-- Toward the end of his announcement here last week that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Rep. Dick Gephardt acknowledged the obvious. "I'm not," he said, "the flashiest candidate around."
Gephardt's rivals genuinely like him and admire his years of toil in the political mines -- more than a quarter-century in the House and eight frustrating years as minority leader. But they call him "yesterday's man" and say his time has passed.
It has been 16 years since Gephardt's first run for the nomination. And while he is youthful-looking and energetic at 62, it is virtually unprecedented for anyone to attempt a presidential comeback after that length of time. Richard Nixon had only eight years between his losing race against John Kennedy and his victory over Hubert Humphrey.
The Gephardt strategy for overcoming these odds was summed up in the next two sentences of his speech. After confessing to his lack of pizzazz, he said, "But the fight for working families is in my bones. It's where I come from; it's been my life's work."
Gephardt strategist Bill Carrick says that focus groups in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- three of the first states to pick delegates -- found that Democrats "are looking for someone who can challenge Bush, not just on the issues but in a pretty dramatic personal contrast. They want someone who understands their life because he has lived it -- not another rich guy."
Thus, for Gephardt, autobiography becomes the entry point to issues. That is why he chose to announce his candidacy at his old elementary school, down the street from the modest home where he was raised. And that is why virtually every member of his family has a role in parables framing his agenda.
His late father, a milk truck driver and a Teamster, taught young Dick that a union is the best friend a worker can have. The son counts on labor to help nominate him. His mother, now 95, was a secretary who "changed jobs so many times" that her only pension after a lifetime of work was "$42 a month, not even enough to pay utility bills." Daughter Kate decided to be a teacher, ignoring the taunts of classmates about the low pay, but wound up with such a pitiful salary she is living with her parents. Son Matt was diagnosed with cancer as a 2-year-old and survived, "but I'll never forget the nights we spent at Matt's bedside, talking to the parents of another patient . . . a family that couldn't afford health insurance."
As yet, there is no instructive tale concerning wife Jane -- but the campaign is just beginning.
For everyone else, Gephardt has a "bold, innovative program." A universal pension fund, to which all workers and employers would contribute, making pensions portable with every change of jobs. An ROTC-style Teacher Corps, paying college costs for those who agree to work in classrooms. And the big one: guaranteed health insurance for every worker, financed by tax credits to employers and paid for by rescinding the Bush tax cuts.
These are big ideas, but in many cases they are also big changes from Gephardt's past positions -- suggesting that years of work as a legislator have made him a supreme pragmatist, rather than a visionary with strong policy convictions.
On trade, where he once urged retaliatory tariffs against nations blocking entry of American products, he now talks about an unlikely international agreement to set a worldwide minimum wage, "different for each country," whatever that may mean.
On health care, he now says the Clinton plan he tried to push through the House in 1994 was "a big-government contraption, tangled in its own complexity."
On taxes, he meets himself coming and going. A year ago, Gephardt argued vehemently against Democrats' challenging the 2001 Bush tax cuts, calling it "an exercise in futility." Now, repeal of those cuts is something he would do "my first week as president." In 1986 he was the proud co-sponsor (with Bill Bradley) of a tax reform that lowered rates while closing many special-purpose credits and exclusions. Now he would raise rates sharply while proposing huge tax credits for health insurance, alternative energy programs and other goals.
Consistency may not count for much with the voters. The real question for Gephardt is whether his family anecdotes are compelling enough and his policy ideas so captivating as to make him seem a fresh candidate. That's a tough challenge.