Former Colorado senator Gary Hart insists he never meant to impugn the patriotism of any particular ethnic group of Americans — especially Jews — when he said in a speech last week that certain Americans can’t separate their “loyalties to their original homelands” from their loyalty to America.
It was only a “general proposition,” Hart told the Forward this week.
In a speech delivered in San Francisco on February 10 and again February 11 at nearby Stanford University, Hart, who is pondering a 2004 Democratic presidential run, seemed to suggest that some Americans harbor dual loyalties that motivate them to lobby for policies inimical to American interests.
“We must not let our role in the world be dictated by ideologues with their special biases and agendas, by militarists who long for the clarity of Cold War confrontation, by think-tank theorists who grind their academic axes, or by Americans who too often find it hard to distinguish their loyalties to their original homelands from their loyalties to America and its national interests,” he said.
In a telephone interview with the Forward, however, Hart said he was not referring to any particular group or groups in the remark, and “not at all” to Jews. He was, he said, merely laying out “a general proposition that applies across the board to anyone…. I was only referring to people who fit that description.”
Insisting that his overall thesis was sound, Hart added, “Would anyone want to defend the negative?”
Hart said he “threw out a handful of names” — he cited Irish Americans and Cuban Americans — in response to a question by ABC News at his Stanford speech, but he characterized that response as a “throwaway.” He declined to elaborate on those examples, saying his foreign policy speech was not meant to be prescriptive, but only a “framework,” a “statement of principles.”
Asked whether he had any policy prescriptions regarding Israel, Hart said no. “Anyone who is familiar with my senatorial record,” he added, “knows I took an active role in the Middle East and was a strong advocate for a free, strong, independent Israel across the board.”
Despite such protestations, Hart’s remark has stirred concerns in some Democratic quarters.
“I find both the timing and content of last week’s remark disturbing,” said Steven Rabinowitz, who worked on Hart’s 1984 and 1988 presidential primary bids and now runs a Washington communications firm. “No community since the end of World War II has been more sensitive to charges of dual loyalty than the American Jewish community.”
“Compared to Gary Hart’s lifetime career of political support for Israel and friendship with the Jewish community, I readily take him at his word that it wasn’t Jews to whom he was referring,” Rabinowitz said. “Nevertheless, coming as it did only a few weeks before a likely war with Iraq, the timing was extremely unfortunate. No one is talking this month about the undue influence of Cuban Americans on U.S. foreign policy.”
Hart’s remark, reported in the daily political summary “The Note” on the ABC News Web site — and coming in the middle of the Iraq crisis — led to some media speculation about his intent. Conservative political commentator Tucker Carlson, speaking on the February 11 edition of CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire,” said of the remark: “I think we know exactly whom he’s referring to. He was talking about Jewish Americans.” Carlson’s liberal “Crossfire” sparring partner, Paul Begala, was more blunt, declaring Hart’s comment “loathsome.”
To the Forward, Hart ripped his critics, responding sarcastically that Carlson “seems to have a degree in mind-reading.”
The Coloradan, who served in the Senate from 1975 to 1987, famously bowed out of the 1988 Democratic presidential contest after reporters discovered evidence of a dalliance with actress Donna Rice, including a photo of her sitting on his lap on board a yacht called “Monkey Business.”
Another former Hart staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Hart’s remark reminded him of the very aloofness and disregard for public opinion that undid Hart in the Rice episode. At the time he had dared reporters who accused him of having an affair to tail him, presumably never thinking that they would do so.
Hart has been giving speeches around the country to drum up interest in a possible candidacy and is expected to announce his decision in March, but he demurred when asked by the Forward about his intentions. “I did promise friends and supporters I would think about it,” he said of a presidential run. “I’m going to give speeches and see how people respond.”
Hart had harsh words for current American policy toward Iraq, telling the Forward that “some senior American officials are on record as advocating” a plan for a long-term military presence in the nation that amounts to “an imperial design.”
“The president should account to the American people more clearly who will go with us, what military force we will use, how much it will cost… and how many American and Iraqi casualties there will be,” Hart said. “On a desk in the Pentagon there are casualty estimates. The president is obligated to share those. The worst thing that could happen is that public support will erode, which is what happened in Vietnam.”