Critics, Backers Split : Gephardt: Flexibility or Flip-Flops?

Times Staff Writer

When there were just 48 states in the nation, when movies were mostly black and white and horses still pulled milk wagons, American dreams began in neighborhoods like Clifton Heights.

Here peak-roofed brick bungalows lined narrow Southwest St. Louis streets with the measured uniformity of soldiers standing at attention: each about the same size, the same distance from the curb, equally spaced one from the other.

Front porches were made of wood painted battleship gray. The porch at the Gephardt house on Reber Place had white wood trellises at each end where honeysuckle climbed in the summer and the Gephardt boys, Dick and Don, climbed in the autumn.

Father Was Milkman

A middle class shaped by the Great Depression and reshaped by World War II lived in these houses: lawyers, pharmacists, salesmen, teachers and shop owners. Louis Andrew Gephardt, the boys' dad, delivered milk--yes, from a wagon pulled by a horse.

American cities in the 1940s, dusty with the soot of coal-fired furnaces, were made of similar neighborhoods spawning dreams American.

Dick Gephardt learned to dream in Clifton Heights. Today a congressman, he personifies the ethic taught in schools and homes as a catechism of democracy in the 1940s and 1950s: Couple hard work with ambition and anything is possible.

This was the lesson their mother, Loreen, drilled into the Gephardt boys, Don Gephardt recalls. " 'The sky is the limit,' she said. 'It's up to you to do what you want to do and you can do it if you want to.' I believe it. Dick believes it."

Dick Gephardt reached for the sky with a stretch that would do his farmer ancestors proud. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for President.

In 23 fast years Gephardt traveled up the political hill--almost always hitching his star to an influential mentor--from campaign volunteer to fourth-ranking congressional Democratic leader to presidential contender. As recently as 1976 he was a member of the St. Louis City Council.

During his climb, Gephardt, married and the father of three, acquired a reputation for integrity, energy and a talent to forge difficult political compromises. His career has been free of scandal and controversy but not free of the baggage of success. Critics say he is opportunistic, an ideological chameleon, cold and calculating, stiff and aloof.

"He a man who is hard to characterize," says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar. "That is a plus. He can be more open-minded, not a prisoner of positions. But he becomes vulnerable to charges of flip-flopping or political opportunism."

Gephardt has crisscrossed the ideological map during his 11 years in Congress, a flaw to critics, a sign of flexibility to supporters.

Conservative at first, a frequent supporter of Administration proposals during President Reagan's early years, Gephardt reflected the views of his blue-collar, Catholic and mostly white congressional district. His stands moderated as the need to appeal to a broader constituency in a presidential campaign became more apparent. His ratings among liberal groups have gone up in recent years. His standings among conservative organizations have dropped.

In 1984, about the time he began talking of running for President, he dropped his once strong support of a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

"The move was transparently political," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Gephardt concluded . . . that his pro-life position was going to be an impediment with certain pro-abortion, liberal activists so he jettisoned it about the same time he began to run for President."

But Gephardt says he changed because efforts to win a constitutional amendment "weren't going anywhere. The legal fight was bearing no good answers." He says he is still opposed to both abortion and federal funding for abortion and has only withdrawn support for a constitutional amendment.

In preparation for his run for the presidency, he also withdrew support for a constitutional amendment to stop forced busing of schoolchildren. Once hawkish, he now opposes aid to the Contras. In a Democratic leadership meeting he once argued for supporting the MX missile. "The Democrats can't look weak on defense," a colleague recalls his saying. He no longer supports the missile.

"I don't know that Dick Gephardt has a cause, a single issue that drives him," says John B. Crosby, a former congressional aide. "He is pragmatic to the nth degree . . . to the point of modifying his feelings to adapt to changes in the economy and in society."

Always on guard, Gephardt sidestepped major movements altering America's social landscape in the early 1960s, the civil rights and anti-war movements.

"I felt it was best to try to work within the system," Gephardt says of a skill perfected in his years as a student, city and national leader. "Civil disobedience . . . is horribly destructive to our legal system," he once said.

Legislation bearing his name--the Gephardt trade amendment, the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill, Bradley-Gephardt tax reform--have often put him in the news, but Gephardt the man and politician is little known beyond his Missouri congressional district or outside of Washington, where he is a key Democratic leader.

His roots are anchored in the conservatism of the Baptist Church and in his German and Irish heritage. He is a mix of Norman Rockwell boyish innocence and of Grant Wood's stern American Gothic. His life is filled with the patriotic exuberance of a John Philip Sousa march.

