Chameleon

Dick Gephardt, the most powerful leader in Congress, wants to be seen as a populist. But Gephardt always adapts to the system. He is key to understanding why it doesn't change.

 

See our list of Resources on Congress and Gephardt.

Judging from his body language, Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., the majority leader of the House of Representatives, does not enjoy interviews.

He sits stiffly on the leather couch in his Capitol chamber. One leg is crossed precisely over the other. In the clenched fingers of one hand he grips a pencil by the eraser, as if it were a knife. He's taken off his jacket, but the sleeves of his light blue button-down are not rolled up. That notorious hair, wiry and reddish, sits immobile on his head, looking like the plastic hats once worn by the rock band Devo.

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In the past 40 minutes of conversation, Dick Gephardt has not moved--not changed legs, not shifted on the couch, not leaned forward. It is slightly unnerving. Looking like he'd rather be in St. Louis, Gephardt accepts questions as if they are lashes and answers them as if determined not to show pain. For example:

Asked how he developed his listening skills, Gephardt replies, "I don't think you can be a good listener unless you're a good listener. I think it's something that you really have to do, and if you really do it, then you can do it. If you don't do it, then you can't do it."

Asked about his values, Gephardt explains, "I've always believed as a value that the government has a vital--not overwhelming, but vital--role to play in furthering human welfare and good. I think we have an important supportive role to play, hopefully intelligent and sensible. But I believe in that and think we ought to be forthright about that, and try to play that role with responsibility and fiscal sense and so on and so forth. I feel strongly about that."

 


GEPHARDT'S VOICE gets a little testy: "Let's say in the last cycle I raised $2 million, $3 million, whatever it was. Does anybody really believe that I would have an effect on a vote or a decision for fear that out of that money, we would be unable to raise 5 or 10 or 20 or $30,000?" He shakes his head. "It's absurd."


Asked if he would like to be the speaker of the House, Gephardt says, "Maybe someday, if that is something that can be done and should be done."

Getting a straight answer--clear, concise, and coherent--from Dick Gephardt is like trying to shinny up a flagpole covered with lard. But as the interview comes to a close, a small breakthrough occurs.

 


ON CAMPAIGN REFORM: "You gotta deal with the system you got, and the system you got doesn't have limits."


Gephardt is charged with shepherding campaign finance reform legislation through the House. But Gephardt is also the House's largest recipient of PAC contributions. In the 1991-1992 election cycle, for example, he raked in $1.24 million from PACs (out of the total $3.2 million he raised), more than anyone else in the House. Asked about this seeming conflict, Gephardt proffers more piffle: "I've never felt that PACs per se were the problem, although if you're going to have a limit on how much you can spend [on campaigns], it's appropriate to have a limit on how much PACs can be a part of that."

But how can Gephardt say this when he takes so much money from PACs? Take health care, for instance. Gephardt is pulling together the House's version of a health care reform bill, and in the past two years, he's been the House's leading recipient of money from health care PACs. To an outsider, it looks bad.

"I understand the perception," Gephardt says. There's a little testiness in his voice now, like a piece of tinfoil hidden in a dish of vanilla ice cream. "But before the perception is believed, one needs to come around and stand in the shoes of someone in the position. Let's say in the last cycle I raised $2 million, $3 million, whatever it was. Does anybody really believe that I would have an effect on a vote or a decision for fear that out of that money we would be unable to raise 5 or 10 or 20 or $30,000?" He shakes his head. "It's absurd."

But couldn't the majority leader limit his PAC donations even though he doesn't have to? Wouldn't that, in fact, be something expected of a leader, to put his money where his mouth is?

"You gotta deal with the system you got, and the system you got is one that doesn't have limits," Gephardt says flatly.

At last--the near-impossible. A straight answer from Dick Gephardt.

Play by the rules, and you'll do fine--especially when the rules are on your side.

 

Understanding Dick Gephardt is key to understanding insider Washington. Gephardt is probably the fourth most powerful politician in the capital, after the president, Mrs. Clinton, and Al Gore. After 18 years in Congress, Gephardt has evolved from an upstart outsider into a consummate insider, a pol revered on Capitol Hill for his ability to get along with his congressional colleagues. He is widely considered the inevitable successor to House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., and some say that Gephardt already possesses the lion's share of power in the House. "He is in many ways the de facto speaker, the power behind the throne," says one congressional aide who has worked with both men.

