ON THE AFTERNOON OF May 25, 1984, the rising It Candidate of the current
electoral season committed an unwitting faux pas at a fundraising event
for le tout California
that set his high-flying campaign on its heels. As recounted by Jack Germond
and Jules Witcover in the book they wrote, Gary Hart and wife Lee converged on
a "sumptuous home" in Los
Angeles, where, on the patio that overlooked most of
the city, Hart tried his hand at some fun.
"The deal is we campaign separately," Hart said. "That's the
bad news. The good news for her is she campaigns in California
and I campaign in New Jersey."
Amid the laughter, Lee broke in to say that while campaigning in California, she got to
hold a koala bear. To which her husband observed, "I won't tell you what I
got to hold--samples from a toxic dump." At first, Hart denied that he had
a problem. "He kind of gave me a look," one of his managers related,
"like, 'Come on, Billy, we have bigger things to worry about than
In fact, he didn't. "The joke had a devastating effect in New Jersey," the
reporters recounted. "The 'Jersey joke' became the lead story two days
running . . . and the press in general leaped on Hart's clumsy explanation that
all he was trying to say was that he wished he could spend more time with his
This wasn't the sole reason that Hart lost New Jersey--and the nomination that followed—but
his golden boy aura never recovered, given his rapid ascent, his relative
novelty, and some discordant notes in his past. "Whenever you could raise
questions about Hart's integrity, his levelheadedness, all of that, you had
him," the pair quote Bob Beckel, then the main strategist for Hart's
rival, Fritz Mondale. "There was a built-in question about . . . his name
and his age and all that stuff . . . Then he comes off the wall with a crack
like that. Part of it was New Jersey
pride, but the other was, 'Why does the guy do it? It doesn't make sense. He
wants to be President of the United
With this theme of looking down on the wretched they manfully try to
enlighten more or less ingrained in the genes of the party, it was déjà vu all
over again when the It Candidate of the current primary season chose yet
another Golden State soiree to dump on the residents of a less gilded venue for
the pleasure of those in the audience, explaining that 'bitterness' over their
squalid condition led them to embrace not toxic wastes in this instance but the
false consolations of guns and religion. For some reason, the bitterness that
led the members of his own congregation to embrace a man who railed against
Jews and Italians and urged the congregation to sing "God Damn
America" had gone unexplained at this time.
Whether this will do for Barack Obama in Pennsylvania
and in Indiana what Hart's remarks did for him
in New Jersey
remains unknown, but condescension towards the people by the party that loves
them has a lineage that goes well beyond Hart.
In Our Country, Michael Barone traces this strain
back to 1956 and the second campaign of Adlai E. Stevenson, who, when told
"thinking people" were for him, said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority,"
and when praised for having educated the voters, said that too many had not
passed the course. "Stevenson," Barone says, "was the first
leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of
middle-class American culture--the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would
judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting,"
and since Stevenson, there have been many such. Hart and Michael Dukakis were
brought down by this failing, as was John Kerry, whose 2006 swipe at George W.
Bush and those forced into the armed forces brought this response from some
servicemen: "Halp us, Jon Carry--We R Stuck HEAR N Irak."
After their unexpected loss in 2004, Democrats were much too impressed by
Thomas Frank's treatise What's the Matter With Kansas? which complained that they lost
because middle-class voters were too stupid to vote their 'real' interests
(which were presumably served by the Democrats), because conservatives wickedly
played on their fears. ('Fear' is the Democrats' answer for every vote they
don't get.) Whether middle-class interests are better served by liberalism is
an open question--they did so much better, after all, under Carter than Reagan,
and the Clintons
did so much to help them get health care--but condescension remains an
unpromising strategy. There is, it appears, not much the matter with Kansas. Obama's mother,
he says, did come from Kansas.
But the matter with Democrats, and with Obama, seems to be Thomas Frank.