Richard Andrew Gephardt's 46 years are stitched with ambition, embroidered with success, bound by strict parents--a strong, aggressive mother and a passive father. Throughout those years, Dick Gephardt was always running, driven by a desire to succeed and an almost religious belief that he could, and should, work to make things better.

"I grew up with a sense that . . . you should try to better conditions . . . and that you should think of other people," Gephardt says of his mother's influence. "That the real satisfaction would come from giving something back, doing something publicly, at least for part of your life."

"Some people are not comfortable sitting back watching the parade," says Crosby, his former aide. "They want to be in the parade and after a few blocks they think the parade could be run better if they were up front with the baton. In every situation I've seen Dick Gephardt, he goes up front and tries to take the baton."

Patterns appear in his childhood and repeat themselves as he races up Capitol Hill: Dick Gephardt the listener, the door-to-door salesman, the Young Turk, the fair-haired protege, the leader, the intensely private man, outwardly confident and ambitious but inwardly haunted by a sense of underachievement.

"I pray to God every day that I can reason better, that I can think better, that I can be better," Gephardt says, "and I know I'm just not going to ever make it. We're inadequate. . . ."

But only once has the fear of tragedy crept into Gephardt's seemingly charmed life. His firstborn, Matthew, was stricken with intestinal cancer at 19 months.

"Everything always didn't go right," Gephardt recalls, "but on the whole I was never really in trouble until . . . ."

Until a day in 1971 when the phone in his law office rang and he heard his wife, Jane, sobbing:

"She says, 'Matt is going to die.' And the world just stopped," Gephardt recalls.

"I got in the car and drove to the hospital. I couldn't think of anything. I was just numb. The doctors told us what the problem was. . . . We walked out of the hospital and I'll never forget, I wanted to stop people and say, 'Don't you know what just happened to us? Why are you happy? Why don't you know that my world has ended?' There was anger and then, more than anger. There was just tremendous sorrow for him.

"I mean, having a child is an animal thing, more than I ever realized," Gephardt says. "But when this happens, it becomes more than that. You really have an animal instinct to protect this child. And that's what got me more than anything. There's nothing I can do. I would have done anything to save him. Anything. And then we got through the anger and the hopeless phase and just prayed. We prayed endlessly that he could be saved, that something could work."

Chemotherapy, surgery and reconstructive surgery, months of doctors and hospitals, were successful. Matt, 17, is now a high school student who plays tennis and hunts with his dad.

"What did I learn from it all? Life is fragile," Gephardt says. "It can be taken away in an instant. If there's something that you think is important to do for yourself or for your family or for the country, you ought to do it. Don't put it off, because it may never come back . . . that we're really insignificant and that there is some kind of order or some kind of higher being. I don't know what it is. I don't understand it. I can't see it. I can't explain it, but I believe it's there."

That faith has its roots in Clifton Heights, where Louis and Loreen Gephardt and their two boys lived in a storybook 1940s-50s family. "Ozzie and Harriet reminds me a lot of our family," his mother says.

Loreen Gephardt, a strong-willed woman who dominated the household, was a powerful force in shaping the lives of her two sons, Dick the politician and Don, a musician and dean of instruction at New York's Nassau Community College.

It was at her insistence that their father delivered milk after losing his door-to-door insurance sales job in the Depression. In the late 1940s, when most married women stayed home, she went to work as a secretary to build a college nest egg for her sons. In the mid-1950s, when Louis wanted to sell the family bungalow to raise cash for his real estate business, she balked, insisting that they stay put until the boys finished school.

When her boys misbehaved, "she would tell us to go out in back and select our own switch," Don recalls. "We would have to bring in a young, green stick and we would get a little caning over the backs of the legs."

Don was once punished for calling his mother "a stinker." Dick once got the switch for hitting Don with a baseball bat. "There were rules. . . . But it was not a rigid, overbearing atmosphere where you were afraid to do anything," Don says.

Loreen Gephardt recalls: "I took the boys to Sunday school and church every Sunday when they were growing up. They weren't forced to go. They wanted to go."

Dick participated in activities at the Third Baptist Church, teaching Sunday school, becoming a youth minister, a camper and later a counselor at a Christian camp. For a while, he considered the clergy as a career.

She influenced her sons in one other important way. She was the family Democrat.