You can see it legislatively; Gephardt has his hands on every major bill working its way through the House. On health care, for example, Gephardt and Majority Whip David Bonior of Michigan have been meeting individually with every Democratic member of the House--all 256--to sound them out. "I don't think you could pinpoint a more important politician in the House on a bigger piece of legislation in the past two decades," says one health care lobbyist. Gephardt has to navigate between supporting the president and giving his colleagues enough political cover so that angry voters won't kick them out over health care legislation these voters don't approve of. Though Gephardt has stated that he supports universal care in theory, he'll likely compromise on that to get a bill through the House.

Gephardt will also play a crucial role packaging a campaign-finance reform bill. He seems to have adopted the House-pleasing position that although the current system isn't corrupt, it should be modified to ease public anxiety--but as little as possible. It's a trade-off between public interest and what the House of Representatives wants. The public wants an end to the special influence of PACs, but House members want PAC money to preserve the hegemony of incumbents. And because representatives feel more strongly about keeping their jobs than the public feels about reforming Congress, Gephardt will fight for PACs on this one.

Gephardt's power manifests itself in other ways. He has a politically savvy staff, and he extends his influence through its work. In the White House alone, speechwriter David Dreyer, tactician Paul Begala, and adviser George Stephanopoulos all earned their political stripes as Gephardt staffers.

Gephardt gives readily of his clout, earning loyalty and favors-owed in the process. This year, for example, Gephardt is expected to raise half a million dollars for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which gives money to House candidates. Gephardt also runs the Effective Government Committee, a leadership PAC that doles out money to Democrats in tight races. In the 1991-1992 election cycle, Gephardt's leadership PAC gave out some $204,000 to Democratic candidates. Last year, the Senate voted to ban leadership PACs; Gephardt says he will support that principle in the House. But in the meantime, he's going to use his PAC--it's legal.

Gephardt's political generosity isn't limited to cash. He traveled to Chicago in March to help embattled Rep. Dan Rostenkowski win a hotly contested primary. (Rostenkowski has since been indicted for fraud.) Gephardt also extended his hospitality to David Wilhelm, the chair of the Democratic Party. "He took me to St. Louis and brought key supporters together," Wilhelm says. "We went to a local fund-raiser, a boxing match, for the city party. It was a really nice thing for him to do."

And finally, Gephardt is widely expected to run for president again. At 53, he can wait out another Clinton term. He'll only be 59 in the year 2000, and there is reputedly no love lost between Gephardt and Al Gore. That's another source of power--no one wants to offend a man who may one day be president.

No one questions that Gephardt is an extremely powerful politician. The question about Dick Gephardt that is so difficult to answer is this: What, other than the advancement of his own fortunes, does Gephardt really believe in?

 

Dick Gephardt was born in 1941, but he was really a child of 1950s America. He grew up in a one-story brick house in middle-class St. Louis. His father, Lou Gephardt, bounced around in life; once a milk truck driver, he wound up as a modestly successful realtor. But he was never as successful as he wanted to be.

"He really was caught up in the huge transition from an agricultural to an urban economy," says Dick Gephardt. "He was a little bit bitter--he always felt like he could have done better."

Lou Gephardt was a Republican; his wife, Loreen, a steadfast Democrat. "She was sort of a Norman Vincent Peale, you-can-conquer-all type," says David Doak, a media adviser to Gephardt since 1988. Gephardt's mother gave him an unflagging optimism and willingness to work; his father, an empathy for the worker for whom things don't quite turn out. But surely, too, Gephardt received one other gift from his parents: an ability to see both sides of an issue, while perhaps believing in neither.

Gephardt went to Northwestern University near Chicago, where he met his wife, Jane Ann Byrnes. He graduated from law school at the University of Michigan in 1965 and returned to St. Louis to practice law. In 1971, he became a local alderman; in 1976, he handily won a wide-open congressional race.

Heading off to Washington, D.C., the 35-year-old Gephardt was a perfect representative of his 98 percent white, socially conservative, blue-collar district: Personally, he was as colorless as Wonder Bread; politically, Gephardt thought Ronald Reagan had some good ideas, in particular, skepticism about government's role over business and the states. And Gephardt was moral, oh-so-moral. He wanted to pass a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion.

