The Cloakroom: Hart recalls ‘Third Generation’
The former organizer of the Heritage Foundation’s “Third Generation” meetings, who is now a nationally-syndicated columnist and TV and radio commentator, spoke to The Cloakroom.
“Now, I am mostly getting settled into being remarried and having a family that now includes eight children,” said Betsy Hart, who started work in President Ronald W. Reagan’s White House Communications Office, under Patrick J. Buchanan in the fall of 1986. At the end of the Reagan administration, when he was succeeded by his vice-president George H. W. Bush, Hart joined Heritage, which was her home for the next four years.
Hart said her new husband brings four of his own children to the marriage, his youngest and her oldest are both 11. “Getting used to this whole new life has been pretty consuming and wonderful.”
The former Reagan staffer, who used to help the president deliver his weekly radio address, said she wants to write a new book about current politics. Her most recent book, “From The Hart: on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports),” was a collection of columns that dealt with relationships and her own divorce from Benjamin Hart after 17 years.
Looking back on the Reagan White House, it seems like it was a Camelot for conservatives, she said.
“I don’t think we realize how great a time that was,” she said.
From ages 23 to 26, Hart functioned as a go-between for the communications shop and the photo office, which meant that although she was a very junior staffer, her Blue Pass gave her access to parts of the West Wing reserved for the most senior aides to the president. “I remember thinking as the time: ‘Wow, this is really, really cool.’”
One day she remembers as not cool was Feb. 27, 1987, the day Donald T. Regan resigned as Reagan’s chief of staff, she said. “Everyone was staying very close to their offices, keeping their heads low and listening to it all on the news, not wanting to say anything.”
In a way, Hart talks about the Reagan White House as an unhealthy marriage between the president and Bush, who was his toughest opponent in the 1980 GOP primaries.
“You don’t want to over-romanticize it, there were a lot of moderates, there was a lot of infighting,” she said. “I still remember within days of going there and immediately, you sort of knew who were the moderates, who had been involved in the Bush campaign, who weren’t that crazy about the Reaganites, and who the true Reaganites, quote-unquote, were.”
Hart, a 1985 Russian Studies graduate from Illinois University, said even in the small universe of the Reagan White House staff, there was an us-versus-them mentality.
“Sometimes it feels like yesterday, and other times you remember there have been four administrations between now and then, and it really was a long time ago,” she said.
Third Generation was a idea started by her then-future former husband, who also worked at Heritage, along with Grover Norquist, Dinesh DSouza and others, who put forward the construct that if the young supporters of Barry Goldwater were the first generation of modern-day conservatives, and the young supporters of Reagan were the second generation, then the current young conservatives were “Third Generation” and they needed to be nurtured, she said.
When her ex-husband left Heritage in the summer of 1989, she got his job and she ran it until November 1992, she said. Typical meetings, held every other Wednesday, would begin with a guest speaker, who would make a presentation and then take questions from the floor. The meetings were held in the first floor auditorium and afterwards everyone would mingle—with vegetables, dip and Coors beer.
“I remember that those meetings were camaraderie and people loved to come because it was fun,” she said.
After the meetings, when Heritage needed to lock up, Hart would announce the after-meeting at the Hunan Chinese restaurant across the street. “There were two floors, and we would go downstairs, where there would more talking.”
Hart said, “The thing is that when you are young and conservative, right? You can be totally an ideologue, you can ‘change the world,’ –in your mind from the basement of the Hunan restaurant,” she said. “You’ve got all these ideas about how everyone older than you is doing everything wrong, ‘all these conservatives have no idea what they are talking about,’ but now that I am one of those slightly-older conservatives, I think: ‘You know what? We didn’t know everything when we were 24.’”
It is the fun part about being young, she said.
“I hosted a Third Generation weekend retreat in Fredericksburg, and I remember we all came back saying: ‘The conservatives have sold out with all this Jack-Kemp-feel-good,’ we rejected all that—as if we just knew everything,” she said.
