Incoming Speaker's 'Art of the Possible'
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 16, 1998; Page A1
Bob Livingston's first job ever was cleaning up after the elephants at the New Orleans zoo. Not much has changed in 40 years as the veteran Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is poised this week to succeed the vanquished Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House.
Livingston, a former U.S. prosecutor and martial arts expert who plays the harmonica to relieve stress, has a massive job ahead of him. Long a critic of Gingrich's dazzling but chaotic leadership style, Livingston must attempt to restore harmony to a fractious House and deal with the legislative mess left behind by Gingrich. He once brandished a bowie knife and machete to dramatize his seriousness about cutting spending. Now he must wield a big broom.
"I think I have good political instincts and understand politics is the art of the possible," Livingston said late last week. "I deal well with people of opposite views and opposite parties. I'm going to be speaker for the whole House, and I'm going to make it pleasant to serve in this body [of] which I'm so proud to be a member."
This ethos marks a radical departure from the revolutionary fervor of the Republicans who took control of the House in 1995. More than the outgoing speaker -- and in keeping with his roots as an appropriator -- Livingston, 55, has displayed a strong devotion to the technical side of lawmaking and building consensus. "I'm not going to be the lightning rod," he said.
As chairman, Livingston opened up the once secretive appropriations process to other members of Congress and the public. He forged close ties to the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), and allowed a full airing of all issues within the committee. Livingston commands the allegiance of his 13 subcommittee chairmen and has demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the complex way in which special interests seek to influence issues within his committee's purview.
Though his biggest challenge will be placating conservative activists within his own party who believe he is too accommodating, Livingston is no moderate: He opposes abortion, supports increased spending on the military and on missile defense, backs business causes and wants tax cuts.
But he has shown an enormous capacity to grow, something that suggests he is more apt to see the subtleties of issues and the possibilities for compromise. He has also become a creature of modern Washington. Once seen as something of a crusading reformer, Livingston now freely dispenses corporate campaign contributions to colleagues, with an eye to consolidating power.
Livingston first arrived in Washington in 1977 with a reputation as an occasional hot-head, with knee-jerk conservative views and a strong moral streak. His past exploits as a tenacious New Orleans prosecutor were already legendary, such as the time in a burst of nervous excitement he knocked a glass of water into the lap of a judge during a bench conference -- and still won the case. The onetime Democrat seemed destined for a permanent spot in the Republican back benches.
But once thrust into the insular, go-along-to-get-along world of congressional appropriations, Livingston matured into an adroit legislator capable of unifying his colleagues. Earlier this year, for example, he steered a controversial disaster relief package through the House while striking a deal with Democrats over the sensitive task of overhauling ethics rules.
"Bob is a respecter of the institution, a respecter of the process," said Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. "With Bob as speaker, there will be no train wrecks at the end of the session."
There was little in Livingston's early years to suggest he would wind up as a master politician, except a knack for getting along with people and a sort of aw-shucks, Jimmy Stewart goofiness that still puts people at ease. People gravitated to him and years later still remember him warmly, even if they disagreed with him. Shael Herman, a law school classmate in the 1960s and a liberal, said of his conservative friend: "He's a gentleman. . . . I think he was raised that way. He knows deep down you don't abuse people with whom you disagree."
Livingston's mother was responsible. His father, whose New York ancestors were prominent figures in the American Revolution (his namesake administered the oath of office to George Washington), abandoned the family when Livingston was not quite 7 and his sister 2. "My husband went off and left me with -- it's the old story -- about 50 Coke bottles on the back porch" to redeem for cash to live on, said Dorothy Billet, who later remarried and still lives in New Orleans.
Livingston's mother went to work in the personnel department at Avondale Shipyards and scrambled to raise her children on her own, wangling a financial aid package that allowed Bob to attend St. Martin's Episcopal School, an exclusive private academy in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. The school put Livingston in the company of "a lot of nice New Orleans Uptown kids," she said, and its academic rigor helped him into Tulane University in New Orleans.
But Livingston was an indifferent student who was buffaloed by his freshman physics course and so sick of academics by the end of his first year that he dropped out. He did a two-year hitch in the Navy and returned to Tulane far more focused. He studied law and won a reputation for hard work -- and hard partying.
