DES MOINES -- Loreen Gephardt just can't understand why people are so interested in hearing bad things about her boy Dick, the former Eagle Scout now running for president.
"That's the main question they ask me, 'Did he ever do anything bad?' And I say, 'I can't think of anything,' and they say, 'Well, you've just forgotten.' And I say I was blessed . . . One reporter asked, 'Well, doesn't this concern you?' I said, 'I'm telling you, he was a good boy.' "
Dick's older brother Don, sitting across the living room in his mother's temporary apartment here, comes to her rescue:
"I guess what people are asking is -- 'Is he real? Does he get angry?' Well, sure. He did have quite the temper when he was little. Would stand in the corner and stamp his feet."
"Oh sure, when he was 2 or 3," Loreen Gephardt concedes. "And now sometimes, he does show a little anger with the family. I mean he has to vent his anger sometimes and we understand . . .
"But this is a good boy. All his life he has tried to help people, tried to make their load a little lighter. He did it as a youngster, and when he was in Congress, and he'll do it in the White House. And I must tell you, that's why Dick Gephardt is my candidate for president."
Loreen Gephardt is 79 and has her own campaign scheduler. She says she prefers working with the elderly, but canvassing door to door has brought good results, too. No newcomer to the world of politics, she has worked on the front lines of all Richard A. Gephardt's campaigns, from alderman to Missouri congressman to presidential candidate.
"I usually look 'em in the eye and hold their hand with both my hands," she says, as if confiding the secret of her success. "I seem to get some converts."
She is lean and elegant looking, with snow-white hair and pale blue eyes. On each lapel of her white wool blazer, she sports a Gephardt button. No, she wasn't a bit depressed, she says, when her son's Iowa campaign seemed to have collapsed before Christmas. And now that he's back in the saddle, leading the seven Democratic candidates in statewide polls for Monday's caucuses, she says simply, "People are just beginning to see Dick's worth."
Through it all she's kept her eye on the ball, which is to say, she makes sure her Dick eats properly and gets enough rest. In fact, she still does his laundry.
"Well, he leaves it on a pile here when he's in Des Moines -- what else can I do?" she asks. And early on, when she thought his scheduler was running him ragged, she wrote the campaign a strongly worded letter.
"I told them that if they kept this up, they weren't going to have a candidate, and I asked them to post the letter so that they all would know how I felt," she says. "I think they ignored it."
Dick Gephardt himself, in a telephone interview from the road, says, "It was getting to the point where every time she saw me, she would tell me how sick and tired I was looking. I finally said to her, 'You know, you're not doing me any good by telling me how hard I'm working and how terrible I look. Why don't you stop complaining and get out there and help me?' "
That was all the invitation she needed.
Last July, Loreen Gephardt packed her bags in St. Louis and took a downtown apartment here, joining the ranks of moms who, throughout political history, have pushed for their boys. Mary MacArthur took a room near West Point while Douglas was at the military academy, as did Sara Roosevelt in Cambridge when Franklin went to Harvard. And Lillian Carter not only campaigned for Jimmy, but became a highly visible advocate for his issues after the election.
The 1988 campaign has been no different. Euterpe Dukakis, 84, Pauline Gore, 75, and Ruth Simon, 80, have all been doing their share of speaking and note writing.
But Mother Gephardt seems to be leading the '88 maternal crusade. (Gephardt's father died a few years ago.) Of all the candidates, Dick Gephardt has worked Iowa the hardest and longest, and is believed to have the most to lose here. He has campaigned across the state no fewer than 100 days in the past two years. His mother has been here even longer.
In any given week, she makes from 15 to 25 campaign appearances, writes at least 20 letters begging or thanking for support, knocks on doors in Des Moines and, in her free time, makes telephone calls.
"Mostly I call the undecideds and ask them if they have made their choice yet," she explains. "If they say no, well, I go into my reasons why it should be Dick."
This week, she attended an eleventh-hour precinct meeting for Gephardt supporters in a Des Moines bar. Upon hearing about a new convert on the premises, she rushed right over, gushing, "Thank you so much for coming our way. I promise you will not be disappointed about your decision."