Louis Andrew Gephardt took his sons fishing and passed to them his passion for the St. Louis Cardinals. He delivered milk until 1949, before turning to buying and selling property. Despite the postwar housing boom and the rapid growth of the suburbs in the 1950s, the dream eluded him.

"He never earned a lot of money," Don recalls. "My dad didn't always know success. If you look at what he did and his career path and the way things worked for him, it wasn't all of what he wanted it to be by any means . . . I think he felt some defeat at times." Louis Gephardt died in 1984.

Loreen Gephardt recalls: "His whole family was Republican. When he found that both boys were going to be Democrats, he buried his head in his hands and said it was a terrible thing."

The neighborhood was a training ground for red-haired, freckle-faced, politician-to-be Dick Gephardt. With a St. Louis Cardinals cap pulled back on his head, a quick smile, flashing blue eyes and an earnest voice, he learned to confront people, running door to door selling greeting cards.

"There was tremendous stability," Dick Gephardt remembers. "People didn't move around a lot. . . . The people who lived on our block had lived there for a long time. It was almost like an extended family. . . . You knew everybody. They knew you."

Encouraged--some say he was pushed--by his mother, who seemed to favor him over his older brother, Dick raced through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and rose to Eagle Scout, earning a few more merit badges than the required minimum.

"I'd come home (after school) and my job was to wash the dishes from breakfast and lunch before dinner, and I remember standing at the sink and hearing the air raid sirens go off every Thursday for drills," Gephardt recalls. "I worried about a war with Russia and the bombers coming over. . . . I heard these sirens, and I never knew whether they were for real or not."

His initial brush with politicians was as a performer in the annual school variety show when he borrowed a character from comedian Red Skelton's repertoire and portrayed a bombastic, cigar-smoking political stereotype.

"My friends, and you are my friends and nobody is going to tell me who my friends are," he said in the first of many irreverent political characterizations that Gephardt would perform to amuse close friends.

Gephardt attended a high school leadership training program at Northwestern University in his junior year. Impressed by the university, interested in studying speech, he enrolled at the suburban Chicago campus after graduation from Southwest High.

It was a time when America was beginning to change.

Bohemians were becoming beatniks. The hip crowd was reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and Allen Ginsberg's poetry. Troops had been called out to enforce integration in some public schools. The freedom rides that would lead to the civil rights movement had begun.

But the Northwestern campus was still remote from the fledgling revolutions of the 1960s.

Dick Gephardt constantly tested his popularity at the university. He was freshman class president, a Student Senate member and fraternity president, and he was elected to both junior and senior honor societies. In his final year, he was student body president.

He sported a flat-top haircut, preferred suits and ties, and belonged to a fraternity that mirrored both his neighborhood and fraternities in general: There were no blacks and almost no Jews.

The civil rights movement reached Northwestern in Gephardt's senior year, 1962.

The Student Senate debated boycotting a local barbershop that charged blacks $5 for haircuts and whites $2. The senate argued indecisively for months before finally bringing it to a vote. Gephardt broke an 11-11 tie, endorsing the boycott. Then, in a move that would become characteristic of his political years, he organized negotiations between students and the barber. A month later the barber agreed to stop discriminating and the boycott was called off.

Gephardt also met his wife to be, Jane Byrnes, at Northwestern.

"I came on the train from Omaha . . . took a taxi to the freshman dormitory. Dick was a member of the . . . fraternity helping the freshman girls into the dorm. Dick Gephardt came up and met my taxi. And when he grabbed my suitcase out of the trunk everything spilled into the gutter," Jane recalls. "There was a faulty latch and all my items spilled out. . . . Maybe that's why we never forgot each other." She returned the "favor," making posters for one of his campus campaigns. They began dating four years later.

Gephardt graduated from Northwestern in June, 1962, with a bachelor of science degree in speech. He spent the next three years at the University of Michigan's law school, where he concentrated on his studies and his job at the Law Club restaurant. In short order, he became head waiter.

His first taste of mainstream political life came in the summer of 1964 when he worked as a volunteer in Missouri Democratic Sen. Stuart Symington's reelection campaign.

In 1965 he completed law school, joined the silk-stocking St. Louis law firm of Thompson & Mitchell and enlisted in the Missouri Air National Guard, a move that both protected him from the Vietnam-era draft and got his leadership juices flowing again.

"The unit was in trouble," Gephardt says. ". . . We couldn't march, we couldn't keep the dormitory clean, we couldn't do the physical drills and we were just catching unmitigated hell."