Livingston was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, whose Tulane chapter was notorious for wild, "Animal House"-style behavior. Its fraternity house was the scourge of leafy, upper-middle-class Henry Clay Avenue, where the "Dekes" painted a huge warning on the street out front: "Slow -- Drunk Zone." A low point came when the Dekes accidentally burned the house down after a fraternity ritual got out of hand. "The neighbors were out there, all cheering, hoping we'd be gone forever," remembered Ed Layrisson, then one of Livingston's fellow Dekes, now sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, north of New Orleans.
"Bob was mainstream along with the rest of us," said Layrisson. "We were all just young men having a good time."
At the same time, though, Livingston was burrowing into his law studies, a tough discipline for someone who was by most accounts not a natural student. "Bob's not a quick study, but he makes up for it by just damned hard work," said Glen Magnuson, a classmate who was editor of the law review and to whom Livingston often appealed for help. "He's the kind of guy you want to help. . . . There's guys who can be a pain . . . Doc's not that kind of guy," said Magnuson, using the Tulane nickname by which Livingston is still known among his old friends. (It was inspired by the famous 1871 quote uttered by Henry Stanley upon meeting Africa explorer David Livingstone: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?")
When he graduated from law school in 1968, Livingston got a job with a firm whose partners included David Treen, a perennial GOP congressional candidate who would eventually win the first Louisiana congressional seat for the GOP since Reconstruction and who later served a term as governor. Treen was the first of many bosses who found Livingston aggressive and hard-working, and also the first of many the restless Livingston left behind.
Bored by private practice after two years, Livingston jumped at the chance to become a prosecutor. Over the next several years, he worked in quick succession as an assistant U.S. attorney, a senior New Orleans assistant district attorney and finally an assistant Louisiana state attorney general. Livingston handled cases ranging from murder and rape to illegal gambling and car theft. Superiors and colleagues remember a determined young attorney who was unafraid to go to trial, willing to take tough and sometimes unwinnable cases, and more orderly and dogged than brilliant.
"He's not a fast talker," said Harry Connick Sr., who brought in Livingston and other federal prosecutors to help him set up his office when he became New Orleans district attorney in 1974. "He's very sincere, believable, methodical."
Livingston was a promising young prosecutor but not GOP power brokers' first choice when longtime New Orleans-area Democratic congressman F. Edward Hebert announced he would retire in 1976. But after more prominent prospects said no, Treen, by then a GOP baron, gave the go-ahead to recruit someone else.
Billy Nungesser, a local businessman and party activist, knew Livingston and was impressed enough to offer him the candidacy. Nungesser said Treen was initially lukewarm to the choice, since he considered Livingston, then 32, a little young and immature. "Did you tell him for sure?" Treen asked.
Nungesser had done so. "He's running, he's driving me nuts, he wants me to raise money for him," Nungesser told Treen.
The district was hardly hospitable -- Republicans made up less than 3 percent of registered voters -- but Livingston was a ferocious candidate. "It was hard to keep up with him," said Allen Martin, then Livingston's campaign manager and still his administrative assistant. "When he didn't have anything on his schedule, he would just start hitting bars," a traditional vote-gathering spot for New Orleans politicians. "Whenever he saw a clump of people he would tell [his driver] to stop the car and [he would] get out and start shaking hands."
Livingston was beaten by Democrat Rick Tonry, but Tonry soon resigned the seat amid allegations of campaign finance irregularities and eventually served a short stay in prison. Livingston won the ensuing special election in 1977 and has won reelection easily ever since.
As a freshman congressman in the late 1970s, Livingston was even more excitable and voluble than he is today. Sometimes, swept away with GOP party doctrine, he would shout to make his points, causing telephone callers to wince.
But his law enforcement background gave him a cachet as a newcomer to Washington as a crime-busting Republican working to clean up corruption. As a member of the House ethics committee in 1980, he was tough on colleagues who got caught up in the FBI's Abscam sting operation. He later played a leading role in passing the 1989 law that barred House members from accepting honoraria and later helped clean up House campaign fund-raising operations.
