Gary Hart has withdrawn to the seclusion of his Rocky Mountain home, claiming that the nation’s press, led by the Miami Herald, invaded his privacy. Donna Rice, an aspiring actress suddenly in the limelight, is spending most of her time denying to any reporter who will listen that there was anything immoral in her relationship with Hart. The national media, for the most part, is treating the rise and fall of the onetime front-runner as if it were nothing more than a morality play.

Yet the Hart debacle raises issues far more serious than whether or not Gary Hart, or any presidential candidate, has ever cheated on his wife, and the press’s proper role in reporting this. The ramifications for national security, for the American family, and for the AIDS epidemic should be taken into account as we approach election year.

Former Senator Hart first attempted to play down the furor over his reported liaison with Ms. Rice with wan humor. He told the audience at a New York fund-raiser on May 5th that “After the past few days, I’ll look forward to negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev!”

How does he know he hadn’t been? The reason why British Defense Secretary John Profumo and West German Chancellor Willy Brandt were driven from office was not because their extramarital affairs had offended puritanical elements within their countries. Rather it was because their questionable conduct had exposed them to the possibility of Soviet blackmail. Like our Moscow embassy, they were compromised.

The Hart organization displayed a naive disregard for even elemental considerations of security. By their own admission, attractive young women were interviewed for campaign positions one afternoon, spent that night in the home of high-ranking campaign officials, and were admitted immediately to the closest circles surrounding a would-be Commander in Chief All this on the basis of what Mr. Hart himself called “only a casual relationship.” How can we expect a teenage Marine at our Moscow embassy to be on his guard against KGB entrapment when a presidential candidate sets such a casual example?

On the domestic front, there is probably no issue as important as the American family. Our staggering welfare bill is stark testimony to its decay. Bill Moyers interviewed a young, single man named Timmy and was shocked to discover that he had fathered six children—two aborted and the rest, with their mothers, on welfare. The number of Timmys, young men ready to father children but unwilling to be a father to them, is growing in direct proportion to the decline of respect for the institution of the family.

Like all candidates. Hart presented himself as the consummate family man. He kicked off his campaign surrounded by his smiling family. As the pressure mounted for him to explain his relationship with Ms. Rice, it was his wife who went on nationwide TV in his defense. Yet the life-style revealed by the press showed a man who preferred to spend even his leisure time outside the family circle.

The question here is not primarily one of hypocrisy but of a need for leaders who not only believe in the family but exemplify it in their own lives. The road out of the ghetto runs through the family, not the welfare office. The leader who, by precept and example, teaches the Timmys of this country respect for the family will be offering the hope of a better life to them, their consorts, and their illegitimate children, besides helping to balance the federal budget by reducing the number of singletons on the welfare roles.

The flip side of the family issue is the allegation, always implicit, of adulterous behavior. This has by and large been handled by the press as a narrow and not overly important question of Hart’s personal morality. Yet here again there are larger issues at stake.

The specter of AIDS, called by President Reagan our number one public health problem, has raised the stakes for premarital and extramarital sex. Surgeon General Koop and Secretary of Education William Bennett both agree on the need for abstinence or for stable, monogamous relationships as the primary means of combating this insidious disease.

The issue is not what former Senator Hart did or didn’t do with Ms. Rice during the evening in his townhouse or the night on board his friend’s yacht. Let us take Hart at his word when he protests their innocence. The issue is rather the impression made by a presidential candidate when he casually engages in such encounters.

Values are as often “caught” as they are taught. Is the Hart example likely to strengthen or weaken those patterns of behavior which alone can control the spread of the AIDS epidemic? Are young people, who consciously or not look to our leadership for what is permissible and what is not, more or less likely to avoid a promiscuity which can kill?

Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. America is not in the business of electing only paragons of virtue for its highest office. But where epidemics, such as AIDS, or social breakdown, such as a decay of the American family, or foreign threats to the security of the nations are present, then the President must take the lead in confronting them, not only in words, but also in deeds. These are the issues of the late 80’s, the successful resolution of which will go far towards ensuring the future health, welfare, and security of the United States. Any presidential candidate ignores them to his political peril.