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Critics, Backers Split : Gephardt: Flexibility or Flip-Flops?

January 10, 1988|LARRY GREEN | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — When there were just 48 states in the nation, when movies were mostly black and white and horses still pulled milk wagons, American dreams began in neighborhoods like Clifton Heights.

Here peak-roofed brick bungalows lined narrow Southwest St. Louis streets with the measured uniformity of soldiers standing at attention: each about the same size, the same distance from the curb, equally spaced one from the other.

Front porches were made of wood painted battleship gray. The porch at the Gephardt house on Reber Place had white wood trellises at each end where honeysuckle climbed in the summer and the Gephardt boys, Dick and Don, climbed in the autumn.

Father Was Milkman

A middle class shaped by the Great Depression and reshaped by World War II lived in these houses: lawyers, pharmacists, salesmen, teachers and shop owners. Louis Andrew Gephardt, the boys' dad, delivered milk--yes, from a wagon pulled by a horse.

American cities in the 1940s, dusty with the soot of coal-fired furnaces, were made of similar neighborhoods spawning dreams American.

Dick Gephardt learned to dream in Clifton Heights. Today a congressman, he personifies the ethic taught in schools and homes as a catechism of democracy in the 1940s and 1950s: Couple hard work with ambition and anything is possible.

This was the lesson their mother, Loreen, drilled into the Gephardt boys, Don Gephardt recalls. " 'The sky is the limit,' she said. 'It's up to you to do what you want to do and you can do it if you want to.' I believe it. Dick believes it."

Dick Gephardt reached for the sky with a stretch that would do his farmer ancestors proud. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for President.

In 23 fast years Gephardt traveled up the political hill--almost always hitching his star to an influential mentor--from campaign volunteer to fourth-ranking congressional Democratic leader to presidential contender. As recently as 1976 he was a member of the St. Louis City Council.

During his climb, Gephardt, married and the father of three, acquired a reputation for integrity, energy and a talent to forge difficult political compromises. His career has been free of scandal and controversy but not free of the baggage of success. Critics say he is opportunistic, an ideological chameleon, cold and calculating, stiff and aloof.

"He a man who is hard to characterize," says Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute congressional scholar. "That is a plus. He can be more open-minded, not a prisoner of positions. But he becomes vulnerable to charges of flip-flopping or political opportunism."

Gephardt has crisscrossed the ideological map during his 11 years in Congress, a flaw to critics, a sign of flexibility to supporters.

Conservative at first, a frequent supporter of Administration proposals during President Reagan's early years, Gephardt reflected the views of his blue-collar, Catholic and mostly white congressional district. His stands moderated as the need to appeal to a broader constituency in a presidential campaign became more apparent. His ratings among liberal groups have gone up in recent years. His standings among conservative organizations have dropped.

In 1984, about the time he began talking of running for President, he dropped his once strong support of a constitutional amendment banning abortion.

"The move was transparently political," says Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "Gephardt concluded . . . that his pro-life position was going to be an impediment with certain pro-abortion, liberal activists so he jettisoned it about the same time he began to run for President."

But Gephardt says he changed because efforts to win a constitutional amendment "weren't going anywhere. The legal fight was bearing no good answers." He says he is still opposed to both abortion and federal funding for abortion and has only withdrawn support for a constitutional amendment.

In preparation for his run for the presidency, he also withdrew support for a constitutional amendment to stop forced busing of schoolchildren. Once hawkish, he now opposes aid to the Contras. In a Democratic leadership meeting he once argued for supporting the MX missile. "The Democrats can't look weak on defense," a colleague recalls his saying. He no longer supports the missile.

"I don't know that Dick Gephardt has a cause, a single issue that drives him," says John B. Crosby, a former congressional aide. "He is pragmatic to the nth degree . . . to the point of modifying his feelings to adapt to changes in the economy and in society."

Always on guard, Gephardt sidestepped major movements altering America's social landscape in the early 1960s, the civil rights and anti-war movements.

"I felt it was best to try to work within the system," Gephardt says of a skill perfected in his years as a student, city and national leader. "Civil disobedience . . . is horribly destructive to our legal system," he once said.

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