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Speaker-Designate's Tenure Has Potential for Surprise

Politics: Seeking calm, GOP turned to Bob Livingston. But his record indicates unpredictability.

November 18, 1998|RICHARD T. COOPER | This story was reported by Times staff writers Richard T. Cooper, Lisa Getter, Janet Hook, Alan C. Miller, Jack Nelson and Art Pine. It was written by Cooper

WASHINGTON — Twice during his congressional career he has almost come to blows with political opponents. Another time, he was admonished for appearing on the House floor wearing a bulbous red nose and clown makeup to demonstrate his scorn for what he considered a foolish bill. And if you cross Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, he might make you pay, as even his own GOP colleagues have discovered.

Livingston, 55, is the man his fellow Republicans are set to select today as speaker of the House, making him third in line of presidential succession. And it appears that in turning to him in hopes of a little peace and quiet, the GOP may be in for some surprises.

The Republicans, blaming their electoral setbacks this month on outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich, say they are ready for a more pragmatic, lower-profile manager who will avoid confrontational tactics. Livingston, the new GOP consensus holds, is the kind of practical compromiser the times demand.

"He's the right speaker for this Congress," says Ed Gillespie, a political strategist and former aide to House Republican leaders. "What the members want is a traditional speaker . . . someone who gets them in and out on a regular basis."

Yet the record of Livingston's life, including more than 20 years in Congress, suggests he may be a more unpredictable and potentially turbulent character than such sentiments imply. In dozens of interviews with friends, colleagues, family members and political operatives here and in Louisiana, Livingston emerges as a strong-willed, mercurial figure who is anything but bland.

For one thing, while he shuns ideological cloud-spinning and is normally courteous and unpretentious, he struggles with a scalding temper and an impulse for over-the-top behavior that have caused him problems.

One can write off as youthful high jinks his teenage brush with the law, when he and a high school buddy went on a spree stealing golf-course flags. The same for his hard-drinking fraternity days at Tulane University in New Orleans, which were marked by frequent scrapes with school officials and an episode in which Livingston covered his gangly, 6-foot-4-inch frame with silver paint.

"Just like 'Animal House,' " recalls John Bolles, a New Orleans lawyer and friend from those days. "The fraternity against the school. The school against the fraternity. Us against the world. Anything for a laugh."

But while Livingston, the product of a broken home and the father of three sons and a daughter, has clearly mellowed, the core of his temperament appears unchanged.

Viewers Took 'Parody' Seriously

One of his best-remembered outbursts occurred during the 1995 government shutdown, when Livingston took to the podium and delivered a ranting, arm-waving speech. Livingston insists he was offering a parody of his fellow conservatives' unbending determination not to compromise with President Clinton. But his address was broadcast around the country, and most viewers took it seriously.

"You looked like a raving lunatic," he later confessed his own mother told him.

Livingston insists that as speaker, he will try even harder to smooth his rough edges.

But perhaps equally important, he seems to have a vision of Congress that harkens back to the days when powerful leaders cut deals on behalf of powerful interests and punished colleagues who did not go along.

It's a system that might transform the often-stalemated present-day Congress. But the "traditional speaker" was more than a congenial traffic manager who helped members get "in and out on time."

Such leaders played an insider's game that is the antithesis of what most recently elected House Republicans have stood for. How far Livingston will go in trying to return to such a system, how the fractious GOP House delegation might react and what controversies it could spark in today's scandal-hungry Capitol all remain to be seen.

His own legislative maneuvers vividly illustrate how he operates--and what pitfalls may await him.

Livingston, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee since 1995, has long supported--and has been richly supported by--the oil and gas industry, major defense contractors and local industries in his New Orleans-area district. He has steered federal installations and multimillion-dollar contracts to the city, and fattened the defense budget beyond even the Pentagon's requests.

This spring, as he helped guide an emergency bill through a House-Senate conference to assist tornado victims and support U.S. troops in the Middle East, the measure suddenly sprouted language protecting oil companies from paying higher royalties for petroleum pumped from federal land. The bill also gained a provision thwarting Clinton administration efforts to change national policy on organ transplants. The latter was inserted at the behest of Louisiana State University officials, who feared a national approach to using available organs might hurt local transplant programs.

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