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A Capitol Chameleon : What Will Newt Gingrich Do Next?

August 25, 1991|PETER OSTERLUND | Peter Osterlund writes about politics from the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun.

HIS SMALL EYES BORE INTO HIS AUDIENCE WITH THE INTENSIty of searchlights. A few hundred Young Republicans reciprocate with worshipful focus. They are jammed, Jos. A. Banks-by-Laura Ashley, into some concrete auditorium on George Washington University's campus. They are mesmerized.

"The challenge to your generation is not to find creative new ways to use the bureaucracy," says Newt Gingrich. "The challenge is to be creative and to make a real difference. It's a demand to rethink at the ground level everything we do in this society."

These kids are the GOP's future, and Gingrich--a former college professor, six-term Georgian congressman and the prototypical hard-core Republican--knows it. Many have made the pilgrimage to this city of entrenched special interests and ossified bureaucracies to hear his how-to of hell-raising, to experience the gospel according to Gingrich.

"Too bad he isn't as 'on' as he can be," a handler apologizes as Gingrich bolts through his material. The performance does seem a bit perfunctory, but it hardly matters. No one actually expected to hear anything new today. His speech--stitched together from some 500 pages of raw material he says he's committed to memory--is the usual litany about welfare statism and the glories to be had in a "conservative opportunity society," punctuated by a few zingers at star-crossed Democrats like Jimmy Carter. Actually, the crowd might have been disappointed if the performer had veered from the tried-and-true.

That's what happens when you're a walking icon, which Gingrich is. Once, he advised a similar group of fresh-faced idealists to "do things that may be wrong, but do something," explaining that one of the Republican Party's "great problems" has been that "we don't encourage you to be nasty."

Once, the party youth had to be told such things; in the post-Reagan era, they don't, and a new generation of Republicans is being weaned on Gingrich's vituperative strain of conservative politics. "He's the guy who told Tip O'Neill to go to hell," gushes a young Republican. "Newt," crows Josh Magruder of Syracuse University, "is our hero."

"Born to teach," Gingrich likes to say of himself. "Born to make life miserable for the rest of us," counters one senior Bush Administration official.

Gingrich is among a handful of leaders to define the conservative ideology of a new age. With the death of former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, he is angling to emerge as the party's pre-eminent tactician, plotting a long-dreamed-of, forever-deferred Republican takeover of Congress. "I'll do almost anything to win a Republican majority in the Congress," he pledges. He means it. "I will not rest," he also vows, "until I have transformed the landscape of American politics."

His are the same kind of take-no-prisoners tactics that the nation became acquainted with during George Bush's own blitzkrieg presidential campaign. Except that Gingrich had honed and perfected the skills of political harassment while Bush had politely been waiting his turn to run for President. After 13 years representing suburban Atlanta's Seventh District, Gingrich has cinched the prize as the Rottweiler of the GOP and, so he claims, the most hated man on Capitol Hill.

"THEY DON'T LOVE ME, but they respect me," says Gingrich of his political antagonists. That respect, he would tell you, accounts for his wind-sprint up the ladder. Ridiculed when he wasn't ignored after his arrival in Congress, he is today, at age 48, the second-ranking Republican leader in the House, the minority whip, heir presumptive to the leader's slot itself and, if Republicans ever do take control of the House, a prime contender for the speakership.

Will he stop there? Not if he has any say in it. He bandies around lines like "I want to shift the entire planet, and I'm doing it." He's talking about an overhaul of the nation's political consciousness, one that will lob Republicans into office and wield free-market-style economic incentives to lift the nation out of its mire of social ills. "Newt has big plans, big dreams," says Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), Gingrich's best friend and closest ally in the House.

In the interim, Gingrich's political enemies have mostly gone into hiding or have had their political innards splattered over the pages of hometown newspapers. They sometimes find relief in jokes like this one that circulated during the Gulf War: You find yourself alone in a room with Saddam Hussein and Newt Gingrich and you have two bullets in your gun. What do you do? Shoot Newt twice. Sometimes they settle for a simple prayer that he will lose his job: Last year, in the midst of the campaign season, a poster appeared in the Democratic cloakroom wishing for a "Newt-free Congress."

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