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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.

Gingrich, who once dreamed of becoming a vertebrate paleontologist, first entered the world of press manipulation shortly before he turned 10, in the town of his birth--Harrisburg, Pa. One day, Newt told his mother he was going to the library. Instead, he hopped a bus downtown, found his way to the mayor's office and made the case for a local zoo. Tickled, the mayor sent him to the local newspaper, where Newt informed the editor that "your mayor and I were talking about Harrisburg having a zoo. He thought you might give us some newspaper support." The charmed editor asked if he would like to write a column on the subject. Newt didn't know how to type, but he proceeded to peck out a tract, which ran on the front page.

A couple of years later, he convinced a local pet store owner that it would be good advertising to have his animals displayed on TV. Then he talked a local station into putting him on the air. And, for five minutes each week, little Newt identified various exotic fauna for the viewing public.

"My relationship with the media has been symbiotic from the beginning," he says.

Thirty years later, Gingrich's media-consciousness would serve him even better. In the early '80s, the young congressman and fellow conservatives banded together to form a group they called the Conservative Opportunity Society, to stand in contrast to the supposed liberal welfare society.

Most House members, however, considered the COS to be a band of right-wing nuts who would stand in the well of the chamber and, for hours after the day's business had ended, harangue the empty seats and an occasional befuddled tourist in the gallery. "People thought we were crazy," says Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania.

But Gingrich and his fellow COSers realized something that hadn't fully dawned on their thicker colleagues: C-SPAN had arrived, carrying to cable viewers every word spoken for the record on the House floor. These children of C-SPAN drove Democrats wild with their nightly perorations.

One day in 1984, after Gingrich had accused Democrats of being "blind to communism," fingered one member for placing "communist propaganda" in the Speaker's lobby and accused O'Neill himself of using a word that came "all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the left," the venerable Speaker exploded.

"You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism," O'Neill thundered, "and it is the lowest thing that I've seen in my 32 years in Congress."

Gingrich's predecessor as whip, Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) immediately sprang from his seat. In the supposedly decorous House, members are barred from launching personal attacks against one another on the floor, a rule about which Gingrich had pirouetted with near-gymnastic skill. The presiding officer had no choice and ruled in Lott's favor. The confrontation with O'Neill was big news, and Gingrich announced, "I am now a famous person."

GINGRICH IS UNWINDING IN A PRIVATE TURBOPROP, RETURNING FROM A fund-raiser for Republican members of the New Jersey Legislature. His keynote speech was but a faint echo of the anti-Democratic fusillades on which he built his career, packed as it was with references to such present-day conservative touchstones as education reform and economic empowerment. The audience, mostly pragmatists who look askance at their radical brethren in the GOP, received him respectfully, even warmly.

"What did you think?" he asks an aide with undisguised anxiety.

"I thought it went well," obligingly replies the aide, the sort of fresh-faced, well-scrubbed type that populates Gingrich's staff.

"Good!" Gingrich says, relieved. "I didn't want to scare them off."

Gingrich looks different now than he did in those days of parliamentary guerrilla fighting. The unruly, pseudo-Phil Donahue hair helmet is more meticulously coiffed. He's either lost weight--a matter of perpetual concern--or his clothes fit better. He looks like part of the Establishment, which is something he became part of in 1989 when he was elected whip.

"If you were to walk around the House and say, even to Republicans, 'What do you think of Gingrich?' they'd start to . . . . " Gingrich's voice trails off before he answers his own question with an anecdote. "One sweet lady walked up to me the other night and said: 'You know, I always thought you were a kook when I saw you on TV.' "

Gingrich grins mirthfully. He has mastered the art of the interview, as befits a politician of his stature, managing to convey the illusion of confidence while actually betraying little that he chooses not to reveal. So, he'll admit, he's adapted. "I've had to, my role has changed." Still, watching Gingrich as a party leader is a little like encountering Daniel Ortega in a business suit.

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