Of course, Jack Kemp was one of the most popular speakers at a Third Generation meeting, she said. “We were still crazy about the guy.”
Hart said other notables were: Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Edwin Meese III and Peter J. Ferrara, Daniel Mitchell, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., Kate O’Beirne, John Fund, Paul Gigot, Mona Charen, Laura Ingraham and Stephen Moore.
“Newt Gingrich was extremely popular, and for younger people, any time Grover spoke was just, you know, great!” she said.
“It’s like everytime I turn on Fox News, I see them, and think: ‘Hey, I know him,’” she said.
Another popular speaker and attendee at “3G” was a young David Brock, who now leads the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters. Brock, who was a researcher at Heritage and later a reporter at Tyrrell’s “American Spectator” magazine.
“I knew him well in the conservative world, but his being at Third Generation may have been right after I left,” she said. Hart had no idea he would flip from his conservative self to become such an adamant liberal. “I never read any tea leaves or read between the lines, he had some great parties at his home that we enjoyed going to and he seemed to be a really thoughtful about being in the conservative trenches—then, suddenly, he was gone.”
The marriage between the Reagan and Bush camps held together for 12 years. Interestingly, unlike other men, who want to win their White House on their own, Bush accepted Reagan’s help and presented himself as Reagan’s heir, just one who was “kinder and gentler.”
The columnist said, “He gave his no-new-taxes pledge and we all said, ‘fine.’”
But, as Bush became his own man, he moved away from the Reagan program.
“After a year or so of him being there, you could hear the Bushites, sort of running down the Reagan legacy, so that instead of standing on the shoulders of a great man, he was cutting Reagan down—that was all left over from the 1980 campaign,” she said.
“There were a lot of reasons why young conservatives, especially at Third Generation, did not like the guy, and really felt that he had betrayed us,” she said.
By 1992, factions of the Reagan coalition splintered away from Bush and found homes first in Buchanan’s primary challenge and then in the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot.
Hart said the Republican leadership had no idea there was so much turbulence among conservatives, especially young conservatives regarding Bush and his administration after he reneged on his pledge not to raise taxes.
“I still don’t think they understand why he was so unpopular,” she said. “It was a huge generational dividing line in conservatism at that time—I remember the older conservatives being really more lenient about and the younger ones were just going crazy.”
After the Bush lost the 1992 election to William J. Clinton, Hart dedicated a 3G meeting to figuring out what conservatives could do to rebuild the movement. It would be her last. “It was right after the election and people were so furious at Bush for running a campaign, where he cratered.”
It was just after Halloween and before the meeting a Heritage colleague of Hart’s took a Bush mask and stuffed it with tissue paper and put it on a platter, so as to invoke the image of John the Baptist, she said.
“If I remember right, he wanted to make it a little more menacing but, I told him: ‘No, this is far enough, let’s just stick with this,’” she said. “We came into the meeting, and he pranced around with it and people got their ya-ya’s out and we went on to talk about remaking the conservative world—and I really didn’t think much about it at the time.”
It was very simple and silly, she said.
A couple days later, a reporter from The Washington Times called her about it, she said.
By then, the story had grown out of proportion, and Hart said she heard there were horns on the head and that people danced around with it. “It became something that it wasn’t.”
Still, people were offended, she said.
“Now, I hope that I would have the maturity to say I was sorry,” she said.
“But, at the time, in my 20s, I asked people why they were so upset and told them to get over it,” she said. “That’s the difference between being 20-whatever I was and 40-whatever I am.”
The incident also meant her time as Heritage was over, she said. But, over the years, Hart worked to mend fences and still has friends at Heritage and she partners with Heritage people when there are events in Chicago.
Twenty years after she helped mold the Third Generation, Hart has hope for what would now be the Fourth Generation, she said.
“The 20-somethings that I know and read and follow? I see some folks, who are very bright and thoughtful, and probably more sophisticated, then my pals and I were.”