The Lamest Duck

In his final term, Dick Gephardt goes AWOL

If ever there were a congressman who embodied hip-pop impresario Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' goofily infectious election-year mantra, "Vote or Die," it's Dick Gephardt.

First elected in 1976, the St. Louis Democrat could always be counted on for one thing: showing up to vote on issues large and small. "He's been in the 90s or higher for almost all of his career," says Congressional Quarterly national editor John Cranford, a former Kirkwood resident, of Gephardt's once-sterling attendance record on the House floor.

Gephardt, who turns 64 next month, showed up more than 90 percent of the time to vote in all but 7 of his 28 years in Congress. Of those seven years, Gephardt posted near-miss marks of 88 percent in 1996 and 87 percent in 1997. In 1986, when he began to explore his first run for the presidency, his attendance record dipped to 70 percent. In 1987, as he canvassed the nation in pursuit of his party's nomination, Gephardt posted an 18 percent attendance score -- feeble, but pretty close to the norm for serious national candidates.

In 1988, his campaign coffers bankrupted by Super Tuesday, Gephardt dutifully returned to his role as Third District representative, making 80 percent of votes before upping his average to a robust 96 percent in 1989, the year he became House majority leader.

Shortly after coasting to re-election in the fall of 2002, Gephardt set his sights on one last shot at the presidency. After a spate of obligatory appearances in early primary states like New Hampshire, Gephardt quickly shifted to an Iowa-or-bust strategy, tethering his wingtips so firmly to Hawkeye State soil that he only managed to make it to the House 9 percent of the time in 2003.

Included in the 91 percent of votes the congressman missed in 2003 was a controversial Republican overhaul of the Head Start program, which ended up passing by one vote after wheelchair-bound Oklahoma Republican John Sullivan cast the decisive "aye." Gephardt chose instead to press the flesh in South Carolina.

Gephardt's loyal lieutenants maintain that GOP Majority Whip Tom DeLay would have rustled up the support of an extra Republican fence-sitter or two even if Gephardt had been present, an opinion supported by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But from that point forward, Gephardt's presidential quest sputtered, resulting in a tearful farewell after a crushing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucus last January.

If history were any indicator, one would have expected the son of a milk-truck driver to vote and vote often, pouring every last ounce of his blue- collar work ethic into a long and distinguished career as a public servant.

Instead, Gephardt laid his legacy at the feet of the Kerry campaign in hopes of being tapped as vice president or a cabinet secretary. He worked tirelessly, stumping for his erstwhile rival in battleground states. The result: a 41 percent voting record in 2004 (through November 20, according to Congressional Quarterly). This is, by far, the lowest mark in Gephardt's caucus.

More damning yet is the fact that, among all of Congress' 435 members, Gephardt posted the third-worst attendance record; he had only a slightly better showing than retiring Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin and Speaker Dennis Hastert, whom parliamentary procedure exempts from traditional roll-call voting chores.

"I think the biggest casualty of the Kerry defeat is Gephardt's career," says Timothy Lomperis, chair emeritus of Saint Louis University's political science department. "In the end, Gephardt sort of screwed himself doubly. He practiced bare-knuckled politics in Iowa, and then he checked out of the House, banking on a Kerry win."

In spite of such un-Gephardt-like truancy, his staff and supporters -- who are throwing the congressman a ritzy ($1,000 a head, with proceeds going to three of Gephardt's favorite charities), star-studded (smart money's on a surprise serenade from longtime backer Michael Bolton) send-off soiree December 9 at America's Center -- insist the Gepper was there when it counted.

"The House vote totals are sometimes misleading," says Gephardt's chief of staff, Kevin Gunn. "A lot of those votes missed were on rules and procedures where the Republican majority was big enough that they weren't close votes, with little or no consequence to actual legislation. When major pieces of legislation were being voted on, the congressman was there."

"Even though he's missing votes, he's still working for the district," says Eleventh Ward Alderman Matt Villa, whose south St. Louis ward falls within Third District boundaries. "It's not like they've just packed up and abandoned us."

University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor Dave Robertson offers a more nuanced theory.

"I wouldn't use the term 'phone it in,'" says Robertson. "He wanted to step back and give Nancy Pelosi the visibility she deserved. He was committed to spending some time with his family after increasingly bruising political battles, and he came down to the final two candidates for vice president. Even though his election bid ended in Iowa, he continued to work for the ticket, raising money in Ohio and other places. And he was helping out here in the state for [Democratic gubernatorial candidate Claire] McCaskill."

Gephardt, however, did little beyond the customary formal endorsement of his heir apparent, the newly elected Russ Carnahan. Two sources, who asked not to be identified in this story, chalked this up to frayed relations between the Carnahan dynasty and longtime Gephardt adviser Joyce Aboussie, an assertion that chief of staff Gunn flatly denies (Aboussie did not return calls seeking comment, nor did Carnahan, who is in Boston attending a Harvard workshop for freshman legislators).

Then there's the question as to why Gephardt even sought a final term at all -- what with his desire to seek the party's presidential nomination, which may have been the worst-kept secret in Washington.

"He had to have a venue to speak from, and that was his seat in the House," says First District Congressman William "Lacy" Clay, who voted 86 percent of the time in 2004 despite having to stave off a re-election challenge from Republican upstart Leslie Farr. "The day you're gone, people want to talk to your replacement and not you. That's one of the realities of public life. So [Gephardt] needed to have a springboard, and that was to have a public office."

The way SLU's Lomperis sees it, Gephardt belly-flopped in his last dive for the gold.

"Mistakenly, I think, he was devoting his own personal efforts to gaining a position in a Kerry White House," offers Lomperis. "I think he thought he could be Secretary of Labor. Gephardt might have gotten the nod as VP, but he really blew it in Iowa. He went after Kerry in ways that were too vicious. Some of the most damaging quotes came from Gephardt. He went after Kerry for flip-flopping on the war.

"In many ways, Gephardt would have been a much better choice as VP than Edwards," Lomperis continues. "Edwards really did nothing for the ticket. There was no way the South was going to go for a Massachusetts Yankee. But Gephardt could have helped deliver the Midwest. The one contender who could have helped Kerry was Gephardt, but Gephardt alienated Kerry in Iowa.

"It's a very distinguished career that ended in a series of missteps," Lomperis concludes, "and history is not kind to people whose last steps are stumbles."

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