HIS SMALL EYES BORE INTO HIS AUDIENCE WITH THE INTENSIty of searchlights. A few hundred Young Republicans reciprocate with worshipful focus. They are jammed, Jos. A. Banks-by-Laura Ashley, into some concrete auditorium on George Washington University's campus. They are mesmerized.
"The challenge to your generation is not to find creative new ways to use the bureaucracy," says Newt Gingrich. "The challenge is to be creative and to make a real difference. It's a demand to rethink at the ground level everything we do in this society."
These kids are the GOP's future, and Gingrich--a former college professor, six-term Georgian congressman and the prototypical hard-core Republican--knows it. Many have made the pilgrimage to this city of entrenched special interests and ossified bureaucracies to hear his how-to of hell-raising, to experience the gospel according to Gingrich.
"Too bad he isn't as 'on' as he can be," a handler apologizes as Gingrich bolts through his material. The performance does seem a bit perfunctory, but it hardly matters. No one actually expected to hear anything new today. His speech--stitched together from some 500 pages of raw material he says he's committed to memory--is the usual litany about welfare statism and the glories to be had in a "conservative opportunity society," punctuated by a few zingers at star-crossed Democrats like Jimmy Carter. Actually, the crowd might have been disappointed if the performer had veered from the tried-and-true.
That's what happens when you're a walking icon, which Gingrich is. Once, he advised a similar group of fresh-faced idealists to "do things that may be wrong, but do something," explaining that one of the Republican Party's "great problems" has been that "we don't encourage you to be nasty."
Once, the party youth had to be told such things; in the post-Reagan era, they don't, and a new generation of Republicans is being weaned on Gingrich's vituperative strain of conservative politics. "He's the guy who told Tip O'Neill to go to hell," gushes a young Republican. "Newt," crows Josh Magruder of Syracuse University, "is our hero."
"Born to teach," Gingrich likes to say of himself. "Born to make life miserable for the rest of us," counters one senior Bush Administration official.
Gingrich is among a handful of leaders to define the conservative ideology of a new age. With the death of former Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, he is angling to emerge as the party's pre-eminent tactician, plotting a long-dreamed-of, forever-deferred Republican takeover of Congress. "I'll do almost anything to win a Republican majority in the Congress," he pledges. He means it. "I will not rest," he also vows, "until I have transformed the landscape of American politics."
His are the same kind of take-no-prisoners tactics that the nation became acquainted with during George Bush's own blitzkrieg presidential campaign. Except that Gingrich had honed and perfected the skills of political harassment while Bush had politely been waiting his turn to run for President. After 13 years representing suburban Atlanta's Seventh District, Gingrich has cinched the prize as the Rottweiler of the GOP and, so he claims, the most hated man on Capitol Hill.
"THEY DON'T LOVE ME, but they respect me," says Gingrich of his political antagonists. That respect, he would tell you, accounts for his wind-sprint up the ladder. Ridiculed when he wasn't ignored after his arrival in Congress, he is today, at age 48, the second-ranking Republican leader in the House, the minority whip, heir presumptive to the leader's slot itself and, if Republicans ever do take control of the House, a prime contender for the speakership.
Will he stop there? Not if he has any say in it. He bandies around lines like "I want to shift the entire planet, and I'm doing it." He's talking about an overhaul of the nation's political consciousness, one that will lob Republicans into office and wield free-market-style economic incentives to lift the nation out of its mire of social ills. "Newt has big plans, big dreams," says Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), Gingrich's best friend and closest ally in the House.
In the interim, Gingrich's political enemies have mostly gone into hiding or have had their political innards splattered over the pages of hometown newspapers. They sometimes find relief in jokes like this one that circulated during the Gulf War: You find yourself alone in a room with Saddam Hussein and Newt Gingrich and you have two bullets in your gun. What do you do? Shoot Newt twice. Sometimes they settle for a simple prayer that he will lose his job: Last year, in the midst of the campaign season, a poster appeared in the Democratic cloakroom wishing for a "Newt-free Congress."
