In Memoriam

The Old Paratrooper’s Last Drop

RIP Sam Gibbons -- perhaps the last liberal who was not a leftist.

By 10.12.12

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TAMPA -- A lot of history left the room Wednesday when former 17-term Congressman Sam Gibbons died at 92. I had a slight history with the old paratrooper, and will miss him.

If conservatives are now conducting the Final Interviews, Sam has a lot to answer for. His 34-year voting record in Congress was consistently liberal. He had a good deal to do with helping Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" programs through the Congress, including such as Head Start, one of the many government programs of that period that sounded good, cost taxpayers a packet, and probably did little lasting good for those who participated in it. (And, like a Bill Clinton speech, it goes on forever, beyond the reach of good sense.)

On the plus side, Sam helped get through the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was back when the civil rights movement was a justified moral crusade, not the racket it has degenerated into (Al Sharpton, call your office). As a state legislator before entering Congress, Sam also had a good deal to do with establishing the University of South Florida in Tampa, my alma mater, and Hillsborough Community College. "Higher" education is now also a bit of a racket. But Sam didn't know that when he was doing what he thought to be the work of the angels.

Those who don't care for Sam's politics, which includes me, can appreciate Sam for the patriot he was. His affiliation with ROTC at the University of Florida got Sam a commission as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1940, ending his college education in his junior year. On D-Day in 1944, 24-year-old Captain Sam Gibbons parachuted into the hell that was Europe for our advantage. He fought with the 101st Airborne, including in the Battle of the Bulge, until that awful war was finally sorted in 1945.

Discharged as a much-decorated major, Gibbons returned to the University of Florida, where he began law school without bothering to finish his senior year as an undergraduate. You could get away with stuff like that back then. Then it was law practice, state and federal elected office, and lobbying for more than a half century.

My first association with Sam was when he first ran for Congress in 1962. This was after re-apportionment had created a district that was mostly Tampa, and ideally suited for the kind of Democrat Sam was. He was a good retail campaigner, and a favorite Saturday morning spot for him was the parking lot of the Britton Plaza Publix, where I was sacking groceries to finance a bachelor's degree. Sam would talk to the housewives (as we called married women in those days -- especially those who did the family grocery shopping) and give them his campaign literature while we walked to their cars, me trailing with the shopping cart full of groceries. My challenge was to ensure that the shoppers didn't get so wrapped up in what Sam was saying that they would forget to tip me after I had put the groceries in their cars. Some did. I estimated Sam's political career cost me two bucks or more per Saturday for several weekends running, significant money for a 19-year-old college student in 1962.

Reminiscing more than 40 years later with Sam in his living room about politics and old Tampa stuff, I told Sam about how his campaign style had stiffed me all those years ago. I also told him I was over it (though I was pretty sore about it at the time). He said he had no idea how he had inconvenienced me, and apologized. But he didn't offer to make it up. The twenty bucks or so I lost, adjusted for the inflation the programs Sam voted for helped cause, would add up to a tidy sum.

Also up for discussion that day was November 18, 1963, John Kennedy's last full day of campaigning. Kennedy came to Tampa that day for several private appearances, and a public one at Al Lopez Field, home of the minor league Tampa Tarpons. A college chum and I skipped classes at USF to see the president and to wave at Sam, who had a great day as part of the presidential party. He rode in the presidential limousine with Kennedy during a downtown motorcade. Both politicians were popular, and benefited from association with each other.

Sam told me how much JFK enjoyed the motorcade. And why shouldn't he have? He was cheered lustily, not the least by young girls and women. As the limo neared yet another clutch of enthusiastic young women, JFK turned to Sam and said, "Here comes some more bouncers." Sam also said he was impressed with how JFK, when working a room, stayed focused on the person he was speaking to. "He was very thoughtful," Sam said. "He was a one-at-a-time person. It was not a mob scene out there for him." (As we later learned, there are plenty of women who can verify this. Incidentally, we see Sam three times in the YouTube video linked to above. He's the tall guy with a buzz cut following JFK in the first shots after the chopper landing. In the limo, he's seated in the rear. left. He's also following JFK as he emerges in the final sequence at a hotel ballroom, the sequence where the child gives JFK the doll.)

Yesterday's Tampa Tribune headline over the story of Sam's passing refers to the loss of a "leading statesman." That overstates things. Sam did accomplish a bit when LBJ liberalism was in vogue. The Tampa native had a rich Southern accent (Tampa and Florida were culturally Southern when Sam came along -- though they haven't been so for decades, the second wave of carpet-baggers being as large as it was) and most of the time exhibited the courtesy common to the region. But he had a bit of a temper, and could get in an opponent's face. There was a well-recorded incident where he grabbed another congressman by the tie in a committee meeting while pointing out forcefully the errors in this poor sod's approach.

For a short while Sam was chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. (Notice I didn't say "powerful" Ways and Means Committee, thereby probably breaking some Political Reporters' Union work rule. These adjectives do insinuate themselves into everyday use. For years I thought China had a position called "Aging Premier.") But he was not there long enough to have much effect. Sam never lost an election, but he very nearly lost one in 1994 during the Republican tsunami. He decided in 1996, at age 76, to retire rather than again face the former Navy intelligence officer, one Mark Sharpe, who came within chin whiskers of unseating Sam in '94.

Sam Gibbons supported a lot of policies that I believe have harmed the country. But I believe he honestly thought what he was trying to bring about was best for America. He was a liberal, not a leftist. He never joined the Blame America First Brigade. In fact he was, man and boy, a patriot. He loved his country and fought for it when the country needed brave men to stand up. He had his scratchy moments, but he was always kind and courteous in his dealings with me, as most who dealt with him report. He was, at last, a flawed but determined American who served his country, his church, and his family in the best way he knew how. I never voted for him. But I'm glad I knew him.

God's speed Sam. 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.