Gephardt, another Kennedy?

RICHARD GEPHARDT, in his mid-40s, looks enough like John F. Kennedy that almost everyone notes the resemblance. The voice, too - although it's clearly from Missouri and not Massachusetts - sounds like Kennedy. And the young congressman, using a Kennedy-like jabbing forefinger at times for emphasis, seems quite aware of the image he evokes. Indeed, his major theme, a call for leadership that inspires public service, has a Kennedy ring to it. Remember Kennedy's plea that Americans ask what they could do for their country?

If the plunge in the market really presages a recession in 1988, a candidate with a Kennedy image might be just right for voter acceptance. It should be recalled that a dip in the economy during the 1960 fall campaign helped Kennedy pull off that very close, upset win over Richard Nixon. There was something in the young senator's approach, his bringing in of the best and the brightest to cope with America's problems, that worked in his favor in a political climate marked by a clouded economy.

Representative Gephardt's pursuit of the presidency has caught voter attention. He is a very attractive candidate. He is currently favored to win the Iowa caucuses.

In his 10 years in Congress, Gephardt has made quite a record for himself; he quickly became a highly persuasive lawmaker, shaping policy and legislation in several areas including taxes, trade, agriculture, arms control, and health care. He's good on the stump, possesses an attractive family, and is an exceptionally hard worker.

But Gephardt, too, may become the politician who tests the emerging theory in some Democratic circles that the old-time liberal Democratic philosophy is what the country is once again hungering for and that a reaction against both Ronald Reagan and his conservative ideology has set in. Gephardt doesn't want to be labeled a ``liberal Democrat'' or a ``spender.'' But, he says, ``I do believe in using government to help make the American economy function correctly and make it grow. I feel very strongly that government has a positive role to play in fostering economic opportunity and growth in this country, in setting goals, in improving human capacities, in getting rid of illiteracy, in training workers - although I don't feel government can solve every problem.''

Again, Gephardt sounds a lot like Kennedy in those sentiments. He has brought some former aides from Sen. Edward Kennedy's office into key roles in his campaign organization. So perhaps he'll have to accept the description of being a Kennedy liberal.

Indeed, Gephardt may very well fit the new Democratic formula for winning back the presidency. As perceived by a growing number of party strategists, it is based on these concepts:

The public is now eager for a young, energetic activist to occupy the White House.

Americans are also again ready for leadership that uses government - and government resources - as the major tool in solving pressing social problems.

This ``Democratic revisionism,'' as political analyst Mark Shields calls it, doesn't quite call for the approach of Franklin Roosevelt, or even that of Hubert Humphrey. But neither does it tiptoe away from the Democratic me-too-ism of recent campaigns. It's a decided turn in the direction of increasing government involvement. And Gephardt, if his views are being read correctly, fits the requirements of this revised approach to governing.

The voters, at least as of now, are ready for a return of youth to the presidency. Even to-the-bitter-end Reagan supporters are conceding, sadly, that their beloved President might have avoided some of his recent troubles if he had been able to be more actively engaged.

When the Iran-contra disclosure was in white heat, I happened to sit near an older couple at a Philadelphia restaurant whose spirited conversation I could not help overhearing. At one point the woman said: ``Reagan was doing such a good job. Isn't it too bad what has happened?'' Said the man: ``I believe older people can bring something to the presidency that younger people can't. They have the experience and often better judgment. But next time I think I would vote for a younger person.'' She agreed.

It certainly is possible that the voters will want a younger man in the White House next time. All of the present field of Democratic and Republican candidates are much younger than Mr. Reagan was when he was first elected President. So all of them could provide the kind of vitality the public may be seeking.

And if the public is once again ready for bouncy youth - well, several of the candidates look like prancing young colts. Democrats Gephardt, Albert Gore, Bruce Babbitt, and Republican Jack Kemp are among them.

The Gephardt people would like nothing better than a match-up with George Bush next year. They see Gephardt playing the role of John Kennedy and Bush the part of Vice-President Nixon in a race that would be reminiscent, in style and outcome, of 1960.

They may be right. The voters could be ready, as they have been over the years, to reject another vice-president who seeks the presidency - particularly if the challenger evokes memories of the youthful, vital John F. Kennedy.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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