energy systems, and we have to do that with the understanding that perhaps the return on those investments may not occur in our lifetime, but they will certainly occur in our children’s lifetime.
Tavis: How do you convince the American people of that when we live in a society that is more here and now than ever before? We live in a right-now community, a right-now country. So how do you convince folk that investment pays off in the future?
Hart: Well, you’re absolutely right. In the past 20 or 30 years it’s been – I think another phrase for the same thing you’re saying is instant gratification – I want it now, I want to enjoy it now.
Tavis: Right.
Hart: I don’t want to think about tomorrow. I think it requires leadership not only among politicians, but in the religious community, in the education community, in the business community. It requires people in all walks of life to say, “Life isn’t about feeling good right now, it is about what kind of society and country and culture you leave behind.”
I think this was, if I may say so on the 50th anniversary of his election, was really what John Kennedy was trying to say to us. By giving something back to your country, you have the good feeling that that civic duty provides you, but you also know that you are leaving something behind that’s more important.
It’s amazing to me the effort that wealthy people go to to put together great financial legacies for their children, but they’re not thinking about the environmental legacy, the peace legacy, the education system, the entire country that they are leaving behind.
I think the theory is if you’re rich enough you can live in a gated community and let all those social problems, leave those behind, but it never works that way. So I think we also have to get back to the culture in which I grew up – that sacrifice for your family and sacrifice for your country pays off in the long term. That requires voices from all segments of our society to make that case.
Tavis: The other issue you raised earlier that I want to go back and pick up is this notion that many Americans, perhaps even most Americans, don’t see us as a country advancing forward anymore. Your assessment was they see us, at best, going in circles.
I read a report the other day; I believe it was a Rasmussen report, that suggested something startling, which is that a significant number of Americans, almost 50 percent – almost half of Americans think that our best days are behind us.
I just came back from China and that’s not the feeling, as you know, in China. They know that they’re on the cusp of something big. They know their economy is growing, they know they’re getting richer. They’ve got their challenges, but the feeling amongst the Chinese people that I experienced is palpable about this sense that they’re moving forward.
What do you say to the American people, and how do you advance legislation in an environment when people think that our best days are behind us as Americans?
Hart: Well, two things in addition to what I’ve already said, reincorporating a sense of investment in the future in all segments of our society, but also getting beyond this notion that the government is our enemy. That’s not the case.
The government does an awful lot of good things, but there is a constant barrage now, in the last decade or two, from certain segments in the media saying the government is your enemy, the government is evil, the government is bad, the government can’t do anything good.
The only way we can act collectively, not individually but collectively, is through our elected representatives and the steps that they take to make this a better country. That’s always been the case for 220 years. Now, has government gotten off the track from time to time? Has it been corrupt? Have bad people been elected? Yes.
But that does not mean that the government is inherently evil. It must be made the instrument of progress, and it can be. It has been in the past. The great steps forward in our country have been through collective action at the local, state and national level, and that’s what we must get back to.
By the way, who is leading that development in China are certain elements of the Chinese government.
Tavis: If I’ve talked to one politician, I’ve talked to countless, talking specifically about those who’ve been around for a while, persons like yourself, who’ve served over a period of decades.
I’ve heard this a thousand times now that I have never seen it this bad. I’ve never seen the gridlock, I’ve never seen the partisanship, I’ve never seen the in-fighting. Talk to anybody who’s been around as Gary Hart been around, they’ll tell you the same thing – “I’ve never seen it this bad.” So, have you not seen it this bad, and what do you make of how bad it really is in Washington, in our politics?
Hart: Well, the mood is certainly the worst in my lifetime. I served under both Democratic and Republican presidents, under both Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, as well as Jimmy Carter, and Democrats lent a hand under Republican administrations. We voted for quite a lot of the things those Republican presidents wanted simply because they had won a majority of the votes.
Not the case in President Ford’s case, but certainly in Ronald Reagan’s case, and now we have an opposition party which has publicly announced it is opposed to everything – everything and anything this president and this administration wants.
That may be – their so-called base may like that, the haters, but it is not in the interest of this country. It is not in our national interest, and it weakens America. People simply have to acknowledge that.
Tavis: Let me talk about a few specific issues. I want to start with, if of course, the START treaty. President Obama, of course, we all know, today with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. He’s been meeting with a number of former high-ranking government officials – Henry Kissinger, James Baker and others – trying to rally the troops, to your point, from the left and the right, trying to rally the troops around getting this START treaty re-signed.
You’ve written extensively about U.S. and Russian relations. Your sense on how much a priority this is, and can the president get it done in this lame duck Congress?
Hart: Well, of course he can, and the fact that I think virtually every living secretary of State from both political parties and several administrations, including two or three Republican administrations, support this, as well as virtually our entire military establishment means that it’s in our nation’s best interest.
We’re not doing the Russians any favor. This is for us, and that is what these leaders are saying. Now, what is driving the opposition is an extreme element of their party. They’re trying to keep the far right happy at the expense of what’s in America’s interest.
I am encouraged in the last day or two by statements that Senator McCain has made and a few others have made that perhaps they are – Republicans – they are now going to support this treaty. All we need is six or seven Republican votes to reach the two-thirds required by the Constitution to approve this treaty, and it is manifestly in the United States’ interest.
Tavis: Let me ask you about two monetary issues. I’m an “Esquire” magazine reader, so I saw the commission that you were a part of laying out some specifics about how to balance the federal budget. Give me a top line on that, your take on that, and then I want to ask you about this issue of deficit reduction that’s in the news these days.
Hart: Two Democratic senators, including myself and two Republican senators, sat in a room in New York this fall for three days, and in the course of those three days, by cooperating, by looking at what was best for the country, we balanced the federal budget by the year 2020 with a surplus – $12 billion surplus – we modernized the military, we protected Social Security to 2075, the next 65 years, we kept tax rates about what they are now, income tax rates, we didn’t dramatically raise taxes on income.
We did add a tax on gasoline, to escalate every year for the next 10 years, which raises an enormous amount of money, we reformed and modernized the way we deal with healthcare costs, and we ended up in a solid, stable, fiscally responsible position.
It can be done. If four of us can do it in three days, surely the Congress of the United States, if they put the national interest first, can do it in six weeks.
Tavis: I asked this question of Dick Durbin; I ask you now, Senator Hart: Is now the time to focus on deficit reduction, or is it about getting this economy started again?
Hart: It’s both. It is in the next two years, getting the economy started again. Most of the measures that we undertook – certainly the gasoline tax and others – started in 2012, two years from now. So we have to give the economy two years of stimulus in every way we can think of, not just the public sector, but corporate America has to begin to spend some of its money to expand its plants, hire people, buy new equipment, do research and development. This can’t all be done by the government.
But there are hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate treasuries that the corporations simply aren’t spending.
Tavis: So finally, what’s the abiding lesson that you want to share with me and the viewers tonight that you take away from these four seasons in this burnished life that you have lived and continue, of course, to live?
Hart: Well, back to the theme that we started with, and that is that life, at least in my understanding and given my religious background, isn’t simply about doing something for myself or my family and leaving everybody else behind.
We are a national community. We recognized that in the age of Roosevelt, when the country was in terrible trouble. The more we unite, the more we think of ourselves as a big society and a big family, the better off this country will be – not just today, but for generations yet to come.
Tavis: The new book from former Senator Gary Hart is called “The Thunder and the Sunshine: Four Seasons in a Burnished Life.” Senator Hart, always delighted to talk to you. Thank you for your time again this evening.
Hart: My pleasure, thank you.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: August 29, 2012 at 7:59 pm