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Gephardt: Just Another Tourist

By Jorge Hernandez

January 27, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Observer-Dispatch. All rights reserved.

Dick, we hardly knew ye.

You never know where in the world you're going to meet a celebrity.

On a Christmas 1999 vacation trip, my wife tapped me on the back and said, "Isn't that somebody?"

He certainly was. When I turned around, there in real-life strawberry-blond brilliance was Dick Gephardt, smack dab at a rest stop in the middle of El Yunque, the rain forest in Puerto Rico, with a small group of family and others.

My wife - who will talk to anyone - approached and greeted the longtime Missouri congressman who last week dropped out of the Democratic race for president.

"Where y'all from?" Gephardt inquired.

From Clinton, near Utica, in Upstate New York, my wife replied.

"Ah, yes, Sherry's district," he said.

After an exchange of pleasantries came the typical gushing fan request: "Can my husband take a picture of you with us?"

Gephardt graciously agreed, put his arms around my wife and daughter, and one quick shot was taken with a disposable camera. Immortality guaranteed for a Central New York family photographed with a potential future president.

The Gephardt party had moved away to a tin-roofed hut on the side of the curving mountain road flanked by a sheer drop into a green lush valley of palms and bamboo. Inside the hut were two sturdy women, machetes in hand hacking away at a bunch of freshly harvested coconuts.

Some of the congressman's group sampled fresh coconut water for sale, sipped through a straw right through the husk. It looked like a new cultural experience for them.

A boy in the group was intrigued by another native woman cooking codfish fritters and tacos and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) in huge pots on camp stoves. He wanted to sample something, but Mom motioned no.

Here were two disparate groups, a powerful Midwestern politician and family members and a schoolteacher-journalist's family taking in a primitive natural environment and Spanish-Caribbean culture.

I wanted to ask Gephardt why he was in Puerto Rico and immediately assumed it was the Vieques situation, where natives were protesting the U.S. destruction of a beautiful stretch of the offshore island's beach with bombing tests.

Perhaps he had stopped at that spot in the rain forest, lured as we were by a tacky wooden cutout of El Chupacabras - also much in the news at that time.

The Puerto Rican media, a Page One story in the New York Times and a scary episode of TV's "The X Files" had all had their say on the phenomenon of El Chupacabras - literally meaning "The Goat Sucker."

Farm animals were mysteriously being found slaughtered in the mornings on mountain farms, and frenzied residents were attributing the deaths and mutilations to an alien creature named El Chupacabras.

But it seemed inappropriate during what appeared to be a family holiday to talk business - or politics - on either side.

That Christmas season we saw former House Minority Leader, former two-time presidential hopeful and soon to be former 30-year U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt as a typical family man on vacation, far from Washington, D.C., and national politics, taking in the sights like any tourist.

Just like you and me.

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