Livingston first learned the politics of big-time government spending as a junior member of the Public Works Committee, and later shifted to the Appropriations Committee, a coveted assignment because of the enormous power it exercised in parceling out pork. As a member of the defense subcommittee, Livingston was an ardent hawk and a strong proponent of using military force to project U.S. foreign policy, adopting an internationalist outlook that contrasted with many of his more inward-looking Republican colleagues.
As he rose in stature, Livingston became part of the culture of interlocking lobbyists, politicians, fund-raising and deal-making that conservative Republicans later vowed to end. He helped to pump more than $1 billion of project funds into the Avondale Shipyards, which in turn supported his political activities. In 1988, Livingston and his wife, Bonnie, were the beneficiaries of a trip to Paris, courtesy of the big French defense contractor Thomson-CSF.
For Livingston, it was a bitter irony that while he had his hands on the nation's purse strings, he was always personally struggling to make ends meet while former colleagues were pulling down big salaries in the private sector. In 1985, he opened his finances to the Wall Street Journal to show how hard it was to "get by" with a wife and four children on a congressional salary, then $75,000 a year.
Money -- or the lack thereof -- weighed on him throughout his political career, and Livingston was on the verge earlier this year of announcing plans to retire to pursue a career as a high-priced lawyer, before Gingrich and friends in New Orleans persuaded him to stay.
Livingston was a restless House member, frequently on the lookout for something a little bigger and better. In 1987 he ran for governor in Louisiana but finished third with a lackluster performance. His candidacy suffered a mortal wound in a statewide TV debate, when he suddenly lost his train of thought and had to mumble an embarrassed "I pass."
By the time of the November 1994 elections that brought the Republican takeover, Livingston was ready for a change. Although he did not share all the grandiose goals of the radical freshmen who swept into office, he agreed with their call for shrinking government and slashing spending. Gingrich passed over several more moderate senior Republicans on the Appropriations Committee to pick Livingston as the new chairman.
While House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) was responsible for laying out a broad five-year plan to balance the budget, it was Livingston who was charged with writing the GOP spending cuts into 13 highly detailed bills that had to be passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. The job required a delicate political touch: striking a balance among lobbyists with programs and interests to protect, the Republican leadership, fired-up freshmen conservatives and the White House.
To Livingston's undisguised chagrin, many of the bills became vehicles for controversial antiabortion and environmental legislation pushed by GOP conservatives. The cuts and controversial provisions ran into major opposition in the Senate and ultimately triggered a series of government shutdowns when President Clinton refused to sign a number of the bills.
Livingston publicly supported the GOP agenda and, in a Christmas Eve, Churchillian oration on the House floor in the midst of the crisis, promised to "nevah, nevah, nevah surrendah" to White House pressure. Livingston had meant it as a joke, but many who watched him on television -- even his mother, he says -- were appalled by the seemingly bizarre behavior.
The delays in passing the bills also provoked several displays of Livingston's storied temper. During a heated exchange in committee chambers with Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.), voices were raised so loudly that Capitol Police officers stopped by to see if their assistance was needed. While the temper is genuine, some colleagues say Livingston is not above using it as a negotiating ploy.
Livingston played an important role in last year's budget talks that led to an agreement with the White House on a balanced budget and tax-cut plan. But this year he was excluded from last-minute negotiations among Gingrich, Lott and White House officials over a $500 billion year-end spending bill that included major concessions to the White House.
It was a combination of conservative bitterness over Gingrich's handling of the spending bill and the GOP's poor showing at the polls that led to Gingrich's undoing.
Although Livingston vowed he would never directly challenge his good friend Gingrich for speaker, he did just that three days after the Nov. 3 elections, arguing -- after a long night of soul-searching -- that a change in leadership was essential if the Republicans were to retain control of the House in 2000. Within hours Gingrich stepped aside.
"Newt is a very unusual person . . . who took us from nowhere and made us the dominant party," Livingston said. "But we didn't do as well as we expected [in the elections] -- and that's what this change is all about."
Staff writers Dan Morgan and Charles R. Babcock and researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
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