Gary Hart on his new novel, Citizens United and stubborn Republicans
Over the last four decades Gary Hart has been a major force in politics -- from "inventing" the Iowa caucuses while managing George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign, to unintentionally creating the template for political sex scandals with the "monkey business" photo during his 1987 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, to issuing a prescient study warning of terrorism before 9/11. Along the way he also served as a U.S. senator from Colorado for a dozen years...and also became a novelist.
We recently touched base with the former senator to discuss his latest novel, Durango, based on the real-life story of the Colorado town's political drama involving the Animas-La Plata project. And while we were talking with him, he also asked this sage of political strategy about the current presidential campaign, touching on Romney's lack of real questioning, Republican opposition to the president's legislation, and whether Obama is repeating the mistakes of previous incumbents.
Westword: Your book is so heavily entrenched in the Animas-La Plata project; could you give us a little background on that situation and how you became involved with it?
Gary Hart: I was involved in the Animas-La Plata project as a representative of the state during the '70s and '80s. As my book indicates, it was designed as an agriculture irrigation project, but by the time the '70s rolled around the thing had changed dramatically, and suddenly it wasn't going to be built for its original purposes. This was the time of the OPEC oil embargoes, and there was great pressure to develop America's energy resources. So all of a sudden, a traditional agriculture water project suddenly took on new life as a means of providing water for energy development.
When did you first think this would make a good setting for a novel? While it seems like a very worthwhile story, it is somewhat esoteric.
Well, you couldn't be a senator from Colorado in the '70s and '80s without getting involved in water projects. And this project specifically was one of those that Jimmy Carter sought to cancel in the first few weeks of his administration. And many of us came to their defense and essentially reversed the Carter water policy of that time. If you know Colorado at all, you know the role water plays in its history, and if you know Southwest Colorado, you know the importance of La Plata's. So it wasn't esoteric. It was real-life drama.
Do you think Jimmy Carter knew how important La Plata was?
Why do you think he cut the funding for it?
That's not relevant to the book. . . . He was poorly advised.
Like your late friend Hunter Thompson, you've often blended fiction and non-fiction narratives in your writing. How much of your personal experience informs the fiction you write?
I started writing fiction in 1984-5; [former Secretary of Defense] Bill Cohen and I co-authored a spy thriller, and that got a great deal of attention. And I've written three novels on my own. So I write fictional stories as a kind of hobby. And they're usually based on actual experiences I've had with the intelligence community, or in Cuba with a couple of stories. And this was no different. The book is also based on a Sophocles play from 2500 years go.
Let's change gears for a moment and talk politics. The last time we checked in with you in 2008 you commented on how much campaign financing has altered elections. Yet this was before Citizens United dramatically altered campaigns. Did you expect that things would change this much in such a short period of time?
Well, this has been a long-term trend with the increasing cost of campaigning. The people who have the most money are those who have an interest in government outcomes -- and that's where the corruption comes in. Citizens United didn't change everything, it just made a bad situation much, much worse. To say that, for First Amendment purposes, corporations are people, it was an absurd judgment -- and most constitutional scholars concur on that.