Reading Matt Bai’s recent article about Gary Hart in the New York Times Magazine (Sunday, September 21, 2014) brought to mind how the rash, naughty-boy action of a mindless moment could alter the course of history. Back in April, 1987, Hart had a commanding, quite possibly insuperable lead in that year’s presidential race. An otherwise thoughtful man of steady purpose and subtle, complex ideas, he had the makings of an excellent president, and one who might have led the country in a very different direction from the one that we have taken. Instead, we elected George H. W. Bush, who in turn enabled the election of his wayward son, George W.—incidentally, no less a little boy than Gary Hart.
To revert to the old cliché, Hart simply couldn’t keep his penis in his pants. In this, he followed in the footsteps of great American Presidents—Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John Fitzgerald Kennedy come to mind—along with vast numbers of prominent and less prominent politicians. Even popularly sainted figures like Dr. Martin Luther King were not immune from this masculine propensity. Hart was merely the first of many to be publically outed by the press, and he must have been surprised as well as chagrined by the outcome. After all, it was not that the media were in ignorance of the philandering of those precedents; it was just that it had always before been regarded as personal, something between a man and his conscience—and quite possibly his wife; but certainly none of the voting public’s business.
We are all the worse for Hart’s alleged bad behavior (he has never, apparently, copped to any unseemly act). Worse than its questionable morality, it was frankly stupid. The fact that his taunting remark to the press in that challenge to “follow me around” was entirely disconnected, according to Bai’s article, from the investigation that exposed him, is basically irrelevant. In retrospect, the man staked a historical shot at the presidency on a casual flirtation. And lost. We all lost, because since that time the important issues in presidential (indeed, in all other political) campaigns have been sacrificed to “gotcha” moments—whether a slip of the tongue at an incautious moment or a weakness of the flesh. And not least because his defection did much to enable to country’s subsequent--and apparently persistent--slippage from rational political centrism to the fanatical and demented extreme right.
We would do well to reflect on our attraction for what Carl Jung called the puer aeternus, the ungrown boy—a man whose grandiose self-image and belief that he can do no wrong blind him to the realities of the world and lead him into the kind of ill-considered and reckless action that crippled the Hart campaign. It is a character flaw that crosses party lines. We suffered through George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its disastrous consequences, but also through Bill Clinton’s (Hart-like) inability to keep his libido in check and the consequent costs to both his presidency and the country. We may reflect further upon the fact that the narcissism--and, alas, the charisma--of too many grown-up little boys lands them in leadership positions everywhere, where they squabble like schoolyard brats for dominance and territory rather than address with any seriousness of purpose the urgent problems that confront us in the world today. The damage they do ranges from the trivial to the potentially catastrophic.
As for our president, Barack Obama, others may disagree with me, but I persist in seeing him as a man amongst these boys. I watched last night as he answered his interviewer’s questions on CBS’ Sixty Minutes. He listened—occasionally interrupting, certainly, but answering the questions that were put to him without prevarication. He copped to his own mistakes. He allowed of others’ views. He admitted to contradictions. He did not attempt to disguise his willingness to change his mind in changing circumstances. He spoke clearly. He refused to be bullied. He showed no trace of squirming, even when faced with questions that seemed antagonistic or accusatory. His body language suggested that he remained calm and comfortable within himself.
Those who have read Obama’s books will know that he has worked in considerable depth on the defection of a father that too often prevents boys from growing into men. They will know that his relationship with his mother was, by compensation, strong, and that he experienced that period of adolescent rebellion through which he learned his independence. I believe that a man’s strength is defined in part by a healthy balance between the yin and the yang, the masculine and feminine principles. True strength lies not in intolerance, inflexibility, and macho posturing, but rather in the ability to listen, and hear, and understand; and to incorporate the needs and feelings of others with one’s own; to reflect and weigh the results of actions before taking them. Compassion is a healthy part of strength, as is the ability to change one’s mind, to admit failure, to learn from experience, and to try another course.
I count myself a leftist. There are many things in Obama’s presidency I wish he had not been constrained to do. There are many things I wish he had had not been obstructed from doing by implacable opposition. But I do not stand with those on the left who allow their own passions to blind them to his real achievements and who—child-like, in my view—chafe with impatience and anger at his failure to implement their own ideal agenda. I admire the apparent ease to deflect, perhaps even to absorb the hatred and the adamant obstructionism that has been directed against him since his first day in office, and to get on with the job with which he was entrusted. These, as I see it, are the qualities of a man of integrity. I am glad to have such a man at the helm in a time of global crisis.