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Leadership Riff: Jazzy Vision, Steady Beat

GOP: Wanted--a combination of Gingrich's intellect and Livingston's management.

November 11, 1998|WILLIAM F. CONNELLY Jr. and JOHN J. PITNEY Jr. | William F. Connelly Jr. is a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. John J. Pitney Jr. is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. They are co-authors of "Congress' Permanent Minority? Republicans in the U.S. House" (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1994)

Newt Gingrich, a former history professor, may be feeling like Julius Caesar, with Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) as Brutus. Gingrich led the GOP to majority status and then reached over several more senior members to hand the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee to Livingston. After the 1998 election, Livingston repaid the favor by launching his own bid for the speakership, which helped trigger Gingrich's resignation. Et tu, Bob?

In any case, Gingrich is in good company. British voters booted Winston Churchill at the close of World War II. Perhaps like Churchill, Gingrich's constituents see him--to paraphrase "The Godfather"--as more of a wartime consigliere. Managing the peace calls for different leadership skills.

One final historical analogy: Unlike Moses, Gingrich at least made it to the promised land--in his case, majority status.

While he is no Caesar, Churchill or Moses, Gingrich will go down in history as the strongest speaker in the modern era. One has to go back to the turn-of-the-century "czars," Speakers Thomas Brackett Reed and "Uncle Joe" Cannon, to find Gingrich's match. And he can claim one of his favorite titles: transformational leader. He ended the House GOP's 40 years in the "permanent minority" wilderness, revolutionized congressional procedures on the first day of his speakership, brought Congress into the cyber-age and sent scholars scrambling to reinterpret congressional leadership.

Gingrich also forced President Clinton to proclaim that "the era of big government is over." Would the federal government have balanced the budget, cut taxes, reformed welfare and begun a devolution of responsibility back to the states under a Democratic majority?

Yet like Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Gingrich combines great virtues with great defects. Gingrich has vision where the rest of his colleagues are wearing bifocals. Gingrich the professor understands that politics is education. Who had even heard of the "bully pulpit" of the speakership prior to Gingrich? Indeed, as a transformational leader, Gingrich practically invented the "outsider" national public role for congressional leadership. Tip O'Neill illustrated the old attitude toward the speakership when he titled his memoirs "Man of the House." Gingrich exemplified the change with the title of his 1995 book: "To Renew America."

Gingrich's media persona, however, became radioactive. Fairly or unfairly, he is too easy to demonize. Some would have you believe that Gingrich can't say "Good Morning, America" on ABC without scaring small children. Or maybe his stridency better serves a minority party in opposition, whereas responsibly governing as a majority requires a different set of "insider" legislative skills.

If Gingrich's "outside" game and media image hurt the House GOP, he never really had an inside game; he never took to managing the details of the legislative process. Gingrich is an intellectual, not a legislator. With a slim six-vote majority, House Republicans need someone who can manage legislation and work with Democrats. They might choose from among their ranks party leaders who are creatures of the committee culture and know how to legislate, how to work with various party factions and how to reach across the aisle. Heir-apparent Livingston has the "insider" skills. And yet in the post-Gingrich era, a legislative party leader also must effectively play the outside media game.

Like good jazz, great legislative leadership requires innovative, risk-taking spontaneity, combined with a reliable, steady back beat. Great legislative leadership calls for confrontation and accommodation as well as the ability to play both the outside and inside game. One without the other is not enough.

House Republicans are in search of a few good men (or women) as party leaders. But individuals who combine all the requisite virtues of legislative leadership are rare. Try naming one.

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