Matt Bai’s essay, “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics,” from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, offers a gripping account of Gary Hart’s rise and fall in the year 1987. What I found most interesting, though, was (predictably enough) the story’s counterfactual ending.
At the end of the essay, Lee and Gary Hart mull over the “what if” dimension of the scandal. It was not just the fact that Hart’s withdrawal from the race represented a rupture in American political culture; it also may have affected the course of American history.
Lee Hart, in reflecting on her husband’s wistful sense of what might have been, remarked:
“It’s what he could have done for this country that I think bothers him to this very day,” Lee said.
And Gary Hart himself concluded:
“Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn’t have been president,” Hart said ruefully.
Bai continues: "This sounded a little narcissistic, but it was, in fact, a hard premise to refute. Had Hart bested George H. W. Bush in 1988, as he was well on his way to doing, it’s difficult to imagine that Bush’s aimless eldest son would have somehow ascended from nowhere to become governor of Texas and then president within 12 years’ time.”
(As the article spells out earlier: “In a preview of the general election against the presumed Republican nominee, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Hart was polling over 50 percent among registered voters and beating Bush by 13 points, with only 11 percent saying they were undecided. He would have been very hard to stop.”)
Hart went on to speculate:
“And we wouldn’t have invaded Iraq,” Hart went on. “And a lot of people would be alive who are dead.” A brief silence surrounded us. Hart sighed loudly, as if literally deflating. “You have to live with that, you know?”
It is overly simplistic to evoke Pascal’s famous notion of “Cleopatra’s nose” and claim that Donna Rice’s sex appeal led to the war in Iraq. But the entire story underscores the ways in which chance events can have unforeseeable consequences.