He made his mark quickly. In 1979, he and then-congressman David Stockman, a Republican who was later Ronald Reagan's budget director, torpedoed Jimmy Carter's health care cost-containment plan. (Their alternative was to encourage voluntary competition among insurance companies. Gephardt has since somewhat sheepishly repudiated this idea.) In 1985, Gephardt became the first head of the newly formed Democratic Leadership Council, a controversial group within the party because of its moderate-to-right leanings.

After 1985, Gephardt moved steadily to the left, aligning himself more closely with traditional New Deal Democratic constituencies: labor, old people, minorities. He did it partly because Reaganomics was harming his district, and partly to facilitate his climb within the House, whose Democratic caucus traditionally defines the left wing of the Democratic Party.

All his life, Dick Gephardt had played by the rules of the game, and he was winning. That winning streak lasted a long time--12 years of steady ascension in the House--until Gephardt ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. He knew that as a young representative he would be considered a long shot, so he looked to the last obscure Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter, for inspiration. Carter had surprised the party by winning the Iowa caucuses; the subsequent bounce boosted his fund-raising and stature. So, from late 1986 until February 1988, Gephardt spent a remarkable 144 days in Iowa. He even temporarily moved his wife and three children to the state.

In his ambition to win in Iowa, Gephardt may not have shattered the rules, but he certainly bent them. For one thing, he used his leadership PAC to fund expenses such as staff and travel. The PAC raised more than $1 million in 1985 and 1986, yet only $58,000 went to Democratic candidates; the rest went toward "expenses." The Federal Election Commission never did determine whether those expenses were incurred by Gephardt's campaign, which would have been a violation of FEC rules. However, in November 1992, the FEC did require Gephardt to repay $121,000 for exceeding the 1988 campaign spending limits of $775,000 in Iowa.

Gephardt had a message in Iowa--that hardworking citizens were getting screwed by foreign competition and foreign tariffs, especially from Japan, which wasn't playing by the rules. But that message wasn't getting across--Gephardt was way behind in December 1987--even though Gephardt seemed to have grown since the campaign began. "As he moved from town to town, Dick was very moved by what he saw as the ravages of the Reagan economic policies," remembers Bill Carrick, Gephardt's campaign manager. Gephardt was connecting with the people who came to hear him, but his message wasn't reaching enough voters.

So his media advisers concocted a now-legendary TV ad. In it, Gephardt talked about South Korean tariffs that jacked up the price of a Chrysler K-car to $48,000. No wonder K-cars weren't selling, Gephardt opined. At the close, Gephardt stared directly into the camera and asked, "How many Americans are going to pay $48,000 for one of their Hyundais?"

Gephardt triumphed with 31 percent of the vote. Despite the win, the hoped-for bounce never happened: Pat Robertson trounced George Bush in the GOP caucuses, and he, not Gephardt, got all the attention.

What attention Gephardt did get was almost unanimously negative: Over the following weeks, the press attacked him mercilessly. The theme was consistent and unrelenting: There was something not quite kosher about Dick Gephardt.

Even for a presidential candidate, Gephardt had had a large number of flip-flops in his career. He once opposed establishing the Department of Education and raising the minimum wage; by 1988, he supported both. He once supported a Social Security freeze and the B-1 bomber. By 1988, he was against them. Most damning of all, Gephardt had changed his position on abortion. Once an advocate of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, Gephardt was suddenly pro-choice.

 


GEPHARDT briefly connected with voters during his presidential run. since then, he's closed off his emotions as if they were a leaking spigot.


In perhaps the campaign's most memorable line, Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Republic wrote that Gephardt reminded him of a "space alien" who might at any moment "reach under his chin and pull back that immobile, monochromatic, oddly smooth face to reveal the lizard beneath."

Gephardt went on to finish second in New Hampshire, win South Dakota, and then, desperately short of money, lose every state but one in the 20-state Super Tuesday primary. After losing in Michigan, he withdrew and filed for his congressional seat.

 

In the years since that election year, Gephardt seems to have utterly lost the emotional window that opened so briefly, allowing him to touch people around the country and, for a span of a few months, make his politics seem credible. He appears to have closed off his emotions as if they were a leaking spigot.

