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Tireless Campaign Against Wright Transforms Gadfly

Times Staff Writer

No one took him seriously two years ago when Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) undertook a herculean, one-man campaign against the ethical conduct of House Speaker Jim Wright.

In the eyes of his congressional colleagues--Republicans as well as Democrats--Gingrich was little more than an overzealous, conservative gadfly. Not one of his fellow Republicans was willing to join him in filing ethics charges against Wright, and Wright dismissed Gingrich at the time as nothing more harmful than “a gnat.”

But Gingrich’s tireless efforts paid off handsomely last year when he persuaded the House Ethics Committee to conduct a formal investigation of the Speaker. That made Gingrich an instant hero among his beleaguered GOP colleagues and even Wright modified his opinion.

“My views of him are somewhat similar to those of a fire hydrant toward a dog,” the Speaker remarked.

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Benefits of Persistence

On Wednesday, Gingrich reaped the benefits of his persistence by being chosen to serve in the second-highest position in the House Republican minority--an honor that would have been beyond his grasp before his assault on Wright and a recent surge of partisanship in Congress after Senate Democrats rejected the nomination of John Tower as defense secretary.

“Timing is everything in politics,” remarked one GOP strategist. “If it hadn’t been for the Wright thing and Tower happening at the same time, Gingrich never could have won.” For Gingrich, 45, a former history professor, his election as assistant minority leader is an endorsement of his confrontational style by fellow Republicans. For Wright, who is awaiting the results of the Gingrich-inspired ethics investigation, it comes as yet another sign of the GOP’s determination to deprive him of his speakership.

In his new position, Gingrich has made it clear that he does not intend to let up until Wright has been ousted from the leadership and the Republicans have achieved a ruling majority in the House--something that has been denied them since 1954.

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Controversial Qualities

Persistence, confrontation and a sense of timing--these are the personality traits that Gingrich brings to his position in the House Republican leadership. They are the qualities that made him the narrow 87-85 choice of his GOP colleagues and the enemy of Democrats.

An ambitious young man who decided in his childhood that he would change the world, Gingrich ran three times for Congress, succeeding in 1978. He taught history and environmental studies at West Georgia College before entering politics. Even then, many of the Southern Republicans who supported him were put off by this abrasive, transplanted Yankee from Harrisburg, Pa.

In Congress, Gingrich quickly made it clear that he intended to be a different kind of House Republican--neither moderate in his views nor accommodating toward the majority. Along with other young conservatives in the House, he founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group that proposes to replace welfare with private-sector opportunities.

Infuriates O’Neill

After television cameras were introduced on the House floor in 1979, Gingrich became one of the first to take advantage of the medium. His televised late-afternoon tirades against the Democrats’ “corrupt, left-wing machine” so infuriated then-House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) that he ordered the camera to pan the chamber while Gingrich was speaking to show all the empty seats.

The incident prompted a shouting match between the two congressmen on the House floor and O’Neill was rebuked by the House membership for accusing Gingrich of “the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”

Gingrich’s campaign against Wright started modestly with a few speeches. Not until his complaints against the Speaker won the editorial backing of the Wall Street Journal and the endorsement of Common Cause did he formally file a complaint with the Ethics Committee.

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For his efforts, Gingrich has been the brunt of Democratic attacks for several years.

In 1984, Democrats placed in the Congressional Record a copy of an unflattering article that appeared in the magazine Mother Jones. It detailed how Gingrich had gone to see his first wife, Jackie, while she was hospitalized with cancer to ask her for a divorce.

Last July, Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, charged that Gingrich had taken $13,000 from financial backers almost a decade ago to finance a book that never was published. Anthony said that this proved the Georgia Republican was guilty of “hypocrisy” in criticizing Wright’s book-publishing profits.

Book Comes Under Fire

Another book that Gingrich wrote in 1984 with his second wife, Marianne, has come under fire because he solicited $105,000 from investors, who formed a highly unusual business partnership designed to promote the book.

Likewise, Democrats charged that a political action committee headed by Gingrich collected $217,000 but spent only $3,000 to help conservative candidates for Congress.

As a Republican leader with the responsibility of gathering Democratic votes for President Bush’s programs, Gingrich acknowledges that he will be called upon to assume a new, more conciliatory role. Insisting that he is capable of it, he even campaigned as “the new Newt.”

But his critics doubt that he can change his well-known political persona. Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.) said: “It’s the dilemma that Newt is going to have to face that he didn’t have to face as a vigorous back bencher.”

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