New Face, Style To Lead House
Soon-to-be Speaker has a black belt in martial arts but a conciliatory style.
WASHINGTON — Weighing possibly the most crucial decision of his 22-year political career - whether to try to unseat House Speaker Newt Gingrich - Rep. Robert Livingston picked up the phone late last week and dialed a number in New Orleans.
"Mom," asked the politically powerful Louisiana lawmaker, "what should I do?"
Anyone who thinks it a tad strange that motherly advice would be sought by the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which directs some $500 billion in federal spending each year, doesn't know Representative Livingston.
The gangly, plain-spoken Southerner, who describes himself as "boring" and "a regular guy," still comes across as uneasy at times in the Washington crowd. Indeed, the man soon expected to become the new House Speaker - and third in line to the president - is best defined by his richly contoured Louisiana upbringing, a hard-knocks childhood, and, yes, by Mom.
"We've been close for a long time," says Dorothy Billet, who raised Livingston and his younger sister single-handedly after her first husband abandoned the family in 1950. Young Bob was then only seven.
The man who emerged is known as hardworking, down-to-earth, and above all practical - in sharp contrast to the more mercurial, stridently partisan, and "bomb-throwing" Gingrich.
Although Livingston is not a bit less conservative than Mr. Gingrich - he is a defense hawk, ardent tax cutter, and abortion opponent - Republicans hope he will get more done.
"I want to replace the flamboyance with a little bit of hard, sleeve-rolled-up perspiration," Livingston said this week in a clear reference to the current House Speaker. Stressing his skills as a pragmatic coalition-builder, he said he seeks to "motivate people to govern, motivate people to manage, motivate people to legislate."
Livingston's work ethic and political tutelage have roots in his New Orleans boyhood, where his first exposure to campaigns was in grade school. He canvassed the neighborhood handing out Republican pamphlets with his mother, then one of only about 500 registered GOP members in the state, Ms. Billet says.
To help support the family, Livingston accepted an undecorous first job: sweeping elephant dung at the New Orleans Zoo. Next he worked as a laborer at the Avondale shipyards, where his mother was a secretary. Eventually he became a welder's assistant at the yards, working his way through Tulane University Law School.
"While the rest of us were going to summer school, he was off every day in a hard hat," recalls Fred Carroll, a fraternity brother and longtime friend. Although the two sometimes enjoyed a hand of a Cajun card game called bourre, he says Livingston was "not real good at relaxing."
The family remained strapped for cash. During a four-year stint in the Navy, Livingston saved money by hitchhiking home for surprise visits. After he married Bonnie Robichaux and graduated from law school in 1968, he couldn't afford a car, so he rode to work at a private law firm by motorbike. Still, his workhorse mentality impressed his employer.
"Bob had an impatience for things moving slowly. He wanted to prove himself," says David Treen, the former Louisiana congressman and governor who hired Livingston at his New Orleans law firm and later groomed him for politics.
Encouraged by Mr. Treen and other state Republicans, Livingston first ran for Congress in 1976 but lost. Yet, soon he had another chance. When his Democratic rival, Rep. Richard Tonry, resigned over charges of voter fraud in the primary, Livingston was ready to jump in. Appealing to blue-collar voters with ads showing him in a welder's mask, Livingston won a 1977 special election easily and has been in Congress ever since.
After years of relative obscurity in minority ranks, Livingston surprised everyone when Gingrich bypassed more senior members and named him chief appropriator in 1995. Nevertheless, Livingston rose to the occasion. On his first day as committee chair, he pulled a thin allegator-skinning knife out of a drawer and told members it was his "Cajun scalpel."
"It's got a surgeon's touch but it's sharp and tough," Livingston said, according to longtime aide Quin Hillyer, suggesting the kind of firm but calibrated spending cuts he sought to execute. If that didn't work, he warned - brandishing a bowie knife and a machete - the chopping would begin.
Livingston cut funding for hundreds of programs, amounting to some $50 billion since 1995. He "can rightly boast that what savings there are in the budget came from this committee," according to Congressional Quarterly's "Politics in America."
