Water project becomes fiction

Animas-La Plata star of disgraced candidate’s book

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Courtesy of Fulcrum Publishing

There are a lot of books out there – more than you may realize – about Durango. Much to the chagrin of many local authors, The DurangoHerald doesn’t review them all.

But when a former U.S. senator whose presidential hopes were dashed in one of the most famous sex scandals of the 20th century writes one, that gets our attention. And when that book stars our former publisher, a local legend in her own right, as well as a cast of other local characters embroiled in the most contentious issue of the last 50 years in Southwest Colorado – well, that makes such a book a must-read. In these parts, anyway.

I can’t say that Gary Hart’s latest novel, Durango, would have the same appeal in Pensacola, Fla., Des Moines, Iowa, or even Denver. It’s the story of the Animas La-Plata project written from the perspective of an elected proponent with firsthand knowledge of the whole story – behind the scenes and the public versions.

I enjoyed it because I’ve followed the story since moving here in 1995. I also was a student of one of the novel’s main characters, professor Duane Smithson (we know him as Dr. Smith). And because I work for the Herald, which Hart portrays as a responsible newspaper run by a stanchion of journalistic professionalism, Frances Farnsworth (whom Hart identifies in his afterword as former Herald publisher Morley Ballantine).

The story centers Daniel Sheridan and Caroline Chandler, a probably fictional pair “...though people like them surely exist somewhere, possibly even in Durango.” She is a divorcee whose shady husband did some underhanded A-LP dealings before shuffling out of town. Sheridan was a rock-solid one-time La Plata County commissioner and candidate for the state’s highest office who was accused of hanky-panky with Chandler and fell from grace, though he never discussed the false accusations and led a post-political life of quiet dignity. Hmm. Perhaps such people do exist somewhere. (For what it’s worth, Hart is a resident of Kittredge, not Florida Road like Sheridan is. But still...)

Hart’s insider perspective is apparent throughout the novel. Sheridan is tight with Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Leonard Cloud (Leonard Burch) and the tribe’s longtime and trusted Durango attorney, Sam Maynard (Sam Maynes). Hart illustrates the biggest water deal in Durango’s history accurately; it was an issue that flip-flopped traditional political alliances and put the Southern Utes in the rare, if not unique, position of being both pawns and the big winners in a multibillion dollar game played out in La Plata County, Denver and Washington, D.C.

For all of its local color and authenticity, there were a few stumbling points that would rankle only the most persnickety of local observers. I’m as persnickety as they come.In one scene, the local “coffee club” of main characters meets for lunch at the Ore House. Unless I’ve been the victim of some inexplicable anti-Scandanavian discrimination, eating lunch at the Ore House would get you charged with criminal trespass – it’s not open. In another scene, Farnsworth admonishes a young Herald reporter: “Patrick, the Durango Herald is not The New York Times. We don’t do series.” Actually, I think we’ve won awards the last several years for our series, though Hart can be forgiven for the oversight,because he’s probably not a subscriber.

I had one personal revelation throughout. When the scandal about Hart’s affair with Donna Rice broke in 1987, I laughed along with the rest of America at the late-night talk show jokes and gave little thought to another political career derailed by a pretty face. But after reading a couple hundred pages of Hart’s prose, I’m left with the image of a thoughtful, reasonable and intelligent man with a love and appreciation for open spaces and the great outdoors who probably would’ve made a decent if not better-than-average president.

But because ours is a nation founded by misguided Puritans, it was quickly accepted that ours could never be a nation led by a man who had sex with a hot blonde on a luxury yacht named “Monkey Business.” So we were given the choice of Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Hart might have crushed Bush in the wake of Iran-Contra had Hart not dared the media to follow him in an misguided effort to prove his fidelity. The domino effect of that event would have likely meant noBill Clinton administration (Hart would’ve run for re-election in 1992) and so there wouldn’t have been a W either – it’s even less likely that the son would’ve been elected had the father not been. Just one of those little ripples of history that you’d never think would turn into a tsunami.