But Gingrich often gets the last laugh. He almost lost his last election, escaping political oblivion by a few hundred votes. "Some folks just wanted to teach ol' Newt a little lesson," says Atlanta pollster Claiborne Darden. "They thought he'd gone Washington on them." Since then, he has taken the lesson to heart, adopting a new solicitousness toward local matters.
The list of Gingrich's luckless adversaries makes for impressive reading: Former House Speaker Thomas P. ( Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was humiliated on the floor after a run-in with Gingrich; Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), O'Neill's successor, was drummed out of politics in the wake of a scandal ignited by Gingrich; Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), a former ranking leader and fast-rising pol, saw his career relegated to political obscurity after a feud with the Georgian.
If Gingrich hasn't yet succeeded in reshaping the American polity, he surely has played a role in transforming the nature of the House. Never the Oxford Debating Society, the chamber today is akin to a political roller derby, where partisans practice a kind of thumb-in-the-eye, knee-in-the-groin politics that leaves many veterans pining for the old days.
"Sometimes, it seems like a rougher kind of place," sighs Rep. Jamie L. Whitten, the venerable Mississippi Democrat. Agrees Gingrich's superior, House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois: "Some days, you think of hiring a food taster."
The change is not all Gingrich's doing. The ideological clashes of the 1980s, when conservatives and liberals battled for control of the national agenda, left bruised limbs all around. But Gingrich's combative language and style have helped mold the institution and, by extension, the way official Washington goes about the nation's business.
"Newt's just not willing to haze the distinctions between Democrats and Republicans, even if it means he forfeits the compromises needed to produce legislation. A lot of his colleagues have picked up on that," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. Weber puts it even more succinctly: "Newt is the most skillful practitioner of the politics of polarization I know."
Gingrich has dismissed the House as a "corrupt institution," its Democratic leadership as "sick" and its last three Speakers as "a trio of muggers." "A tin-horn Joe McCarthy," harrumphs Democratic Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin. "He'll stab you in the back in a New York second," states Alexander.
Such jabs don't faze Gingrich. "I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it," he says. "Of course people are going to resent that." But the barbs--and the actions that provoke them--do discomfit some of Gingrich's fellow Republicans. Most try to say something nice about him for the record, but many, when pressed, express deep suspicion about his motives and apprehension about his impact on Washington's political culture. They wince at some of his antics, about the time someone in his office helped propagate rumors that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley was a homosexual, about the time he called Kitty Dukakis a "drug addict," about the time his political action committee sent out a letter to Republican candidates advising them to "talk like Newt" by characterizing Democrats with words such as "traitor."
"He makes the rest of us seem kinder and gentler, and I suppose there's something to be said for that," says Rep. Fred Grandy. Fellow Iowa Republican Jim Leach isn't so sure. "I shudder," he mutters "at the thought that people judge the Republican Party by him."
Gingrich's tactics have also alienated legions of onetime supporters, many of whom become embroiled in near-eschatological discussions about the morality of their former friend. "If you were to assemble all the people who used to support Newt but have turned against him, you'd have an unbeatable coalition," says Lee Howell, a Carrollton, Ga., journalist who worked with him in his early campaigns for Congress. L. H. (Kip) Carter, a former campaign treasurer, calls Gingrich "the most amoral man I have ever met." Gingrich's former pastor in Morrow, Ga., the Rev. Brantley Harwell, will only refine that charge a smidgen: "He is a politically amoral man."
Even Vin Weber, an unabashed admirer, voices the same skepticism many of Gingrich's erstwhile friends express about the depth of his convictions. "He's a close ally of the Right. He views himself as part of the Right in terms of his objec tives. But if you ask him the core question--if he were out of politics is this where he would find himself?--the answer is much shakier," Weber says, conceding that "Newt's not a conservative; he's an opportunist."
NEWTON LEROY GINGRICH, GIFTED AND ECCENTRIC, EFFECTIVELY BECAME A politician before he hit puberty, although he says he wasn't conscious of his fate until the age of 15. "Since I was 9, I've been oriented toward facilitating the media," he now says.
