He's No Rostenkowski

In the predawn of June 6, 1944, Army paratrooper Sam Gibbons landed behind German lines in occupied France, armed with an antitank mine, a gas mask, and two warm cans of Schlitz. As D-day unfolded, the 24-year-old captain survived a bloody ambush to complete his mission: securing bridges near the town of St. Come-du-Mont. The American beer cans were placed in the middle of a road in Normandy as a symbol of the Allied liberation.

Brave, utterly determined, and a little bit quirky--those all are traits that colleagues still ascribe to Gibbons. And he'll need such qualities and more to succeed in the new job he is about to take on. A 16-term Democratic congressman from Tampa, Gibbons is in line to ascend to the powerful post of House Ways & Means Committee chairman. The current occupant, Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), is under investigation for alleged financial irregularities and is expected to lose the post through a felony indictment or a plea bargain with U.S. prosecutors. Friends and colleagues say that Gibbons, who declined to speak to BUSINESS WEEK, is ready for the new challenge. "When the muskets start firing, this guy is at his best," says lobbyist Jack Valenti, chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, who has known Gibbons for 30 years.

But his best may not be good enough. Gibbons, 74, is regarded by peers as being a bit too rigid in his views and having a short fuse. Skeptics wonder if he can handle the oversized egos of one of Congress' key committees, especially with President Clinton's top priorities--health care, welfare reform, and the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade--hanging in the balance. "He's very smart and dedicated," says Lawrence Chimerine, managing partner of the Economic Strategy Institute, "but it's an open question whether he has the political skills to do the horse-trading and arm-twisting."

The Administration clearly is nervous about losing Rostenkowski, a reliable ally who played an important role in securing passage of the President's economic plan last year. Even while burdened by the grand jury probe and a tough Democratic primary, Rostenkowski labored mightily to craft a health-care package acceptable to the White House, Democratic liberals, and business. Gibbons, chairman of the Ways & Means trade subcommittee, has not been a central player in the debate.

Stylistically, Gibbons and Rostenkowski couldn't be more different. The current chairman is an intimidating Chicago pol who keeps tight control over the committee and eschews ideology, preferring to cut deals on contentious issues. Gibbons is seen by many as a gadfly interested mainly in free-trade issues, and he may lack the clout to quell revolts from subcommittee chairmen seeking more autonomy.

Where Rosty is known for his cool, Gibbons' outbursts are the stuff of Capitol Hill legend. When Kevin L. Kearns, the president of the U.S. Business & Industrial Council, complained during a hearing last November about the loss of U.S. sovereignty under GATT, Gibbons snapped: "I'd just get a gun and blow my brains out if I were you." Kearns, who is still fuming, terms the incident "an extraordinary breach of decorum." But one Gibbons defender argues that despite his temper, the congressman knows how to cut political deals. "His very strong views don't get in the way of his better judgment," insists the associate.

NECK-BUSTER. Gibbons entered Congress in 1963 with a reputation as a progressive Southerner with leadership potential. President Lyndon B. Johnson said he picked him to manage several antipoverty initiatives because the young Floridian could "vote Northern and talk Southern." Valenti, a former Johnson aide, calls Gibbons "a stand-up guy who put his neck on the line. LBJ would say, 'Sam Gibbons doesn't cut and run.'"

Gibbons was eventually rewarded with a coveted slot on Ways & Means. But he slipped off the fast track in 1972, when he mounted an abortive campaign for House Majority Leader against the immensely popular but far more liberal Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill. That race haunted Gibbons in 1980, when the top spot on Ways & Means opened up. O'Neill, then House Speaker, persuaded Rostenkowski to forgo a leadership contest and take the job, leaving Gibbons as second-in-command.

Most observers have low expectations for Gibbons as the committee's chief, but his admirers note that he is sure to give his all to the task. Says former Ways & Means colleague Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.): "When Sam sets his mind to doing something, he just busts his neck to do it." Still, having survived D-day's bullets, he now may run into flak that's even harder to avoid.

      Age 74   Home Tampa
      Background A lawyer and state legislator first elected to Congress in 1962. He's now  No. 2 among 24 Democrats on the House Ways & Means Committee
      Politics A social liberal and ardent supporter of free trade
      Biggest miscalculation His ill-fated race against Tip O'Neill for House Majority Leader in 1972 earned him political enemies that have endured for two decades
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