Is Eliot Spitzer the Next Gary Hart?

He hasn't said it, but you almost get the sense that Eliot Spitzer thinks he cashed his chips in too soon last year.

Less than 48 hours separated the revelation that he'd been a top client of a high-end call girl service and Spitzer's announcement that he'd quit as governor. And five days after that, he formally left office and began his political exile. Now, just 13 months later, he's all over the news—on The Today Show, the cover of Newsweek, NPR, and at Slate, where he now writes a regular column.

He professes ambivalence about a return to public life—"The question isn't whether I want to control my public profile or not … it's whether I want one at all," Spitzer told Newsweek—but his actions say otherwise. He plainly enjoys the stature and relevance that come with being a political player. If he'd known he was going to miss it all so much, would he maybe have tried to ride out last year's storm a little longer?

Spitzer wouldn't be the first big-time politician to fall on his sword after a sex scandal only to regret it almost immediately. Gary Hart, caught by The Miami Herald in May 1987 in what appeared to be a tryst with a young woman who was not his wife, gave in about as quickly as Spitzer did last year, ending his presidential campaign five days after The Herald's first story appeared.

Before the scandal, Hart had been the overwhelming front-runner for the 1988 Democratic nomination. He'd first exploded onto the national scene in 1984, notching a shocking win over Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire primary and nearly running away with the nomination until Mondale's machine finally wore him down. Heading into '88, Hart was the clear man to beat on the Democratic side, and polls also put him ahead of George H. W. Bush, then the vice president, in a prospective general-election match-up.

But his relationship with Donna Rice, a 29-year-old model who went on to become an anti-pornography activist, instantly became a national sensation, drowning out Hart's message and sending his poll numbers crashing. He excoriated the press for invading his privacy and ended his campaign on May 8, 1987—a decision, his subsequent actions suggested, that he regretted for the next two decades.

By the end of the summer of '87, he re-emerged with a series of speeches and an appearance on ABC's Nightline. And, just like Spitzer now insists that he's only using his media tour to "highlight a couple of points I think need to be made" about specific issues, Hart couched his return to public view as simply an effort to shape the terms of the '88 debate.

"I'm not running for president," he insisted on Nightline. "I have no plans to run for president. I want to be part of this debate and I think I have some unique points of view, if my say so, to add."

But three months later, he went even further. As the filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary neared, Hart showed up at the State House in Concord with his wife by his side and declared his presidential campaign reborn.

"Let's let the people decide!" he exclaimed. "I'm back in the race."

At first, it was a huge story, and Hart immediately took a place at or near the top of national and key early state polls. But the novelty quickly wore off and reality took hold. He had no money and no organization, but just a name—which was now more famous because of a sex scandal than because of any political idea or achievements. "The voters are not asking about Gary Hart," Paul Simon, one of the other Democratic candidates, said. "The reporters are."

Within weeks, Hart was an afterthought. In Iowa's February 8 caucuses, he finished with 0 percent. In New Hampshire eight days later, he got 4 percent. The press stopped covering him. On Super Tuesday, he couldn't break 5 percent anywhere, then quit the race. Barely anyone noticed.

A similar pattern repeated itself twice in the years ahead. In 1995, when Republican Senator Hank Brown of Colorado announced he'd retire the following year, Hart stepped forward to express his interest in running. Again, the story went national, with newspapers from coast to coast picking up the story of what the star of a scandal from long ago was now up to. And again, the popular support was missing. A few months later, Hart opted not to run.

Seven years after that, at the age of 66, he again set his eyes on the White House, throwing his name into the mix of potential 2004 Democratic candidates just before the 2002 midterm elections. His interest drew extensive press coverage, but the tone was bemused and skeptical: You won't believe who's thinking of running for president … 

In May 2003, Hart gave up on the idea, although he did say (as politicians tend to do when they back out of races) that he thought he could have won.

In the 22 years since, Hart has rarely commented on the circumstances of his exit from the 1988 race. And what he has said has generally been cryptic and opaque. But in a 1993 interview with The New Yorker, he seemed resentful that Bill Clinton, who had just been elected president after weathering a similar sex scandal, had managed to get away with what Hart hadn't.

"They say Clinton handled his situation better than I did," Hart said. "Poppycock. It wasn't the decision to go on 60 Minutes. It was the editorial decision not to pursue it any further.  I didn't see editors this time sending reporters halfway around the world to peek in a politician's window."

Hart's attitude was understandable, but his analysis was wrong. The reason Clinton survived and he didn't was because Clinton never folded his hand, even when every media outlet in the world was talking about nothing but his sex life and declaring his candidacy dead. Hart did. And once he did, he lost his chance to reclaim his stature in the political world—for good.

Does this mean Eliot Spitzer was unwise to quit when he did? Not necessarily. Maybe the feds would have been tougher on him if he hadn't resigned, or maybe running the state really would have proved impossible. But because he did quit, he'll probably learn the same thing Gary Hart did if he ever does attempt a comeback: Reporters are going to be far more interested in the story than voters are. Is Eliot Spitzer the Next Gary Hart?