Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What If Wednesday: President Gary Hart

From The CNN Brief.
I think its safe to say that younger generations (and I include myself in this group) have no idea who Gary Hart is. Quick primer: he was an American politician, an almost liberal alternative to the Reagan era, who twice sought the Democratic nomination for President (1984 and 1988) but was brought down by a sex scandal during the 1988 campaign. Matt Bai in The New York Times discussed the whole scandal and lamented the changes to journalism it caused, but the last part of the article, where Hart speculates about what would happen if he was president, is what really perked my attention:

“Well, at the very least, George W. Bush wouldn't have been president,” Hart said ruefully. 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.

“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?”

Now Gary Hart presidential alternate histories aren't very popular in the genre. The most famous one has to be "Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, California - October 6, 1976, 7:00 p.m." from Jeff Greenfield's Then Everything Changed (review), which has him winning the presidency in 1980. Still considering how controversial President Reagan was for some Americans, one wonders what would have happened if Hart was elected President sometime between 1980 and 1988...

Well first off, Hart may have needed more than a sex scandal staying buried to be elected president. As many have pointed out, Hart had too many rumors about his infidelity swirling around and his high poll numbers came too early in the 1988 campaign to be very meaningful for a plausible counterfactual. Perhaps his best shot was to get the nomination in 1980 or 1984, although honestly I don't know enough about the era to speculate confidently. I can say that a known womanizer who already had multiple affairs could easily have a sex scandal happen while he was president, causing a Clinton-esque crisis to happen years earlier. Could he have been impeached? Its possible, considering even Clinton's impeachment got to the Senate.

What I really wanted to discuss, however, is the two counterfactual statements made by Gary at the end of the article: that Hart as president would mean no George W. Bush or Iraq War. This belief doesn't seem backed up by any real facts. Even if George H.W. Bush is not elected president (or vice president in a scenario where Hart defeats Reagan) there is no guarantee that George W. or someone with his politics would not be able to reach the White House on their own merit in a post-Hart presidency (in fact if Hart does have a sex scandal while president, it is not unforeseeable that Americans would elect a Republican in the next elections).

It also presumes that somehow Hart would have prevented the circumstances that led to the Iraq War, which as Frank Harvey described in Explaining the Iraq War (review), had little to do with who was in office and more to do with factors that were set in motion decades before. Maybe Hart could have avoided the Iraq War, or even 9/11 since he is given a lot of credit for predicting it would happen, but it is just as likely that something worse could have happened and there is no guarantee President Hart would be as farsighted as Citizen Hart was. As we get far enough away from the initial point of divergence, it becomes harder to assume we will know exactly what will happen without falling into the trap of creating a parallel history.

Perhaps it was a narcissistic thing for Hart to say about himself or, as Gavriel D. Rosenfeld said in his commentary on Bai's article, he is just using a counterfactual in order to give meaning to his life. Hart wants to believe that in the end he is a good person and would have been a great president. Whether he would have is a matter for us alternate historians to decide. What do you think of President Gary Hart? Let us know in the comments.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Senator Hart, in my opinion, is the greatest president we never had.

    1. Absolutely. We missed out on a great president. Say what you will but the country and the world would be a far different place had we had President Gary Warren Hart. I do not think we would have had the Bushes and certainly not Trump.


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