WASHINGTON — For years he has been the bad boy of the Republican Right, the congressman whose roughhouse partisanship has delighted conservatives and enraged Democrats.
But now, having led the crusade to topple Speaker Jim Wright, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia is on the defensive, beset by many of the forces he helped set in motion.
Gingrich, who rode the ethics issue to become assistant House Republican leader, is battling charges that, like Wright, he profited unethically from a book deal financed by campaign contributors. He is also trying to contain the controversy over an aide's alleged role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of homosexuality about Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who replaced Wright as Speaker.
"Newt has made a career out of attacking people around here and trying to rip them apart," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a liberal who has clashed bitterly with Gingrich. "Now the shoe is on the other foot. He's going to have to answer for a lot of things."
Controversy is nothing new to Gingrich, 45, who has crusaded passionately against the "corruption" of Democratic House leaders since he was first elected to the House in 1978.
At a time when most of his GOP colleagues were resigned to their minority status, he and other young conservatives went on the offensive, launching a spirited campaign to keep the rhetorical heat on Democrats and lay the foundation for an eventual Republican majority in the House.
In the process, Gingrich earned a reputation for slashing, personal attacks and an ideological intensity that borders on evangelism. When he blasted Democratic foreign policy in a 1983 House speech, critics charged that he was questioning their patriotism in the manner of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Former Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. called it "the lowest thing" he had seen in 32 years on Capitol Hill.
Seen as Gadfly
Despite his steady attacks, opponents at first viewed Gingrich as a political gadfly. But they took notice this year when the ethics charges he filed against Wright resulted in the Speaker's resignation.
"None of this would have happened without Newt, and that's the reason why there's so much resentment out there," said Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), a strong Gingrich supporter. "He did something no one believed he could do, but that's been typical of his career. He's just unbelievably persistent in getting what he wants."
Now, with the ethics controversy continuing to dominate Congress, the spotlight has turned on Gingrich himself. Some Republicans predict he may come in for the same kind of scrutiny that ultimately destroyed Wright.
"I think a lot of Democrats are gunning for Newt, no question," said one moderate Republican, who asked not to be identified. "He's going to come under the microscope."
For once, Gingrich seems uncomfortable with all the attention.
"I am the victim of a hypocritical, one-sided morality," he said in an interview. "I've been the whistle-blower, because I helped bring a man (Wright) who was a scoundrel to justice, and now I'm being punished for this."
Impatient With Inquiries
Gingrich, whose pudgy face is framed by a helmet of thick gray hair, added that he has little patience with the questions that have been dogging him lately.
"I'm tired of being smeared," he snapped. "I'm tired of Democrats bashing me around."
Partisan politics has been Gingrich's passion all his adult life. He lived on military bases around the world as a child before his family settled at Ft. Benning, Ga., and received a graduate degree in European history from Emory University in Atlanta, but he was soon attracted to politics. He managed a congressional campaign in 1964 and worked on Nelson A. Rockefeller's southeast presidential campaign in 1968. He taught history and geography at West Georgia College and, after two losses, was finally elected to Congress in 1978.
His sixth two-year term has been his most controversial. Gingrich came under new fire just last week when it was learned that Karen Van Brocklin, an aide in his office, had spread sexual rumors about Foley to reporters.
'Stupidly Said Yes'
In an interview, Gingrich insisted that Van Brocklin had merely been asked by a reporter if there were stories circulating about Foley's personal life, "and she stupidly said yes." He said it was wrong for her to have talked with the press, but he did not criticize her for disseminating the rumors.
Several reporters offered a different account. Speaking not for attribution, they said she had brought up the subject of Foley's alleged behavior with at least three news organizations and had tried to get them to publish stories on the subject by claiming other newspapers were about to do so. No such story was ever published.
The episode infuriated Democrats. "This is a new low for him," said Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He's engaged in personal attacks before, but I can't remember anything quite this bad."