WASHINGTON — It was a moment of high tension on Capitol Hill. Would campaign-finance reform be able to survive a procedural obstacle in the House? With that question hanging in the air - and a vote that would deal with the problem only a few hours away - one of the most important players in this drama, minority leader Richard Gephardt, found time to spend an hour with journalists at a Monitor breakfast.
But before we could ask Mr. Gephardt whether the campaign reform he supported (the Shays-Meehan bill, which was roughly the same as the McCain-Feingold bill that had passed the Senate) could be saved, Gephardt said he'd like to say a few words.
Then, pulling out some notes - after doffing his jacket, which he always does even if the room is frigid, as it was on this particular morning - the Democratic congressman from Missouri took several minutes to tell us about a trip he had just completed.
"I just came from a week's trip to four spots" - Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, and London, where he had talked to top government people. After these conversations, he said, he had concluded that "we need to remain engaged in cooperation with our European allies and need to continue to work on our relationship with Russia."
As he continued his trip report, saying there had been much conversation about missile defense and how he thinks that such a defense should be worked out in "collaboration" with the Europeans and Russia "if it is to give us the increase in security we really need," I noticed a couple of my colleagues smiling. One reporter across the table mouthed what I'm sure we all were sensing.
"He's running for president," my colleague was clearly saying.
Yes, that's one of the first signs that a politician is getting ready to make a run for the White House: He travels abroad.
True, Gephardt has House responsibilities to which these travels are primarily related. But here was one of the Democrats' most attractive possible presidential candidates not only going abroad, but coming back with assessments that could only be described as "sounding presidential."
Furthermore, and most important, here was Dick Gephardt talking of his travels at a moment when he had to know that the reporters sitting around him were focused totally on campaign reform, and just itching to ask him what he would do next. So, after Gephardt ended his account of his visit abroad, I said: "You are talking like someone who is thinking about running for president. Is that true?"
Now I've been listening to answers to this "are you going to run" question from possible candidates for too many years not to know that I would probably get what we call the "predictable answer." It's called the "I'm just keeping my mind on doing my job" ploy.
What Gephardt actually said was "I haven't made any decision of any kind," because, he added, he was fully occupied with his work on the Hill.
How are these words to be translated? Well, I've heard a number of potential presidential candidates who later tossed their hats into the ring respond in a similar vein at Monitor breakfasts. What it means is that they may well be making the early moves necessary for a presidential run, but they aren't going to say so.
Of course, they all are flattered by the question: After all, these reporters must be seeing them as politicians with presidential potential or they wouldn't be asking whether they had such aspirations.
And what will Gephardt do? I'd say he's going to make a run of it. Indeed, he did just that several years ago when he clearly wasn't ready. But now, Gephardt - more experienced and politically potent, particularly with the unions - is, in my opinion, ready and raring to go.
Oh, yes, Richard Gephardt finally got around to fielding questions about campaign reform. He painted a less than hopeful outcome in the House - and he was right.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor