Gephardt Returns Home to Announce Quest for Presidency
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Richard Gephardt, at age 11, fixed himself in front of a television in south St. Louis and watched in wonderment as Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson for president.
Thirty-five years later, the Missouri congressman is seeking that nomination for himself.
’I was always interested in politics and current events from an early age,″ confesses Gephardt, a redhead with a toothy grin who looks much younger than his 46 years.
Gephardt will return Monday to the St. Louis area district he has represented since 1976 to announce his candidacy for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Immediately after the announcement, Gephardt will fly to Iowa, which will hold the first party caucuses of the presidential nominating season. He will end the week in New Hampshire, which will hold the first primary.
″I’m asking for people’s help not so I can gain an office, but so that we can change the country,″ Gephardt says of his darkhorse presidential quest. ″That’s what I want to do.″
But who is Richard Gephardt?
″He is really one of the first politicians I have ever met who looks at you, not through you,″ says a fellow member of the congressional class of ’76, Rep. Dan. Glickman, D-Kan. ″It’s a compelling personal characteristic. You feel important when you deal with or talk to Dick Gephardt.″
Jack Guthman, a Chicago lawyer and friend of Gephardt since their undergraduate days in student government at Northwestern University, puts it this way: ″I remember him as always being earnest and desirous to work to improve whatever situation we were dealing with, and extraordinarily able to get along with others.″
Gephardt acknowledges that his quest for the presidency will be a difficult one. Only one serving House member has been elected president - James Garfield.
Yet, Gephardt says candidates such as himself will be helped by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s decision not to seek the Democratic nomination.
″With the field narrow, it’s more possible for lesser-known candidates to receive the attention they will need,″ Gephardt said in a statement Thursday. ″It will also make it easier to raise money in New York.″
Don Foley, Gephardt’s press secretary, says the congressman’s strategy is simple: ″Do well in Iowa. Do well in New Hampshire and have in place at that moment the outlines of an organization in the South that can translate what has been to that point a local campaign into a national campaign.″
Since January 1985, Gephardt has spent 40 days in Iowa and about a dozen days in New Hampshire.
However, in the latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register, Gephardt was a distant fourth among the potential Democratic presidential candidates. Former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado was the choice of 59 percent of the 255 Democrats surveyed in late January and early February; Cuomo was second with 14 percent, followed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, 5 percent; and Gephardt, 3 percent.
In the House, Gephardt has risen quickly. As a freshman he gained a seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Early on, he earned a reputation as a consummate legislator, one with the ability to form coalitions.
″I believe in getting things done,″ Gephardt says. ″I believe an idea is very important but it doesn’t mean anything unless you can make it happen and bring it into reality.″
Rep. Leon Panetta, D-Calif., cites Gephardt’s role in helping mold the Democratic House’s compromise response to the Gramm-Rudman deficit-cutting measure pushed through by the GOP Senate,
″Dick has managed in the time he has been in Congress to maintain credibility with both liberals and conservatives,″ says Panetta.
Since 1985, Gephardt has been chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. In the No. 4 leadership spot, he has opened the policymaking circles to more rank-and-file Democrats. He cites this as his proudest accomplishment.
″He doesn’t really interject his personality into conflicts,″ says Panetta. ″He is able to kind of draw it out of people and let them go at it and at the end try to draw people together.″
Gephardt, more often that not, is described as a moderate, a centrist but one whose positions can range across the political spectrum from liberal to conservative depending upon the issue.
But he eschews such labels, saying they are ″not particularly useful.″
In recent years, he has taken a traditional Democratic position and voted against President Reagan’s defense spending increases, the MX missile and military aid to the Contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government. He is leading this year’s liberal charge for a freeze on testing of U.S. nuclear weapons.
On the conservative side, Gephardt has opposed busing and abortion. However, he drew harsh criticism from anti-abortion groups last year when he dropped his decade-long support of a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortions. He contends it is no longer an effective way of attacking the problem. Still, he continues to oppose federal financing of abortions.
As he campaigns, Gephardt likes to talk about growing up in Middle America, about his father’s decision to leave a farm in eastern Missouri in the Great Depression and settle in south St. Louis, an area rich in ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods. His father, Louis, drove a milk truck and later dealt in real estate. His mother, Loreen, worked as a secretary.
Donald Gephardt, his older brother, recalls a close-knit family and parents who ″gave us a grounding in religion and in Christian values.″
″My mother, in particular, always gave us the message that we could do what we wanted to do; there was no limit upon achievement. It was all up to the individual. I guess Dick believed that,″ says Donald, now an administrator at a college in New York.
After law school at the University of Michigan, Gephardt joined a prominent St. Louis law firm in 1965 and turned his attention to local government. In 1971, Gephardt defeated a Republican alderman by 152 votes and joined ranks with a group of new activist Democrats on the city’s governing board who came to be known as the ″Young Turks.″
″He was just somebody who stood out,″ says Albert ″Red″ Villa, an alderman since the 1950s. ″You can look at a young ballplayer and you can tell the guy is different. That’s the way Dick Gephardt impressed me the first time he walked into the board of aldermen. This guy’s got everything.″
When he arrived on Capitol Hill, Rep. Richard Bolling, the long-time chairman of the Rules Committee, steered Gephardt onto the Ways and Means Committee. From that seat, Gephardt built a reputation for health care, Social Security, tax and trade proposals.
Bolling, now retired, says Gephardt has an ″extraordinary rare″ talent for developing ″concepts that in this country tend to pull together the unlike.″ He cites the tax overhaul package enacted last year. Gephardt and Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., advocated a tax simplification proposal in 1982.
As a presidential contender, Gephardt talks about improving the nation’s educational system, expanding job training and channeling more resources into research and development as part of a broad effort to make the United States more competitive.
And, in what is becoming his standard stump speech, Gephardt sounds a patriotic theme and calls for new leadership so ″America will be the shining beacon of hope and opportunity.″