So Gephardt negotiated with drill instructors, took an unofficial leadership role and helped shape the unit into one of the best. "I get frustrated being in a group that's not being led, that's not going anywhere," he says. He won the American Spirit Honor Medal for being the top trainee. He was promoted to the rank of captain.

Back in St. Louis, Gephardt earned a partnership in his law firm in five years--one year faster than most associates. Outside the office he headed the young lawyers' sections of the city and state Bar associations.

Dick and Jane were married in 1966 and enlisted as Democratic Party foot soldiers, becoming lowly precinct captains.

"I felt that if you're going to be active in politics, you start at the ground level, start out at the beginning," Gephardt says. "I'd never been involved. . . . I knew nothing about how politics was done in the city."

Jane recalls: "We went to this ward meeting in the basement of a VFW or American Legion building. It was kind of dark and smoky . . . most of the people were city workers. We were just as green as could be. We stood out like sore thumbs. It was very obvious Dick was there because he had political ambitions. I'm sure that's instantly what they thought: This young man wants to run for something."

Dick Gephardt's rise to public office was swift. He became the protege of the ward boss, who named him ward committeeman in 1969. He got the title; the boss kept the handful of patronage jobs that went with the position.

In 1971 Gephardt successfully challenged the Republican alderman in the neighborhood near where he was reared in a campaign that would become a model for future races--including his presidential bid.

With a quick smile, flashing blue eyes and an earnest voice, he worked his precinct door to door--like the freckle-faced kid selling greeting cards. His wife and mother helped. Loreen canvassed and passed out literature. Jane managed the campaign from their basement, addressing mail and keeping the books as their first child, Matthew, crawled on the floor.

The victory was quickly tempered by Matt's cancer. But when the crisis passed, Gephardt again immersed himself in the problems of St. Louis, a dying city.

" . . . This place that had been so important in my life I saw as ending," Gephardt says. "It was where I got educated, where I joined the Boy Scouts, the church, all those things that had been so important in my life, and it was just drying up and people were saying, 'It's gone, forget it.' "

Gephardt helped organize the largely German and Italian blue-collar neighborhoods in Southwest St. Louis, just as earlier he had organized his military unit. Once formed, these groups demanded better city services, fought restrictive bank lending and insurance practices in low-income neighborhoods, set up mobile anti-crime patrols and worked to close adult bookstores--anything that undermined pride or weakened property values. Gephardt also became a champion of neighborhood schools and a vocal opponent of court-ordered busing to end segregation.

Gephardt joined with other council members to form a "Young Turk" faction.

"We were interested in . . . how to turn the city around," recalls John Roach, a lawyer, developer and former alderman. "The city was going down for the third time in the 1970s. We wanted to see changes. . . ."

Gephardt led efforts to streamline City Council operations.

"They (the Young Turks) saw things in a more civic-minded way," recalls Republican Joseph Badaracco, who was Board of Aldermen president when Gephardt first won office. "They were a little activist group (who) shook up old-timer Democrats."

Crosby, Gephardt's former congressional aide, says: "When Dick is operating at full capacity, which is almost all the time, he succeeds best by endearing himself to his elders to the point where they delegate to him a great deal of authority. From this position he's able to achieve many of his own personal and political objectives."

One to whom he endeared himself was Alderman Albert (Red) Villa, now 78, the gruff, cigar-chewing, grand old man of St. Louis Democratic politics who presides over his South Side ward from a throne-like armchair with a spittoon at his left foot and a telephone at his right hand.

Freshman Gephardt sought Villa's advice, helped him draft legislation, aided him in elections and allowed the senior city official, who in 1971 already had 40 years of St. Louis politics behind him, to become his mentor.

"You just talk to him, listen to him, and you knew he was wasting his time here," says Villa, a one-time saloon owner.

St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. says: "Dick Gephardt is the most profound listener I've ever seen. He controls a meeting without saying anything. It's an awesome skill."

Villa added: "I've never seen the guy mad. When we started out, if somebody crossed you, you conked him. Today, nobody wants to conk nobody."

For a while, Gephardt's climb up the political hill was blocked by a popular incumbent, Democratic Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan.

"Nobody would challenge the congresswoman in our district because she had been in there for 24 years," Loreen Gephardt recalls. "On the day he decided to tell the law firm that he was going to run for mayor, I went out to pick up the morning paper and there, facing me in big, black, bold headlines, were these words: 'Leonor Sullivan Retires From Congress.' I ran to the telephone . . . and he said, 'Mother, did you ever see a clearer answer to a prayer than this?' "

The congressional campaign was a magnified replay of earlier efforts. Again, Gephardt, his wife and his mother knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the district and reinforced the personal contact with a slick television campaign, one of the first in St. Louis.

