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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.

But Gingrich often gets the last laugh. He almost lost his last election, escaping political oblivion by a few hundred votes. "Some folks just wanted to teach ol' Newt a little lesson," says Atlanta pollster Claiborne Darden. "They thought he'd gone Washington on them." Since then, he has taken the lesson to heart, adopting a new solicitousness toward local matters.

The list of Gingrich's luckless adversaries makes for impressive reading: Former House Speaker Thomas P. ( Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was humiliated on the floor after a run-in with Gingrich; Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), O'Neill's successor, was drummed out of politics in the wake of a scandal ignited by Gingrich; Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), a former ranking leader and fast-rising pol, saw his career relegated to political obscurity after a feud with the Georgian.

If Gingrich hasn't yet succeeded in reshaping the American polity, he surely has played a role in transforming the nature of the House. Never the Oxford Debating Society, the chamber today is akin to a political roller derby, where partisans practice a kind of thumb-in-the-eye, knee-in-the-groin politics that leaves many veterans pining for the old days.

"Sometimes, it seems like a rougher kind of place," sighs Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, the venerable Mississippi Democrat. Agrees Gingrich's superior, House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois: "Some days, you think of hiring a food taster."

The change is not all Gingrich's doing. The ideological clashes of the 1980s, when conservatives and liberals battled for control of the national agenda, left bruised limbs all around. But Gingrich's combative language and style have helped mold the institution and, by extension, the way official Washington goes about the nation's business.

"Newt's just not willing to haze the distinctions between Democrats and Republicans, even if it means he forfeits the compromises needed to produce legislation. A lot of his colleagues have picked up on that," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. Weber puts it even more succinctly: "Newt is the most skillful practitioner of the politics of polarization I know."

Gingrich has dismissed the House as a "corrupt institution," its Democratic leadership as "sick" and its last three Speakers as "a trio of muggers." "A tin-horn Joe McCarthy," harrumphs Democratic Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin. "He'll stab you in the back in a New York second," states Alexander.

Such jabs don't faze Gingrich. "I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it," he says. "Of course people are going to resent that." But the barbs--and the actions that provoke them--do discomfit some of Gingrich's fellow Republicans. Most try to say something nice about him for the record, but many, when pressed, express deep suspicion about his motives and apprehension about his impact on Washington's political culture. They wince at some of his antics, about the time someone in his office helped propagate rumors that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley was a homosexual, about the time he called Kitty Dukakis a "drug addict," about the time his political action committee sent out a letter to Republican candidates advising them to "talk like Newt" by characterizing Democrats with words such as "traitor."

"He makes the rest of us seem kinder and gentler, and I suppose there's something to be said for that," says Rep. Fred Grandy. Fellow Iowa Republican Jim Leach isn't so sure. "I shudder," he mutters "at the thought that people judge the Republican Party by him."

Gingrich's tactics have also alienated legions of onetime supporters, many of whom become embroiled in near-eschatological discussions about the morality of their former friend. "If you were to assemble all the people who used to support Newt but have turned against him, you'd have an unbeatable coalition," says Lee Howell, a Carrollton, Ga., journalist who worked with him in his early campaigns for Congress. L. H. (Kip) Carter, a former campaign treasurer, calls Gingrich "the most amoral man I have ever met." Gingrich's former pastor in Morrow, Ga., the Rev. Brantley Harwell, will only refine that charge a smidgen: "He is a politically amoral man."

Even Vin Weber, an unabashed admirer, voices the same skepticism many of Gingrich's erstwhile friends express about the depth of his convictions. "He's a close ally of the Right. He views himself as part of the Right in terms of his objec tives. But if you ask him the core question--if he were out of politics is this where he would find himself?--the answer is much shakier," Weber says, conceding that "Newt's not a conservative; he's an opportunist."

NEWTON LEROY GINGRICH, GIFTED AND ECCENTRIC, EFFECTIVELY BECAME A politician before he hit puberty, although he says he wasn't conscious of his fate until the age of 15. "Since I was 9, I've been oriented toward facilitating the media," he now says.

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