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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.

"He's a good student, but it's been a real challenge for him," says Rich Galen, a Republican image consultant hired by Gingrich. "I had to tell him, you can't scream into the microphone any more. Late one night, he heard someone say something on the floor, and I had to physically restrain him from barreling in there and popping off."

It's hard to know whether Gingrich has yet become comfortable with his new role-- or, for that matter, whether he can ever be described as "comfortable." He has a nervous energy, a kind of subliminal buzzing suggestive of the vibrating filament of a light bulb. He paces while he reads, and in meetings, he compulsively chews his nails.

"I spend almost all my discretionary time in the development of two big ideas: an America that can be successful and a Republican Party that can be successful," he says. And he pursues those ideas with the relentlessness of a repo man, exhausting aides and friends with round-the-clock faxes, late night and early morning calls. "He never smiles, he never tells jokes, he's the most joyless man I've ever dealt with," says one congressional aide. "He's constantly trying to convert you."

In the process, his statements sound like questions, waiting for feedback. "What I am trying to do is create a intellectual construct ?" he says, a game plan "to replace the welfare state ? And I'm trying to create the intellectual framework for a Republican doctrine of self-government ? Which allows us to attract intellectuals in greater numbers than Democrats do ?"

The most trivial declaration is invariably followed with a justification. "I like to stand," he says, adding, "I hate sitting." He writes at a stand-to desk, "like Churchill." He says, "I like movies: They're cultural events." He's on the Slim-Fast diet: "I like shakes."

"He's one of the most insecure people I've ever met," says one associate. "It's really kind of touching, but I always got the sense that he constantly needs positive reinforcement. I have a theory: Newt is the fat kid who always got beaten up and now finds himself with power.'

AN INTERESTING THEORY, BUT A LITTLE OFF THE MARK. NEWT WAS A BOOKISH child, a youngster whose ability to form close bonds with peers was limited by his stepfather's life. His parents divorced when he was an infant and, by the time Newt turned 3, an Army artillery officer named Robert C. Gingrich had married Newt's mother Catherine and adopted her young son. From then on, the young Gingrich led the peripatetic life of an Army brat.

One of Gingrich's childhood friends describes his mother as "very sweet and a little bit scatterbrained" and his stepfather as "scary," a distant authority figure. Gingrich once admitted that he couldn't finish Pat Conroy's novel, "The Great Santini," about a teen-ager's efforts to prove himself to his father, an overbearing military officer. The story, he implied, hit too close to home.

By the time he hit his mid-teens, he had established himself as a boy of the world with a near-encyclopedic grasp of history. Newt was cocky, more than a little arrogant, and preferred the company of teachers to fellow students. "He was precocious," says Nando Amabile, who taught English at the American School in Stuttgart, Germany. "He was a man-child. He had read more books than I had, could synthesize concepts and facts with real perceptiveness and clarity."

It was at this time, Gingrich says, that he found his calling. Typically, it was a melodramatic moment. His stepfather took him on a trip to the World War I battlefield at Verdun, triggering a moment of self-realization. "I realized that ideas mattered, that actions had consequences," he recalls. "I saw that there was an ongoing struggle for liberty and freedom and that the stuff in the history books was real."

Gingrich says his political aspirations crystallized aboard a military transport vessel on the voyage home. It was then he says he decided to lay the groundwork for a political career in Georgia, where his family had been relocated. "I saw this would consume me; it would destroy me," he recalls. "It was an epiphany."

Pudgy and bespectacled, Gingrich was, at first glance, a classic nerd at high school in Columbus, Ga. "He had no taste in clothing," marvels Jim Tilden, now one of his closest friends. "It was hard to describe--it wasn't jeans, it wasn't dressy, it was just . . . awful." Gingrich ran Tilden's successful insurgent campaign for student council president. "He just kept after me to meet everyone," says Tilden. "It was quintessential Newt--a blanket strategy where we gave everything we got."

Gingrich also kept after pretty, popular Jackie Battley, his geometry teacher. After he graduated, she moved to Atlanta, he attended Emory University, and a year later they were married, despite her being seven years his senior.

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