Indeed, driven mainly by fiscal rather than social conservatism, Livingston fits the image of a more traditional Republican, more comfortable with corporate executives than the Christian right. "With his straight-cut suits and an endearingly stiff politeness, he is the standard-bearer of the fuddy-duddy wing of the Republican Party," observed the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
A self-described "Newt Gingrich loyalist," Livingston supported the 1995 government shutdown, declaring in a widely televised imitation of Winston Churchill that the GOP would "never, never, never give in ..." The arm-flailing alarmed even his mother, who told him "to calm down."
The Churchill act, he says now, was pure theatrics. Still, he learned a lesson from the political debacle for which Republicans were blamed. "He toned down his conservatism and became more embracing," says Patrick Maney, an expert on Louisiana politics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
All Along, Livingston had paradoxically been forced to temper his fiscal hawkishness with consideration for the bread-and-butter realities of his Louisiana home base - a poor, flood and hurricane battered region built on a swamp and long dependent on federal largess. Like the lawmakers he followed, from Huey Long to Hale Boggs, Livingston "represents an area that really couldn't exist without the federal government," Mr. Manley says.
"He's a very pragmatic, bring-home-the-bacon kind of Louisiana politician," says Lawrence Powell, a Tulane historian who lives in Livingston's suburban New Orleans district of Metairie. One prominent example was a $641 million Naval shipbuilding contract he helped secure in late 1996 for his old boss, Avondale Industries Inc., now Louisiana's largest private employer with 5,300 workers.
Ready to give it all up
Despite his popularity, in 1998 Livingston was ready to leave Congress. Money was one factor. With four children and homes in Metairie and Alexandria, Va., he knew he could make more than his $136,000 salary as a lobbyist. Moreover, Livingston was frustrated by GOP infighting and backstabbery, aide Hillyer says. But the day before a press conference in which he planned to bow out, pleas from a local businessmen, former New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, and - ironically - Gingrich, persuaded him to remain.
"I said I would stay two years, unless I'm Speaker of the House," Livingston recalled Tuesday with a grin.
After months of lining up supporters and raising funds for colleagues through his own political-action committee, Livingston decided to make his move shortly after the GOP's stunning setback in the Nov. 3 midterm election.
On Wednesday morning after the election, Livingston phoned Carroll to express his dismay. "We may need a change," Livingston told his old frat brother. Just over 48 hours later, Livingston announced he would challenge Gingrich. He now stands unopposed as the all-but-certain winner in a GOP vote scheduled for Nov. 18.
As Speaker, Livingston would face a daunting challenge overseeing a 435-member House of Representatives with the smallest majority-party margin in three decades. Few people, including Livingston, expect he will have an easy time trying to rein in divisive factions within his own party while also reaching out to Democrats across the aisle.
"It's a tough business we're in," he said. But Livingston, like most seasoned Louisiana politicians, has a Darwinian survival instinct. He's not easily intimidated and often jokes about his black belt in tai kwan do.
Known to pull out his harmonica and share a tune with his liberal Democratic colleague, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, Livingston has a nonconfrontational style that some believe could help Republicans at least feel better about compromising. "We have to be able to disagree as vigorously as we possibly can ... [but when we go home] we have to look ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we do," Livingston said. "We need more of that."
ROBERT LINLITHGOW LIVINGSTON
* Born April 30, 1943, in Colorado Springs, Colo. Now lives in Metairie, La.
* Enlisted in the Navy after high school and worked his way through college in the Avondale Shipyard.
* Received his undergraduate and law degrees from Tulane University in New Orleans.
* First elected to Congress in 1977.
* Ran for governor and lost in 1987.
* Brought an alligator-skinning knife - a 'cajun scalpel' - to his first meeting in charge of the House Appropriations Committee.
* Descended from Robert R. Livingston, a New York aristocrat who swore in George Washington as president and helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase as an ambassador in France.
* Has a black belt in tae kwan do.
* 6-foot, 4-inches tall.
* He and his wife, Bonnie, have four children: Robert (32), Richard (29), David (26), and SuShan (24).