• U.S.

In the Eyes of Newt

8 minute read
Julie Johnson/Washington

Newt Gingrich has an eye for weakness, and when he spots it, he zooms straight in. Last week the House minority whip pounced on a tattered, Democratic- sponsored lobbying reform bill that was limping toward passage. He came in not for a kill, only to place a wound — perhaps simply for pride of marksmanship. Straightening his Scotch tartan tie, the Congressman from Georgia upended his schedule, rushed from his second-floor office, stepped onto the House floor and delivered a five-minute, late-afternoon blast. He aimed at one minor and carefully buried clause, which he decried as “designed to kill pressure from back home that has been so effective in this Congress.” (It had rankled the Christian Coalition, a sometime Gingrich ally.) Following the sneak attack, the bill saw 35 Democrats breaking from party ranks and voting with Gingrich on a procedural rule prior to the bill’s final passage. Gingrich’s mission — tweak the Democrats — was accomplished. A twinkle lights the Georgian’s pale brown eyes: “The House Democrats are obsessed with me. It’s almost funny how much they fear me.”

Power engenders fear. The Representative from Cobb County is more than a legislative bomb thrower. In the past 16 years, his guerrilla techniques have toppled one House Speaker — Jim Wright of Texas — and prompted the resignation of a senior Democrat — Tony Coelho, now a part-time adviser to the Clinton White House. This year Gingrich ambushed the crime bill and forced an embarrassed Clinton Administration into overdrive to save it. Says Mickey Edwards, a former eight-term Oklahoma Republican and now a full-time lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “He’s made the Democratic leadership deal with a strong political force on the other side.”

Now the power broker is assuming the role of the Republican Vision Man. Furthermore, with a demoralized Democratic Party facing ominous elections, Newton Leroy Gingrich may soon get a lofty title to match his aspiration — Speaker of the House in the 104th Congress. (Gingrich is already set to be leader of House Republicans once minority leader Robert Michel retires at the end of the year.) If the G.O.P. has a net gain of at least 23 new seats, Republicans will have more than 200 votes in the House for the first time in 36 years. That would give conservatives effective, if not numerical, control of Congress on many of the key issues in the Democrats’ upcoming agenda. The prospect of an even more powerful Gingrich has led to partisan and personal invective. Sputtered a congressional Democratic staff member: “This is a man who married his high school math teacher, for Chrissakes!”

But first a question: Can a man brilliant at bullying have a vision? “Gingrich is a great communicator,” says pollster Frank Luntz, a Republican who worked for Ross Perot in 1992. “He knows what it takes to say the right thing and do the right thing to get us a majority. He is Ronald Reagan, only smarter.” Preparing for his performance on the Capitol steps last week, Gingrich has had Luntz conduct focus groups every 10 days since January. And two weeks before he paraded his “Republican Contract with America,” he held what a participant called a “serious, intense” dinner at the Republican Capitol Hill Club with G.O.P. intellectuals skeptical of the gimmick. They included Bill Kristol, president of the Project for a Republican Future, the economist and columnist Lawrence Kudlow, and Wall Street Journal editor Robert L. Bartley. Observes Kristol, a senior Bush Administration official: “Newt’s a complicated man; there’s a lot of ego there, and there’s a little bit of susceptibility to grandiose promises. He can sort of invent this giant scheme for the future, and his acolytes tell him that it’s great.” Still, said one participant, “I don’t agree with Newt on everything, but there’s virtually no other elected official in Washington who could or would sit at the table and argue about ideas.”

With the exception, perhaps, of Bill Clinton. And Gingrich’s life has surprising — if often superficial — parallels with the President’s. Both are Southerners. They are about the same age (Gingrich, at 51, is three years older). Both own classic Ford Mustangs. Both got deferments from the Vietnam draft (Clinton’s 2-S student dodge, Gingrich’s 3-A married-with-children exemption). They share dopey explanations for marijuana use. (Clinton: “I didn’t inhale.” Gingrich: “I tried it once; it had no effect on me.”) Both took the names of their stepfathers (Clinton was born Blythe; Gingrich, McPherson). Most important, Gingrich one-on-one is as effective as Clinton. Said a multiterm Democrat: “I do think many on our side have miscalculated when it comes to him. He can be very charming.”

