By Guy Gugliotta
"I have probably attended maybe 20 meetings in his office," said committee member Rick Boucher (D-Va.). "He helped motivate the discussions simply by having us there and suggesting an agenda."
Three months later, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) today will lead the House's Democrats during one of the most important votes they will ever cast in their careers: to open an inquiry of impeachment against a popular president from their own party.
Gephardt will close the debate for the minority, presenting a time-limited, narrow-scope proposal drafted by Boucher and other Judiciary members as a Democratic alternative to the open-ended Republican resolution of inquiry.
The Democrats will lose, the Republicans will win, and many will measure Gephardt's performance by his ability to keep defections to a minimum, thus fulfilling the Clinton administration's hope that the inquiry will be seen as a partisan witch hunt ordered up by the GOP.
But making the White House feel good, House Democrats say, is not what the vote is about. "Gephardt has done exactly what he said he would do," said one knowledgeable Democratic source. "He's given the Democrats an option so they can stand together, but he understands that members will make the vote they have to make, and in the end, giving the members comfort is more important."
Gephardt acknowledged as much. "My first and prime responsibility is to the caucus," he said in an interview. "I want to get members elected and win more seats. That's what they want to do, and that's what they want me to do."
Still, as the inquiry becomes a reality, Gephardt finds himself cast in an unlikely role as Clinton's best hope. This, for a man who opposed the president on the balanced budget, "fast-track" trade authority and welfare reform, and who was once "triangulated" out of the policy loop when the White House decided his Democrats were too radical.
Gephardt insisted, however, that "our relationship has never been bad," although he added: "Obviously, I wouldn't lead you astray. I am not his best friend, I'm not his golf partner, and I'm not his social guest, but my sense is we have always had a respect for one another."
And as the election campaign reaches its climax, Gephardt and Clinton have found themselves sharing fund-raisers and plane rides more frequently than usual. "We have been meeting and talking together," Gephardt said. "I've been very open with him. I've described for him on a number of occasions what we are doing -- so he understands."
But does not interfere. "The House has a role to play here, and we'll see where we come out," Gephardt said. When the House decides whether to vote articles of impeachment, "we'll make the decision." In this process, Gephardt makes clear, Clinton is a bystander.
In Congress, where what you see is very often not what you get, Gephardt, now 57, may be the archetype. In public he can be a bland-faced, inscrutable, frequent slinger of platitudes, who, while he almost never makes a rhetorical mistake, also seldom manages to impress. He failed to excite the electorate during a failed presidential campaign in 1988, and he may run again in 2000 with support from organized labor and party liberals.
The private Gephardt, however, is different. "His style is very hands-on," Boucher said. "He listens very carefully to what members have to say. Only after learning the members' positions does he begin to develop his own." Visiting Gephardt's office is a regular part of being a member, Boucher said.
"I tried to build a democratic leadership style -- bottom up and not top down," Gephardt explained. "To lead, you have to develop a consensus, and its impossible to do it any other way."
Boucher said Gephardt first invited the Judiciary Democrats to discuss the Clinton scandals in mid-summer. "The meetings were designed so that all the members could get acquainted with one another over pizza and Diet Cokes," Boucher said. "There wasn't a great deal of information exchanged, but we were talking about the fact that we would need to work together."
At the same time, Gephardt was hearing from other members, inviting small groups in for a chat. He prefers to draw members from different parts of the caucus -- conservative Blue Dogs, Eastern liberals, suburban new Democrats -- so that they can hear what each other is thinking.
At first, the issue was how to deal with the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Only after the report arrived did conversations turn to the impeachment inquiry, and Gephardt said it soon became apparent that "we probably needed an alternative" to what members perceived as the GOP's desire to "hold endless hearings in an effort to weaken Democrats in the House and the Democratic Party." And as talks continued further, members told him repeatedly that their constituents wanted to end the inquiry as soon as possible.
Boucher and four other committee members crafted an alternative that incorporated all of the key ideas that had emerged in the Gephardt conversations, and for the last two days members have vetted the alternative at caucus meetings and during conversations with the drafting team members -- acting, at Gephardt's behest, as "an ad hoc part of the whip organization," Boucher said.
The final alternative, taken to Gephardt's office in mid-afternoon yesterday, keeps the same narrow scope as the original, but stretches out the time limit -- reflecting members' concerns from the last round of conversations. "He was able to take a group of members with widely divergent views and strong opinions and create a consensus," Boucher said. "That's an art."
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