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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Mark Shields: Mr. Gephardt will be missed


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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- Departing House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, would have appreciated the philosophy of Abe Lemons, the wise basketball coach whose recent passing has left this planet a lot less joyful place.

Lemons once contrasted the unforgiving standards of wins and losses by which those in his chosen field -- like political candidates -- are measured with, for instance, those of medicine men: "You know what they call the fellow who finishes last in his medical school graduating class? They call him 'Doctor.'"

Dick Gephardt was elected House Democratic leader immediately after the Republicans' historic 1994 victory, which left his party with 52 fewer House seats and, for the first time in 40 years, in the minority there.

Like no Democratic congressional leader before him, Gephardt spent the next eight years tirelessly traveling the country to recruit candidates and raise millions in campaign funds to win back a Democratic House majority. In the elections of 1996,1998 and 2000, the Gephardt-led Democrats won House seats back from the GOP.

Two years ago, a switch of fewer than 2,500 votes in just five districts would have restored the Democratic majority. But Gephardt learned early that close only counts in horseshoes, dancing and hand grenades.

Today, after the Democrats' 2002 defeat, critics rush to brand Dick Gephardt a failed political leader. That charge is both unfair and inaccurate. To understand the remarkable job Gephardt has done as party leader, you must first grasp that in the House there is no one Democratic Party.

At a minimum, there are six House Democratic parties: the black caucus; the Hispanic caucus; the moderate to conservative Blue Dogs; the business-friendly New Democrats; the pro-labor Progressive caucus; and the feminist Democrats. (No Republican congressional leader has to budget time to meet with his party's black, Hispanic or feminist caucuses, because they do not exist.)

With super-human patience and unfailing fairness, Leader Gephardt made time to meet with and listen to all his House Democratic colleagues. For eight years, he defined inclusiveness. His personal efforts kept people from leaving his minority party. On his watch -- even after all those years in the political wilderness -- remarkably there was no revolt in his ranks, no attempted coup.

In recent months, he unfailingly devoted a minimum of 20 hours a week to making personal phone calls to raise money, a singularly unappealing task, for House candidates. Yet nobody in or out of Congress has fought harder or more effectively to make the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill into law. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., began as no fan of the St. Louis Democrat, but he concluded, "Dick Gephardt truly believes that (the end of soft money) is best for the country."

"He was" throughout, according to McCain, " absolutely steadfast." Reform leader Fred Wertheimer, frequently skeptical about Gephardt's total commitment to reform, added his praise: "He (Gephardt) provided extraordinary leadership for the country. He stood up to organized labor, to the Democratic Party's major constituencies and to its major contributors."

Successful politicians -- who, by definition, include those elected to Congress -- are not by nature followers. Instead, as successes in an ego-driven and fiercely competitive business, they understandably see themselves as leaders. Because of his own loyalty to his membership, the Missourian inspired loyalty from most of his Democratic members. He really was a uniter, not a divider. Gephardt has truly been in the wise words of senior Ways and Means Democrat Robert Matsui of California "the glue who holds us all together."

Gephardt remains infected with the presidential virus, the only known cure for which, according to Morris K. "Mo" Udall, is embalming fluid. In 1988, after he won the Iowa caucuses, Gephardt ran out of money and votes in New Hampshire and beyond. A year after the 1988 election, the manager of George H.W. Bush's winning campaign, the late Lee Atwater, admitted that Gephardt had been the Democratic opponent he feared most:

"You couldn't nail him as a Frost-Belt liberal. ... Gephardt showed signs of being able to articulate a populist theme," which made the savvy Atwater nervous. By passing on a 1992 run, Gephardt may have missed his best chance for the White House.

Let's be blunt: Dick Gephardt is no plaster saint. You don't win 14 terms in the House, run for president and remain unchallenged leader of your party for 13 years by being unambitious or without guile. But any minimum level of fairness demands that we give Gephardt credit for being the exceptional and valuable congressional leader he has been.


Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.


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