In 1967 Gary Hart returned to Denver from Washington, D.C., where he’d worked in the Department of the Interior since 1965. When Senator Robert F. Kennedy announced his presidential run, Hart went to work in the campaign, only to once again witness another in a series of what he calls “a virus of assassinations.” In 1972 he was campaign manager for Senator George McGovern’s unsuccessful presidential run; in 1988, after two terms as senator from Colorado, Hart’s own presidential campaign self-destructed. The author of more than a dozen nonfiction books and four novels, Hart, 71, is now a distinguished fellow of the New America Foundation, the Wirth Chair professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, and chair of both the Council for a Livable World and the American Security Project. In December, an environmental group for which he serves on the board of advisers introduced the newly formed Presidential Climate Action Plan—what Time magazine calls “an ambitious to-do list for the next administration.”
Q: What single event in 1968 had the most significant impact on you?
A: Everything. The war, the political scene, the movements to empower disenfranchised Americans, and, of course, the violent deaths of gifted leaders. By themselves, any one of these would’ve been historically significant, even shattering, but all at once? It changed us. It changed the national psyche; that change still resonates. Think of things like the Peace Corps. Where is that today?
Q: Was it these events that brought you into the political arena?
A: It began earlier. JFK challenged my generation specifically to give back. I’d thought I was headed for academia, but Kennedy’s election moved me toward the law, and the idea of government and public service. Watching the evolution of the political process that summer and fall, though—that was an education. And traumatic as well.
Q: How has 1968 continued to resonate for you?
A: It’s a very old lesson: In spite of horrible events and setbacks, the world doesn’t stop. Problems still have to be solved, we go back and start again. We have to fight the loss of idealism, we have to fight cynicism. When things get bad, we return to the grassroots, we focus on the home stuff—school boards, zoning boards, getting stop signs put in, managing town budgets.
Q: Your own recent activism has been increasingly specific to the environment.
A: My father was an outdoorsman—we hunted and fished. Plus, deep respect for nature was part of our religious commitment as well. You hear the joke about, well, I’m off to save the planet today. Well, it’s no joke anymore, it’s real: The planet needs saving.