WASHINGTON — When Richard A. Gephardt was student body president at Northwestern University in 1962, student leaders spent weeks debating whether to boycott a local barbershop that charged blacks higher prices than whites. It finally came down to a vote, with Gephardt breaking an 11-11 tie to endorse the boycott.
But as soon as students began picketing, Gephardt organized behind-the-scenes negotiations that led within a month to an agreement with the barber to end the discrimination. It was a move that was to prove prophetic for his future political career.
"I have always believed," Gephardt said in an interview last year, "that what I try to do is to change the status quo where I think it needs changing--but from inside the system."
Now Gephardt, who made a strong bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 on a populist, anti-Establishment platform, will have a golden opportunity to demonstrate his conciliatory abilities as the new House majority leader.
"Dick Gephardt is the ultimate consensus-oriented guy," says Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento). "He has strong beliefs, but he will work within the Democratic Party to build an agenda for all of us."
After only 12 years in Congress, Gephardt, 48, is suddenly the No. 2 Democrat in the House under new Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). And with his Eagle Scout background and squeaky clean image, the Missouri Democrat was an overwhelmingly popular choice to help lead his party out of the firestorm of ethical controversy that brought down former Speaker Jim Wright and Rep. Tony Coehlo of Modesto.
"He has weathered the scrutiny and investigation of the presidential campaign, and comes to this with very excellent credentials in terms of honesty and integrity," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Makes Career Choice
To become majority leader, Gephardt is setting aside his presidential ambitions at least until 1996 and perhaps forever. Richard Moe, a Gephardt adviser during his campaign, believes that Gephardt is now destined to become the top Democrat in the House some day rather than a future Democratic standard bearer for President. "In making this decision," Moe said, "I think it's apparent that he's made a basic career choice."
Gephardt, who was 35 years old when he was first elected to the House, is the very model of today's television-age politician.
Sometimes derided for his perfectly blow-dried strawberry blond hair and for backing away from his original positions on abortion and tax reform when it seemed politically expedient, he reminded some observers during last year's presidential primary campaign of Robert Redford in "The Candidate," a movie that attacked modern political campaigning as a con game.
But Gephardt, his friends say, is no shallow front man for behind-the-scenes manipulators. He has not backed away, for instance, from his controversial support for tough--sometimes protectionist--trade measures against foreign countries. "It was his willingness to fly in the face of conventional, elite opinions that made him a major contender," said William Carrick, Gephardt's former campaign manager. "When things looked bleakest in Iowa, he simply decided to campaign on the gut issues he really believed in."
Gephardt is generally considered a middle-of-the-road Democrat in the House, but he plans to urge the party to define its positions more bluntly.
"It's easy to cook pablum. It's harder to cook Cajun stew," he told his Democratic colleagues Wednesday after being elected to the leadership post. "We have to have a consensus with an edge. . . . We must be willing to say where we stand in clear, unequivocal language."
Worked on Budget Law
But Gephardt's forte is expected to be as an institutional insider working to forge legislative compromises, as he did in particular during the 1985 battles to pass the Gramm-Rudman budget law.
"He can disagree and not be disagreeable," said Rep. Ike Skelton, a fellow Democrat from Missouri.
Republicans are worried that he may prove to be a particularly formidable opponent. "Gephardt is pretty well liked on the Republican side of the aisle, but he is certainly more of a hardball player than Tom Foley is," said Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.). "He tends to be a polarizer rather than a conciliator between the parties."
For Democrats, Gephardt's elevation marks an important changing of the guard in Washington. "He's the first of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate representatives to rise to such a high leadership post," said Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey). "It's a new generation that is much more independent and much more issue-oriented."
For all his up-to-date image, however, Gephardt was remarkably unaffected by the social upheavals of the 1960s. When some other Democratic candidates and several younger GOP lawmakers acknowledged using marijuana during the controversy over Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg, for example, Gephardt confessed to never having touched the stuff.
Married to the former Jane Byrnes, with three children, Gephardt himself even joked sometimes that his "Dick and Jane" life seemed to be something out of an old-fashioned elementary school reader.
But given the mood on Capitol Hill, Gephardt is likely to prove well-suited to an era when every step a politician takes will be examined closely. "A lot of politicians don't wear well," said Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.). "He wears better with every meeting."
Staff writers Robert Shogan and Larry Green contributed to this story.