Gingrich, who once dreamed of becoming a vertebrate paleontologist, first entered the world of press manipulation shortly before he turned 10, in the town of his birth--Harrisburg, Pa. One day, Newt told his mother he was going to the library. Instead, he hopped a bus downtown, found his way to the mayor's office and made the case for a local zoo. Tickled, the mayor sent him to the local newspaper, where Newt informed the editor that "your mayor and I were talking about Harrisburg having a zoo. He thought you might give us some newspaper support." The charmed editor asked if he would like to write a column on the subject. Newt didn't know how to type, but he proceeded to peck out a tract, which ran on the front page.
A couple of years later, he convinced a local pet store owner that it would be good advertising to have his animals displayed on TV. Then he talked a local station into putting him on the air. And, for five minutes each week, little Newt identified various exotic fauna for the viewing public.
"My relationship with the media has been symbiotic from the beginning," he says.
Thirty years later, Gingrich's media-consciousness would serve him even better. In the early '80s, the young congressman and fellow conservatives banded together to form a group they called the Conservative Opportunity Society, to stand in contrast to the supposed liberal welfare society.
Most House members, however, considered the COS to be a band of right-wing nuts who would stand in the well of the chamber and, for hours after the day's business had ended, harangue the empty seats and an occasional befuddled tourist in the gallery. "People thought we were crazy," says Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania.
But Gingrich and his fellow COSers realized something that hadn't fully dawned on their thicker colleagues: C-SPAN had arrived, carrying to cable viewers every word spoken for the record on the House floor. These children of C-SPAN drove Democrats wild with their nightly perorations.
One day in 1984, after Gingrich had accused Democrats of being "blind to communism," fingered one member for placing "communist propaganda" in the Speaker's lobby and accused O'Neill himself of using a word that came "all too close to resembling a McCarthyism of the left," the venerable Speaker exploded.
"You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism," O'Neill thundered, "and it is the lowest thing that I've seen in my 32 years in Congress."
Gingrich's predecessor as whip, Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) immediately sprang from his seat. In the supposedly decorous House, members are barred from launching personal attacks against one another on the floor, a rule about which Gingrich had pirouetted with near-gymnastic skill. The presiding officer had no choice and ruled in Lott's favor. The confrontation with O'Neill was big news, and Gingrich announced, "I am now a famous person."
GINGRICH IS UNWINDING IN A PRIVATE TURBOPROP, RETURNING FROM A fund-raiser for Republican members of the New Jersey Legislature. His keynote speech was but a faint echo of the anti-Democratic fusillades on which he built his career, packed as it was with references to such present-day conservative touchstones as education reform and economic empowerment. The audience, mostly pragmatists who look askance at their radical brethren in the GOP, received him respectfully, even warmly.
"What did you think?" he asks an aide with undisguised anxiety.
"I thought it went well," obligingly replies the aide, the sort of fresh-faced, well-scrubbed type that populates Gingrich's staff.
"Good!" Gingrich says, relieved. "I didn't want to scare them off."
Gingrich looks different now than he did in those days of parliamentary guerrilla fighting. The unruly, pseudo-Phil Donahue hair helmet is more meticulously coiffed. He's either lost weight--a matter of perpetual concern--or his clothes fit better. He looks like part of the Establishment, which is something he became part of in 1989 when he was elected whip.
"If you were to walk around the House and say, even to Republicans, 'What do you think of Gingrich?' they'd start to . . . . " Gingrich's voice trails off before he answers his own question with an anecdote. "One sweet lady walked up to me the other night and said: 'You know, I always thought you were a kook when I saw you on TV.' "
Gingrich grins mirthfully. He has mastered the art of the interview, as befits a politician of his stature, managing to convey the illusion of confidence while actually betraying little that he chooses not to reveal. So, he'll admit, he's adapted. "I've had to, my role has changed." Still, watching Gingrich as a party leader is a little like encountering Daniel Ortega in a business suit.
"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.
He headed to Tulane for a history Ph.D. and assumed the role of liberal Republican campus activist. He helped coordinate Nelson Rockefeller's 1968 presidential campaign in the Southeast. Exempted from the draft by his student status, he did not participate in the great anti-war and civil-rights crusades of his day. He did, however, lead protests against the Tulane administration, which sought to prevent the student newspaper from publishing pictures of nudes.
