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.