He defeated a labor leader in the Democratic primary and trounced Republican Badaracco in the general election.

Dick Gephardt began his Capitol Hill climb in January, 1977, with tenacity, endearing himself to his elders, becoming involved with another crew of Young Turks and earning a reputation as a hard worker capable of forging difficult compromises. It was a major league version of Gephardt in basic training, on the City Council.

Richard Bolling, veteran lawmaker and House power, became the first of many powerful mentors in Washington. A Kansas City Democrat who came to Congress in 1948, Bolling first met Gephardt only a few months earlier when Gephardt was a candidate.

"My intuition told me that he would be stable and honest and all of the fundamental things that I wanted and that he would also be a middle-range Democrat," recalls Bolling, who has since retired from Congress.

With Bolling's sponsorship, he was put on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, an assignment rarely given a freshman lawmaker.

And Bolling introduced him to two friends, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. and Louisiana Rep. Gillis W. Long, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the party's policy-making arm in the House. Together the trio would help Dick Gephardt leapfrog to the Democratic leadership.

Gephardt also positioned himself as a leader of a growing collection of young post-Watergate-era Democrats.

"He was the fair-haired guy of leadership and, at the same time, a leader of the bomb-throwers. It used to astound me how he could play both sides," says a longtime colleague who would not talk for attribution. "He would stir the young guys up and then he'd go to Tip and say, 'The troops are restless.' And then he'd get credit from both sides."

But few criticize him for that dual role. Instead, his colleagues, even those not supporting his presidential bid, sound like a Greek chorus praising his ability to listen, his talent for constructing compromises, his patience, energy and self-control.

"This place is sort of like a battlefield," says House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "Every soldier is here to serve, and some rise to higher levels than others. It is not just a matter of effort, but a matter of skill."

That skill, and personal campaigns that have taken him door-to-door in the three House office buildings in Washington, have paid off in other achievements. Gephardt campaigned for his colleagues' support for a prized spot on the important Budget Committee. He was elected caucus chairman after Long died. And he was a founder and first chairman of the Democratic Leadership Conference, a group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Democratic Party.

"He's bright, well-organized, the choirboy of the House," says Rep. Terry L. Bruce (D-Ill.), who is supporting Sen. Paul Simon's presidential bid. "In 1984, he came to my district to campaign for me before I was even in Congress. I think he wanted my support when he decided to run. . . . But I think he needs to be a tad tougher. At least he should have made me feel bad for not endorsing him after he gave me all that help."

Another Democratic congressman who refused to talk for attribution and who is not backing Gephardt said: "He seems to have no inner philosophy. You don't know where he's coming from."

When an aide to 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter F. Mondale asked Gephardt to endorse the former vice president's agriculture program, he refused, explaining that he wasn't involved in agriculture. Today, he campaigns in Iowa as the co-sponsor of the populist Harkin-Gephardt farm bill that critics say would drive up food costs and require restrictive trade practices to keep out cheaper foreign grain.

Protecting farmers puts Harkin-Gephardt in conflict with the Gephardt trade proposal, a controversial trade bill amendment that would penalize countries that engage in restrictive trade practices to protect their domestic markets.

Although a laundry list of legislation carries the Gephardt mark, two key achievements do not bear his name. He is one of the originators of the tax reform concept that led to landmark 1986 legislation. And he is considered the behind-the-scenes Solomon who forged the House compromise to the Senate version of Gramm-Rudman, which mandates automatic spending cuts if prescribed budget-reduction goals are not met.

Democratic leaders say the Gephardt compromise, worked out in more than 150 meetings over a two-week period, prevented President Reagan from gaining a dominant voice over federal spending priorities.

Gephardt has the support of almost one-third of the House Democrats in the pursuit of his presidential dream. He garnered that backing the same way he sold greeting cards in Clifton Heights, by going door to door, this time on Capitol Hill.

It is his way of fulfilling the catechism of democracy he never forgot.

"I think the big thing is to give it your best," Gephardt says. "Try to be your best, and if I could be remembered for that, it's about as good as it gets, I guess."

Researchers Wendy Leopold in Chicago, Susanna Shuster in Los Angeles and Aleta Embrey in Washington contributed to this story.

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