Finally, the Gingriches arrived in Carrollton, Ga., with two daughters in tow. He took up a post at West Georgia State College and built a reputation as a liberal thinker in a land of redneck Democrats. He was popular, with a reputation as an easy grader; his annual pig roasts were big events. He founded an environmental-studies program and taught a futurism course. If his lectures rambled a bit, his intellectual effervescence and far-out ideas kept his students' interest.
"He was kind of a pied piper for all the freaks," recalls Lee Howell, who had Gingrich for a class. "They'd go over to his house and drink wine, talk about the future, the environment, big-picture stuff. He was a dreamer."
Most of all, it seems, Gingrich dreamed of his political career. He jumped into an impossible congressional race against the aging incumbent, Dixiecrat John Flynt, positioning himself as as liberal reformer. Two years later, he took on Flynt again and sought endorsements from both the liberal National Committee for a Free and Effective Congress and the conservative Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress--a classic case of studied ambivalence in the service of winning votes. "I didn't have much choice," he says of his mid-'70s stance, "considering where Flynt was and what he represented."
The pitch got him nowhere. His 1974 campaign was swamped by Watergate. Then, Jimmy Carter's position on the 1976 ticket made it difficult for a Republican in Georgia to be elected to much of anything, and Gingrich lost again. But when Flynt announced his retirement in 1978, the nation was swinging rightward. So did Gingrich. Facing Georgia state Sen. Virginia Shapard, he finally unleashed the political firepower for which he later become renowned.
"I think Newt says what he thinks people want to hear," says the Rev. Harwell, "He sensed the country was headed to the right, so that's where he went."
In September, 1978, polls showed Gingrich trailing badly. But then he hit his stride, downplaying his own positions on issues, hiring a TV consultant renowned for brass-knuckled television spots and ridiculing Shapard for her previous post as a state welfare official.
The coup de grace came after Gingrich discovered that Shapard planned to commute to Washington. The campaign came up with a new ad: Under a photo of the Gingrich family, it promised, "When elected, Newt will keep his family together." In patrilineal Georgia, the pitch sold.
Actually, as it turned out, Gingrich broke up his family shortly after his arrival in Washington. His 18-year marriage to Jackie, who was also his campaign manager, broke up bitterly, and he filed for divorce in April, 1980. He married his present wife, Marianne Ginther, a business consultant with strong Republican connections, shortly thereafter. That doesn't distinguish him from any of thousands of politicians except that the details of the breakup were documented in a 1984 Mother Jones article that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee delightedly circulated all over Washington.
According to Mother Jones, Gingrich pursued extramarital affairs while he was campaigning for a return to "moral values." It also went on to describe how Gingrich appeared in the hospital, yellow legal pad in hand, to discuss terms of the divorce as his wife lay recovering from her second cancer operation. Jackie confirmed the details, though Gingrich, allowing that "divorces are difficult things," says he doesn't remember the events that way.
SHORTLY AFTER HIS ELECtion, Gingrich told Nando Amabile that he wanted "American citizens to consider him as their best friend." Amabile remembers thinking, "Now there's a huge ego." Gingrich barreled through the House, making friends, making more enemies, shaking the place up.
His legislative accomplishments have been modest. Early on, he introduced a bill extending the protection of U.S. laws to colonies in outer space. His 1984 book, "Window of Opportunity," spoke breathlessly of "the corrupt, liberal welfare state," the "challenge" to "invent the systems and approaches to help people help themselves," the "fundamental threat" of "labor unions and big-city machines." In one chapter, he excitedly envisioned a day when individuals would be able to get instant computerized analyses of their golf swing.
Fittingly, the book received greatest notice for an unusual promotional deal paid for by a group of conservative political supporters. After all, Gingrich had single-mindedly pursued reports that Speaker Jim Wright essentially laundered excess earnings through his own book deal, leading to an ethics investigation that ultimately drove the Speaker from office. Now, Democrats prayed that Gingrich would be hoisted on his own petard.
