For years he has been the bad boy of the Republican Right, the congressman whose roughhouse partisanship has delighted conservatives and enraged Democrats.
But now, having led the crusade to topple Speaker Jim Wright, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia is on the defensive, beset by many of the forces he helped set in motion.
Gingrich, who rode the ethics issue to become assistant House Republican leader, is battling charges that, like Wright, he profited unethically from a book deal financed by campaign contributors. He is also trying to contain the controversy over an aide's alleged role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of homosexuality about Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who replaced Wright as Speaker.
"Newt has made a career out of attacking people around here and trying to rip them apart," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a liberal who has clashed bitterly with Gingrich. "Now the shoe is on the other foot. He's going to have to answer for a lot of things."
Controversy is nothing new to Gingrich, 45, who has crusaded passionately against the "corruption" of Democratic House leaders since he was first elected to the House in 1978.
At a time when most of his GOP colleagues were resigned to their minority status, he and other young conservatives went on the offensive, launching a spirited campaign to keep the rhetorical heat on Democrats and lay the foundation for an eventual Republican majority in the House.
In the process, Gingrich earned a reputation for slashing, personal attacks and an ideological intensity that borders on evangelism. When he blasted Democratic foreign policy in a 1983 House speech, critics charged that he was questioning their patriotism in the manner of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Former Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. called it "the lowest thing" he had seen in 32 years on Capitol Hill.
Seen as Gadfly
Despite his steady attacks, opponents at first viewed Gingrich as a political gadfly. But they took notice this year when the ethics charges he filed against Wright resulted in the Speaker's resignation.
"None of this would have happened without Newt, and that's the reason why there's so much resentment out there," said Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), a strong Gingrich supporter. "He did something no one believed he could do, but that's been typical of his career. He's just unbelievably persistent in getting what he wants."
Now, with the ethics controversy continuing to dominate Congress, the spotlight has turned on Gingrich himself. Some Republicans predict he may come in for the same kind of scrutiny that ultimately destroyed Wright.
"I think a lot of Democrats are gunning for Newt, no question," said one moderate Republican, who asked not to be identified. "He's going to come under the microscope."
For once, Gingrich seems uncomfortable with all the attention.
"I am the victim of a hypocritical, one-sided morality," he said in an interview. "I've been the whistle-blower, because I helped bring a man (Wright) who was a scoundrel to justice, and now I'm being punished for this."
Impatient With Inquiries
Gingrich, whose pudgy face is framed by a helmet of thick gray hair, added that he has little patience with the questions that have been dogging him lately.
"I'm tired of being smeared," he snapped. "I'm tired of Democrats bashing me around."
Partisan politics has been Gingrich's passion all his adult life. He lived on military bases around the world as a child before his family settled at Ft. Benning, Ga., and received a graduate degree in European history from Emory University in Atlanta, but he was soon attracted to politics. He managed a congressional campaign in 1964 and worked on Nelson A. Rockefeller's southeast presidential campaign in 1968. He taught history and geography at West Georgia College and, after two losses, was finally elected to Congress in 1978.
His sixth two-year term has been his most controversial. Gingrich came under new fire just last week when it was learned that Karen Van Brocklin, an aide in his office, had spread sexual rumors about Foley to reporters.
'Stupidly Said Yes'
In an interview, Gingrich insisted that Van Brocklin had merely been asked by a reporter if there were stories circulating about Foley's personal life, "and she stupidly said yes." He said it was wrong for her to have talked with the press, but he did not criticize her for disseminating the rumors.
Several reporters offered a different account. Speaking not for attribution, they said she had brought up the subject of Foley's alleged behavior with at least three news organizations and had tried to get them to publish stories on the subject by claiming other newspapers were about to do so. No such story was ever published.
The episode infuriated Democrats. "This is a new low for him," said Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He's engaged in personal attacks before, but I can't remember anything quite this bad."
Gingrich later apologized to Foley but refused Democratic demands that he fire Van Brocklin. Instead, he instructed her not to talk with the press again.
"That's quite a punishment he handed out," said Frank. "Newt has gotten intoxicated with this kind of stuff. It's pure sleaze."
Cites Coelho Incident
Gingrich said the story has been blown out of proportion. Changing the subject, he recalled that House Majority Whip Tony Coelho of Merced had circulated to his colleagues a 1984 magazine article about the breakup of Gingrich's first marriage.
