Gephardt Connects, Rhetorically and Politically
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 1998; Page A17
The Democratic president was about to be impeached. The Republican speaker-designate had suddenly resigned because of past marital infidelities. The House was adrift, and the crisis Saturday demanded someone to explain its anguish in terms that all members could understand.
After junking his prepared speech and hastily writing another, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) stepped to the microphone and spoke directly to what he called "the politics of personal destruction."
He decried speaker-designate Bob Livingston's (R-La.) decision to resign and prayed that this "worthy and good and honorable man" would reconsider. He called on colleagues to "end this downward spiral" and closed with a prayer:
"May God have mercy on this Congress," Gephardt said, "and may Congress have the wisdom and the courage and the goodness to save itself today."
For Gephardt, the speech was an eloquent capstone to a year in which he navigated beleaguered House Democrats through the thickets of the White House sex scandal to surprising gains in midterm elections and a carefully built party consensus that survived even the divisive impeachment debate.
It was also a moment when he grew in stature from a fresh-faced but bland politician with perennial presidential ambitions to become, at least for a day, an authentic national figure suddenly able to articulate the country's deepest agonies.
"This weekend about a dozen people came up to me, both Democrats and Republicans, and told me how impressed they were with his statement on the floor," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.). "There is a unanimous view that he achieved a real level of statesmanship."
What all this means for Gephardt personally remains to be seen; he is still weighing whether to stay in the House – and perhaps become speaker – or whether to mount another bid for the White House. His relations with Clinton, frequently rocky, have never been better.
But for his colleagues, his actions through the year and his words Saturday brought his party – and perhaps the entire House – together for a moment when they appeared to be drowning.
"He went from being respected to being respected and loved by the Democratic caucus," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) "He said eloquently the words that were in every member's heart, and that's why so many Republicans applauded him."
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said the speech was a watershed for Gephardt. "He's highly intelligent. He's a shrewd tactician. He's good at touching all the bases," he said. "Where I think he's been inadequate is in connecting emotionally either with his troops or with the American people generally. He rose above that Saturday."
Gephardt, 57, took over the House Democrats in 1995, after they had been driven out of the majority for the first time in 40 years. Since then he has brought them within six seats of retaking control, using a combination of patient consensus building and an uncanny ability to find opponents' weaknesses early and exploit them mercilessly.
"When I first came here [before Gephardt] we never had caucus meetings, and we lost the House," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "Now we have weekly caucus meetings and issue task forces that cross factional and ideological lines. If you have a strong view, he puts you on the task force."
Markey, who frequently confers with Gephardt as a member of the Democrats' Steering and Policy Committee, said Gephardt "had a clear vision" as early as August that there was little likelihood that the Republican leadership would compromise on the president's transgressions.
"He asked the Democratic Caucus to stand up and fight, and if we did that, the public would rally behind us," Markey said. "Throughout the whole process, Dick has kept pressing the Republicans relentlessly for procedural and substantive fairness. He was convinced from the beginning they would be unfair."
This was the theme the Democrats carried into the impeachment debate. There were few if any caucus members who condoned the president's actions, Markey said, but the caucus for several weeks had begun to come together around censure as an alternative to impeachment.
Gephardt told the caucus last Wednesday night that while Democrats should emphasize the Republicans' refusal to countenance censure, they should also understand that the debate "was going to turn on the idea of whether the Republicans were being fair," Markey said.
"If we won that debate, the public would not urge the president to resign, but would tell the Republicans to stop," Markey said, recalling Gephardt's words. "He said it was critical for the country, for the Constitution and for the president that we win."
This was Gephardt the tactician, developing a few easy-to-understand ideas driven home so hard and so often that eventually they become part of the conventional wisdom. His troops followed the script, hour after hour during two days of debate.
After Livingston's resignation early Saturday, however, one of Gephardt's aides came through the press gallery announcing that "Gephardt's going to the floor in five minutes." But it would be nearly two hours later – and a half-hour after Democratic floor manager John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) introduced him – that Gephardt delivered his remarks.
Leadership sources said Gephardt was in his office completely rewriting his speech to reflect – as no one else had done – the savage impact that Livingston's resignation had had on the entire House.
"He looks, sounds and acts so much like the prototypical modern politician – a combination news anchor and game show host – that he really caught me by surprise," said Sabato. "It was very moving, and he clearly believed what he was saying. He had his heart in that speech, and it showed."
© Copyright The Washington Post Company