Eventually, the special counsel hired by the ethics committee said there was no case against Gingrich. "It was one of the most disappointing days of my life," says one senior Democrat. "I really wanted to see him hang."
So, later, did some people in the White House. During last year's budget summit, Gingrich, as a leader, sat at the table while negotiators from both parties attempted to hammer together a five-year, deficit-busting deal. While the others bickered, Gingrich read pulp novels. "It was incredible, the arrogance of it," fumed one participant.
He said little during the negotiations--until the morning when the negotiators gathered in the Cabinet Room of the White House to present the package to President Bush. "I can't support this," Gingrich announced to the slack-jawed group. The package raised taxes without including the "economic growth measures"--especially a cut in the capital gains tax rate--that he had sought. The President and the rest of the negotiators marched outside to the Rose Garden to present their deal. Gingrich exited by another door, drove up to the Hill and began to lay strategy for the destruction of the very agreement he'd been designated to facilitate.
Bush was furious. Moderate Republicans were furious. They believed that Gingrich, as a member of the leadership, had a responsibility to support the President. "He did real damage," says Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.). "It was destructive."
Conservatives, however, were relieved. A few months earlier, they had sat Gingrich down in the office of Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) and "reminded him who elected him and who he was," recalls Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.). "Newt did the right thing."
Thanks largely to Gingrich, the first budget deal was rejected, cementing his reputation as, if not a kingmaker, then a deal-breaker. A second version--a similar one--was adopted, though that did little to change impressions. "I think," says Amabile, "he went after Bush for the same reason he went after Tip O'Neill."
Gingrich denies that. "It was a bad package" that risked tipping the economy into a recession and putting people out of work to satisfy some "abstract concept of deficit reduction," he says. "If numbers start to drive policy, you have a sort of mindlessness, almost nihilism of government, in which you end up making decisions that make no sense."
Lines like that drive some otherwise reasonable people to thoughts of homicide. After all, aren't Newt and the COSers the ones who have been bellowing for years about a balanced-budget amendment? Isn't that an abstract concept? "The guy's a chameleon," grumbles one Republican colleague.
Likewise, Gingrich had for years been calling for a radical overhaul of the Social Security system. But when Democrats started agitating last year for a cut in the Social Security payroll tax--a move that Administration officials argued would undermine the integrity of the system--Gingrich smelled political gold. He became a champion of Social Security and gleefully distributed buttons that read "Save Social Security, Vote Republican."
"Oh, you can find more examples of chameleon-like behavior than that," he concedes. "Look, I believe in pragmatism. But, it's tautological. Conservatism works. The work ethic works. Strength works. The free market works. Focusing on learning works. Preventive health works. So I can tell you with a straight face I am pragmatic, and as a result I am driven to conservatism. But I'm not dogmatic. I think if non-conservatism works, I'll look at it, too. It just doesn't work as well."
WHAT IS NEXT? GINGRICH will state repeatedly: "I want to be Speaker." That, of course, requires the support of a majority of House Republicans, who elevated him to the whip's post by a mere two-vote margin. Once current Republican leader Bob Michel retires, says former Democratic Whip Tony Coelho, "Newt's going to have a lot of competition." If the Republicans ever become the majority, Coelho says, "a different set of criteria takes over."
Gingrich's dream won't be realized, either, unless Republicans gain control of the House, a feat they have not managed since 1952. But like a die-hard Red Sox baseball fan, Gingrich says next year might see a turnaround in the fortunes of House Republicans, who now labor under a 103-seat deficit.
"This is America. There's a one-in-three chance," he says. "Harry Truman picked up 76 seats in 1948. The (Gulf War's) been won, and quickly. Assume the recession is clearly over in the fall, and you get the Democratic presidential candidates you are likely to get . . . . They're going to have a convention in New York City--as it collapses--of AIDS activists, left-wing environmentalists, ultra-feminists, unilateral disarmers and random professional politicians, with a mixture of union bosses thrown in."
He pauses, checking to make sure the lesson has sunk in. The turboprop hits an air pocket, but the professor doesn't shift his gaze. "You tell me, which party will be on the winning side of history?" Undoubtedly, he implies, the one that has Newt Gingrich on its side.