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America Decides 2004 As Gephardt Bows Out, Jews Lose a Friend in Washington’s High Places

January 21, 2004
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The political career of one of Congress’ strongest advocates for Jewish concerns may be over.

“Today my pursuit of the presidency has reached its end,” Gephardt said Tuesday in a tearful press conference in St. Louis. “I’m withdrawing as a candidate and returning to private life after a long time in the warm light of public service.”

Gephardt, 62, previously had announced that he would not seek re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives, thus ending a Washington career that began when he joined the House in 1977.

“A lot of Jewish Democrats are quite saddened by the apparent end of Dick Gephardt’s political career,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “He was always a friend, not just on domestic issues, but on Israel.”

Gephardt always was considered a friend on Middle East matters, but Jewish officials in Washington said he became a leader on behalf of Israel in recent years — perhaps because of his aspirations to higher office, but also because of the new international landscape after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Gephardt was the highest-ranking congressional official to speak at an April 15, 2002, solidarity rally for Israel at the Capitol.

“We cannot stand on the sidelines as the prospects for peace are undermined,” Gephardt told the crowd. “We must not waver in our commitment to those — Israelis and Arabs alike — who have chosen the path of peace.”

In his withdrawal speech Tuesday, Gephardt mentioned reducing U.S. dependence on Persian Gulf oil as a goal for his final year in Congress.

On domestic issues, Jewish supporters said they cannot remember an issue in which Gephardt and a majority of the Jewish community diverged. As the Democratic leader, Gephardt often would hold strategy meetings in his office to plot a path for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, bringing together Jewish and other civil rights organizations.

“I think in general he had a sensitivity for issues that were of concern to us,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Gephardt was someone you could go to whenever the Jewish community had an issue.”

In his hometown of St. Louis, Gephardt met over brunch with Jewish community leaders three to four times a year, for 15 years. Michael Newmark, a past chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the meetings were an open forum where Jewish leaders could broach topics from domestic affairs to Israel to Soviet Jewry.

Newmark recalls meeting with Gephardt, then a young lawmaker, to ask for his support on Soviet Jewry issues. Gephardt smiled and said that his wife, Jane, and he already had been active on the issue.

“He did it without anyone asking him, because it was the right thing to do,” said Newmark, who also serves as Gephardt’s personal attorney.

Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign, in which he won Iowa but then ran out of money and shortly afterward dropped out, helped propel him onto the national stage and position him to become majority leader a year later.

Hordes said Gephardt often would play two roles on policy issues: at times serving as an early advocate and, because of his leadership role, moving along policy issues and helping to bring them to the House floor for votes.

The congressman’s ability to do that was handicapped in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House.

Gephardt stepped down as minority leader in 2002, in part because of Democratic losses in the House, but also to concentrate on his presidential ambitions.

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