Former U.S. representative Sam Gibbons, a Florida Democrat who helped shepherd War on Poverty legislation at the start of his congressional career and briefly ascended to the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee near the end of his 17 terms on Capitol Hill, died Oct. 10 in Tampa. He was 92.
His son, Washington lobbyist Clifford Gibbons, confirmed the death but said he did not know the immediate cause.
Rep. Gibbons, a gangly former Army paratrooper who landed at Normandy during World War II, said he pursued a legislative career largely because of the carnage he witnessed in battle.
In the U.S. House from 1963 to 1997, he worked most ardently on extending trade and open markets. “A world bound together by the ties of trade is a world strongly inclined toward economic growth and peace,” he once said.
Rep. Gibbons served Tampa as it grew from its industrial boomtown past into a thriving metropolis. As one of the few liberals in the Deep South, he delivered key votes for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program.
In 1965, Johnson tapped Rep. Gibbons, then only a second-term congressman, to be his floor manager for the War on Poverty bills. In that position, he helped wrangle the votes needed to authorize social programs including the Head Start education initiative for low-income children.
Rep. Gibbons worked closely with R. Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, to win $1.75 billion in anti-poverty appropriations. “We used to say we don’t want any of that tainted federal money,” Rep. Gibbons said at the time. “Now we say ’tain’t enough.”
Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist and an authority on congressional politics, called Rep. Gibbons “one of peculiar species of white southern Democrats — there’s virtually no trace of them left — who was conservative enough to give liberal presidents cover when they were trying to do something dramatic.”
Rep. Gibbons voted against the landmark civil rights acts of 1964 and 1968 that outlawed discrimination in public accommodations and housing, respectively, but was one of a handful of Southerners who supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1964, he voted in favor of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that intensified U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. In later years, he said he had been misled by Pentagon officials about the war and called it “the sorriest vote I ever cast.” In the early 1990s, he opposed entry by the United States in the Persian Gulf War.
As he ascended to greater seniority, Rep. Gibbons mounted an underdog challenge against Majority Whip Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) for the position of majority leader in 1973. Rep. Gibbons quickly realized he had made a strategic error and withdrew his candidacy against the popular O’Neill, who later became House speaker.
“It was a suicidal attempt,” Baker said, adding that Rep. Gibbons never gained full access to O’Neill’s inner circle.
Nor did Rep. Gibbons become a consistently influential voice on Ways and Means, the legislative panel with sweeping authority over tax policy, trade, Social Security and Medicare.
He chaired the committee’s trade subcommittee from 1981 to 1994, using that position to champion free trade. That stance put him in conflict with a party that courted the political support of union leaders.
He was also a prominent supporter of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement signed by President Bill Clinton to lower trade tariffs and other barriers among the economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
On Ways and Means, Rep. Gibbons was the longtime No. 2 Democrat under chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), a chieftain of the Chicago political machine who had emerged as a widely regarded master of horse-trading and arm-twisting.
“Being number two on Ways and Means was really to be in a deep shadow,” Baker said, noting Rostenkowski’s near-total dominance of the committee.
But as corruption charges emerged against Rostenkowski in the early 1990s, Rep. Gibbons positioned himself for a takeover and promised a more inclusive approach. “Rosty is a soloist — he is a virtuoso soloist,” Rep. Gibbons told The Washington Post in 1993. “I sing in a choir.”
He became acting chairman in June 1994 after Rostenkowski was indicted on multiple felony counts, including the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer dollars and campaign funds. Rostenkowski was unseated later that year by a Republican and two years later pleaded guilty to two counts of felony mail fraud. He served 15 months in federal prison and two in a halfway house. Clinton pardoned him in 2000.
With the watershed election in November 1994 that swept Republicans to majority in both chambers of Congress, Rep. Gibbons was ousted from the chairmanship. The congressman also faced a rough reelection campaign, during which the gun lobby and Republicans criticized him for supporting an assault weapons ban.
“I’m the only one in this room that fought with an assault rifle in World War II,” he said during a debate against his much-younger challenger, “and I know what damage it can do.”
Rep. Gibbons did not seek reelection in 1996 and subsequently joined his son’s lobbying firm.
Sam Melville Gibbons was born Jan. 20, 1920, in Tampa. After wartime service, for which he received the Bronze Star Medal, he earned a law degree in 1947 from the University of Florida in Gainesville.
In the state legislature, he shepherded efforts to create the University of South Florida in Tampa. Later in the U.S. House, he used his seniority to direct funding to the university as well as to MacDill Air Force Base.
Rep. Gibbons’s wife of 57 years, the former Martha Hanley, died in 2003. The next year, he married Betty Culbreath, who survives along with three sons from his first marriage, Clifford Gibbons of McLean and Mark Gibbons and Timothy Gibbons, both of Tampa; and seven grandchildren.
Rep. Gibbons was featured prominently in Tom Brokaw’s best-selling 1998 book about World War II veterans, “The Greatest Generation.” Shortly after the war, he told Brokaw, he and his brother spent an afternoon trying to count their friends killed in action.
“When we got to 100 we stopped counting and said, ‘To hell with this.’ ”