And last Sunday, it was Loreen who introduced her son to the crowd gathered at his 47th-birthday party.
"On January 31, 1941, in St. Louis, Missouri, at St. Luke's Hospital at 5:12 in the afternoon, a very special boy was born to Loreen and Louis Gephardt," she began. "And we named him Richard Andrew. And when they laid him in my arms for the first time, I thanked God for a mother's most precious gift.
"I was a very proud mom and I have been proud every year of his 47 years. And now, on his 47th birthday, I take great pride in introducing my son Richard Andrew, the next president of the United States."
There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Sometimes, she says, it is hard to believe that this is really happening. "It makes me sentimental," she says.
Relaxing between campaign stops earlier this week, she reflected on the past. "I can look back on his life and see how the opportunities he has had, and taken advantage of, have paved the way to this . . . I really can. He was something special.
"I just keep thinking of that little redhead in his baseball cap, doing all of this and moving all these people."
Loreen and Louis Gephardt started their family a half century ago in St. Louis. They met when Louis, an insurance salesman, was a boarder at Loreen's family home. Don, 50, their first son, is a dean at Nassau Community College in New York. Three and a half years later, Richard arrived.
Friends and family describe Loreen as a strong-willed woman who got her family through some miserable years during the Depression.
When her husband lost his sales job, it was Loreen who urged him to take a job driving a milk truck. "That was the only job available," she says. "It wasn't what he wanted to do -- but he needed to earn a living."
When her boys were about 10 and 13, Loreen decided it was time to go back to work as a secretary. "I had gotten a call from the school principal who asked me to come down and see him," she says. "What he told me was that these boys were college material, and from that day on it became my goal that they would have that chance . . . I went back to work."
Gephardt's wife Jane says it was Dick's mom who instilled in him the drive and ambition. "She was the one who would say, 'You can do anything you want to do, be anything you want to be,' " says Jane. "And Dick believed it."
For a while, young Dick wanted to be a Baptist minister, which was fine with Mom. But soon his interest switched to politics and he went on to the University of Michigan's law school.
"It didn't surprise me at all," she says today. "Even as young boy, he was interested in local politics and foreign affairs. He read the newspaper every morning."
Dick Gephardt became a partner in a St. Louis firm within five years, and soon began attending ward meetings. In 1971 he ran his first race for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, and won.
Loreen Gephardt says her son's first moment of political reckoning came a few years later. "He had wanted to run for Congress, but no one wanted to challenge the incumbent -- she had served for 25 years," says Loreen. "So he thought he would run for mayor, and, of course, asked us all to pray that he might make the right decision.
"Well, the morning he was to tell his law firm that he would be leaving to run for mayor, I went out to get the paper, and there in big, black letters was the headline 'Leonore Sullivan to Retire.' I ran to the phone and called Dick and he said, 'Mother, did you ever hear such a clear answer to our prayers?' "
That campaign for Missouri's 3rd District (comprising south St. Louis, and St. Louis and Jefferson counties) was Loreen Gephardt's first taste of state politics and she took her responsibilities seriously.
"We knocked on tens of thousands of doors, and she was with us," recalls Jane Gephardt. "I remember she'd always be lagging behind on someone's porch. We would be on to the next house and she'd still be back there clutching on to someone's hand, saying how she wasn't going to leave until they committed to Dick."
Things haven't changed. The Gephardt staff says Loreen approaches her current assignment in the same driven way a college graduate approaches his first job.
"I was always interested in knowing more about a candidate's family myself," she says. "I thought it would tell me something . . . I can do that for Dick, show how he has grown over the years."
She says the criticisms of him roll off her back, but son Don disagrees. "She takes it all quite personally," Don says. "We have to tell her it's just a campaign."
Loreen isn't sure where she'll be heading next Tuesday -- the day after the caucuses, when the campaigns move on to New Hampshire.
Says Dick: "She may never leave Des Moines. There are several gentlemen who have taken a fancy to her. One man asked us if he could please take her to church."
"Oh, well, no one has approached me," she says with a laugh when told of Dick's remarks. "I think I'll first go back to St. Louis and settle in a bit. Then I'll go where they send me. I hope it's somewhere warm."