"I don't recall any Democrats demanding an apology when that happened," he said tartly. "All of this is nothing but cheap partisanship."
The effort to spread rumors about Foley created a backlash that claimed one victim. Mark Goodin resigned as communications director of the Republican National Committee after admitting that he wrote a memo criticizing Foley as "out of the liberal closet" and compared his voting record with that of Frank, an acknowledged homosexual. Republicans from President Bush down publicly deplored the memo.
Although the Foley incident showed signs of receding by week's end, Gingrich has had no such luck with the controversy over his 1984 book, "Window of Opportunity," which showcased his conservative views. He and his wife, Marianne, used a highly unusual scheme to raise promotional funds for the book, which was co-authored by the Gingriches and a third writer.
Concerned that their publisher had only modest plans to market the book, Marianne Gingrich formed a limited partnership to finance a $105,000 marketing campaign, according to documents made available by the congressman.
The group was made up of 21 investors, including politically influential campaign donors in Gingrich's district, who contributed $5,000 each. Gingrich, although not a partner himself, solicited a $5,000 contribution from at least one of the supporters.
The book was not an enormous commercial success--it has sold about 29,000 copies so far--and investors who had been promised a share of the profits instead received tax-deductible losses.
But the Gingriches came away with more than $35,000. Under the agreement, Marianne Gingrich was paid $11,500 for helping to establish and operate the partnership. For writing the book, Gingrich and his wife each got a $5,000 advance and $7,018 in royalties.
Democrats charged that Gingrich was guilty of the same sort of actions that he had criticized Wright for in conjunction with his book, "Reflections of a Public Man."
The House Ethics Committee accused Wright of making $57,000 in royalties from his book to circumvent the congressional limits on fees for speaking or writing articles. Book royalties are exempt from these limits, and the former Speaker was found to have sold his book in bulk to special-interest groups that heard his speeches.
Gifts Key Issue
Wright was also accused of accepting gifts from a Ft. Worth businessman, George A. Mallick Jr., at a time when Mallick had a direct interest in legislation. Mallick allegedly funneled income to Wright in the form of salary payments to his wife. Wright announced his resignation as Speaker and as a House member before the charges could go before the full House.
Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) raised similar accusations against Gingrich when he filed charges in April with the Ethics Committee.
Alexander said Gingrich's book payments did not qualify as royalties but represented an attempt to evade limits on outside income. He also contended that the $105,000 in investments could be construed as gifts from people who had a direct interest in legislation before Congress. Finally, he said the salary paid to Gingrich's wife could be viewed as an attempt to funnel money to Gingrich himself.
Common Cause, the citizens lobby that had raised charges against Wright, asked the House Ethics Committee to appoint an outside counsel to check into Gingrich's book deal, much as a special counsel had investigated Wright.
Gingrich was incensed by the charges. In a heated press conference last month, during which his wife ran from the room in tears, he said his book deal was unusual but not illegal. He produced documents showing that his wife had earned her salary.
The heart of his defense, however, was that investors in the book deal got no special treatment from him and knew they were involved in a straight business transaction.
"None of the people . . . who are investors have received any unusual involvement, have received any unusual care on my part," he said. "These investors came when the publisher didn't have the total resources to adequately promote the book and get if off the ground. . . . This arrangement was worked to raise money."
Among the investors, Gregor Peterson, a Lake Tahoe investor, said that he contributed because he liked Gingrich's conservative philosophy, but that he also expected a profit. But Joseph Bigard of Bigard Oil & Manufacturing in Newton, Ill., said he viewed his $5,000 contribution not as an investment but as an endorsement of Gingrich's views.
'Enlighten the People'
"I looked on it as a political contribution and money spent to enlighten the American people on a different approach," he said in an interview with the Washington Post.
Gingrich initially tried to brush off questions about whether the investors had a stake in legislation. He later conceded that some of them did, but he stressed that he had done nothing on their behalf that he would not have done for any other constituents.
For example, the congressman said he would look out for the interests of Southwire Corp., a wire producer that employs 3,000 people in his district, even if James Richards, a company executive, had not been not among the investors. "I would be derelict in my duties if I did not," Gingrich said. "Southwire automatically has my attention every morning."
The Ethics Committee has yet to act on the complaints filed against Gingrich. Democrats do not intend to let them fade away.
"I want them to treat him fairly," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "But I certainly want them to treat him."
Staff writer Brian Couturier contributed to this story.