Ballot Box

The Gaffes of Dick Gephardt

His most embarrassing quotes, in context.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate’s most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today’s subject is Dick Gephardt.

Quote: “When I am president, we’ll do executive orders to overcome any wrong thing the Supreme Court does tomorrow or any other day.”

Charge: Under the U.S. Constitution, the president is bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Democrats are “always warning that Republicans will suspend the Constitution,” columnist James Lileks observed. If Gephardt had “been in power in 2000,” Lileks asked, “would he have invalidated the decision that gave George W. Bush the win? That’s a precedent we don’t need, unless we want to be ruled by grim generals in mirrored sunglasses who grant themselves 10-year terms.”

Context: Gephardt was speaking at a June 22, 2003, forum sponsored by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. He was criticizing a recent Supreme Court ruling against the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program.

Defense: “Dick Gephardt knows the law,” said a Gephardt spokesperson. “The president cannot overturn a Supreme Court decision. That’s not what he said. He was simply expressing his commitment to diversity and his willingness to use the tools of his office to promote affirmative action programs to the fullest extent possible.”

Quote: “My dad was a milk truck driver, a proud member of the Teamsters. He always told me his union’s bargaining power made it possible for him to put food on our table” (presidential candidacy announcement, Feb. 19, 2003).

Charge: According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Gephardt’s account misses what other family members recall as a central part of [his father’s] personality: that he hated driving that truck, deeply resented the series of bad breaks that put him there and objected vociferously to Roosevelt-style government programs. ‘My dad was in the Teamsters at Pevely [a dairy company], but that’s because he had to be’ to get the job, says Gephardt’s brother, Don. ‘I don’trecall him talking much about the union, about how great it was. He prided himself on being a Republican. He hated (Harry) Truman. … He had the feeling that you had to make it on your own, that any kind of welfare program would just raise his taxes.” Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune adds that Dick Gephardt “didn’t mention that his father also sold life insurance and real estate, which somehow don’t convey the same sense of grinding deprivation.”

Context: The Post-Dispatch added, “And yet at the same time, Don Gephardt recalls, ‘my dad felt that he was a victim of the system. He felt he didn’t get his due.’ ” As to his father’s career in real estate, the article mentioned that according to Dick Gephardt, “his father didn’t do that much better financially in real estate than at Pevely.”

Defense: In May 2003, the Washington Post reported that when asked about the discrepancy between the brothers’ accounts, “A spokeswoman for the candidate said [Dick] Gephardt stands by his version, saying he was not commenting on his father’s opinion of his job or union, but on the benefits it provided him. ‘Don sees it as one thing, and Dick sees it as another,’ said spokeswoman Kim Molstre.” However, at a forum hosted by organized labor two weeks after the Post article appeared, Gephardt said of his father’s opinion of the union, “Every day that we were with him, he told us that because he was in a labor union, we had food on the table, and we had a roof over our head.”