Asked what surprised him about that campaign, Gephardt replies, "Um . . . not a lot." But asked what he would do differently, he answers at once: "Have about $40 million in the bank and be able to run magnificent television in every state."

It was, apparently, this pragmatism that caused Gephardt not to run for president in 1992. Gephardt explains that he made a commitment to his colleagues not to run during that scandal-ridden time in the House, when his steadying presence was needed. But others point out (and Gephardt reluctantly admits) that he did exploratory polling regarding a campaign; they suggest that Gephardt opted out simply because he didn't think he could win.

"What people wanted in 1992 was bold, dramatic change," says one former Gephardt adviser. "So if you were working against Gephardt in a presidential campaign, you'd say, 'Look, if you want change, you got to be for somebody other than the guy who runs Congress.' You'd saddle him with every piece of shit thing Congress has done in 15 years, and that would make it hard for him."

It's a fine line Gephardt's walking. He still wants to be seen as the populist who fights for the working man. But he is part and parcel of Congress and refuses to attack it. Once a man who wanted to reform the institution, now he is the institution. Besides, his immediate career depends on his popularity with House members, who will elect the next speaker. That tension between hard-charging outsider and reasonable insider almost paralyzes Gephardt, both in his speech and in his actions.

Perhaps the best example of this psychological tug-of-war came during the battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gephardt first voted in May 1991 to give President Bush power to negotiate NAFTA without congressional involvement. Then Gephardt said that he couldn't support NAFTA until side agreements on the environment and workers' rights were negotiated. Later, he contacted allies within the White House and urged them to try to talk President Clinton out of pushing the treaty. After the side agreements were signed and it became clear that Clinton was going to fight for NAFTA, Gephardt didn't announce his position until just two months before the vote--long after other congressional leaders had stated theirs. Even then, he did little to fight the treaty. To both NAFTA opponents and supporters, Gephardt seemed to want the best of both worlds: appearing to oppose NAFTA for the benefit of labor, Gephardt's traditional constituency and a heavy contributor to his campaigns, while not actually putting his political capital on the line or pissing off the president. For all intents and purposes, it worked: While to Gephardt's mind the passage of NAFTA may have been bad for the country, his position on it didn't make him any enemies.

Gephardt is performing the same frustrating minuet on health care and campaign finance reform. You would think that these would be issues where a real leader would stand up and fight for his principles. Yet on health care, Gephardt has sent mixed signals, saying that he supports the principle of universal coverage but suggesting that any timetable for such coverage should be flexible. To some extent, that's understandable; getting any bill through the House will be a challenge. But still, Gephardt often gives the impression that he cares more about what his constituents in Congress want, rather than what the public wants.

The same is even more true on the issue of money in politics. Gephardt has been conspicuously quiet about campaign-finance reform. Though the Senate voted to ban PAC money altogether in June 1993, the House wants no change in the current limits: PACs can donate $10,000 per election cycle to each representative. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, has reputedly offered to compromise at $5,000, but the House isn't budging. As a result, campaign finance legislation is dead for this year. Gephardt could use his clout to push harder for what he says he believes. But the Congressional Black Caucus and rural members of Congress in particular don't want to lose PAC money and would resent Gephardt if he pushed them too hard. Consequently, he won't.

Tom Foley is expected to retire within a few years, probably after the 1996 election. At that point, Gephardt will almost certainly become speaker of the House. If a Republican wins the presidency in 1996, that instantly makes Gephardt the most visible, most powerful Democratic leader and an inevitable presidential candidate for the year 2000. Even without such a boost, at some point Gephardt will run for president again. But regardless of the rhetoric he employs, he will never again be the populist he tried to be in 1988; he is too far gone for that, too much a defender of establishment Washington.

These things you can count on, and one other: At some point in the next few years, the national mood will change, and as it does, Dick Gephardt will go through another transformation, become another kind of politician, tap into the zeitgeist in a new way. It won't be any easier to discern his real values, however, except for one constant: As those who know him well say, the one thing Dick Gephardt clearly, unquestionably, without a doubt, believes in is himself.

Richard Blow is the editor of Regardie's magazine.