Can the charm survive the harsher spotlight of the winner’s circle? Already questions are being raised about Gingrich’s chairmanship of GOPAC, an organization that some assert is devoted solely to promoting Gingrich and his ideas. His Democratic challenger in Georgia two weeks ago claimed that GOPAC spends nearly $2 million a year and was illegally contributing four times as much to candidates as was permitted by law. Says Gingrich: “We legally obey every regulation. I understand my critics are fixated and pathologically disoriented, but they’re my opponents. Why would I try to correct that?” As for the substance of the complaint, he adds, “It’s crazy, dishonorable, dishonest, and I think he knows that.”

Senior Republican members of the House, however, are worried that GOPAC may be Gingrich’s Achilles’ heel. Said one: “He is brilliant and has an enormous future if he does not outsmart himself. He’s got to be more sensitive to these fund-raising things.” Gingrich does not deny giving money to House Republican challengers ($35,000 so far this election cycle, with the intention of maxing out at $100,000), and he has pressured safe-seat incumbents to do so as well. However, he points out that the funds come from his own war chest, which is not a violation of the law. As for allegations that GOPAC secretly subsidizes candidates, he notes that the Democratic Leadership Council “produced Bill Clinton.” To correct misimpressions, Gingrich plans to recommend that GOPAC find another helmsman. He’ll be happy being “honorary chairman.”

And how will Gingrich take greater scrutiny of his private life? A normally expansive man, his verbal pace slows to a crawl when describing details of his first marriage and its dissolution. (He has since remarried.) “I don’t talk about it much,” he told TIME. “I met my ex-wife when she was my high school math teacher . . . at Baker High School in Columbus, Georgia.” Married after his freshman year at Emory University, he says what he calls the “random accident” of their getting together “seemed to make sense at the time. I can’t look back badly, from the standpoint that I have two wonderful daughters whom I am very close to and adore and who are wonderful.” But Gingrich pointedly dismissed as a “caricature” the “hit job” journalism that recounts that he served her with divorce papers as she recovered from cancer surgery. “It’s one of those things that becomes a myth. Which, by the way, is / not to say that as seen by my ex-wife, it didn’t happen. It was never a question of serving papers; the question was, I always carried papers with me, and I was taking our two daughters to see her in the hospital where she was recovering from surgery, and the question is, Was there a conversation, how did the conversation evolve and who is saying what to whom?”

That is not the image Gingrich puts on public display. Instead he focuses on a vision of “cybernetic democracy” and keeps his eyes on the bigger prize he could garner after November. With Congress expected to adjourn at week’s end, Democrats now outnumber Republicans by a 256-178 majority. Things almost certainly will be different come January. Predicts confident Illinois Republican Henry Hyde: “The Democrats are in for one hell of a ride. Having been the dominant power for 40 years, they’ve grown complacent and arrogant. They’re going to chafe and be irritated to the point of swallowing aspirin by the handfuls, and it’s going to be fun for us to watch them react to the slings and arrows that are going to come their way on a daily basis.” Oddly enough, a more conservative Congress may place Gingrich in the role of conciliator. Political analysts argue that he could emerge as a stabilizing figure when compared with some fire-eating Sunbelt Republicans. Says Kevin Phillips, author of the newly published Arrogant Capital: “((Texas Representative)) Dick Armey is going to make Gingrich look like the man in the gray flannel suit. He’s going to look like the man you . . . call and give the serious arguments to.”

When asked, Gingrich is suitably and predictably coy about his future. A recent Los Angeles Times public opinion survey found that 65% of Americans had “never heard of” Newt Gingrich. Still, the words should be mouthed: “President Gingrich?” And is that the sound of more Democrats sputtering?

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