THE 104TH CONGRESS : Gingrich’s Gavel Sends a Signal to New Political Power Rangers : Capitol Hill: ‘Newt!’ the triumphant new Speaker is cheered. Freshman lawmakers, talk show hosts, other super-heroes are in their glory.
On this crystalline day of contrasts, as the brilliant white of the Capitol dome shone in a cloudless blue winter sky, the Democratic dinosaurs were buried and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers rose to replace them.
Swept aside were 40 years of Democratic dominance in Congress as triumphant new Speaker Newt Gingrich pounded the House podium at 1:33 p.m. EST with a new Georgia walnut gavel the size of a 16-pound splitting maul.
At that instant, a cheer went up in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where friends and family members of the new Congress gathered to watch the historic ceremonies on four large-screen television sets.
“Newt! Newt! Newt!” many in the hall shouted, as the giddy, combative, bombastic and visionary Georgian ended one epoch, hoping to usher in another--the Age of Newt.
It was, in sum, a day like no other on Capitol Hill. Beginning with a prayer breakfast in which the new Republican majority was urged to show mercy to their fellow citizens, so that they too might receive mercy, and ending past midnight with a flurry of legislative action and a patriotic celebration in a hotel ballroom.
In between, as Gingrich presided over the center ring in the House chamber, a phantasmagoria of events unfolded in and around the Capitol.
From makeshift studios in basement offices, radio talk show hosts hawked their ideological wares, while outside the sun-soaked East Front protesters from the National Organization for Women chanted “Two, four, six, eight, the contract with America ain’t so great.”
Lobbyists filled every reception room on the Hill with free food and drink, as if to say that the more things change, the more the influence-buyers remain the same.
A battery of 18 minicams was planted on the Capitol lawn, aimed at the dome like so many pieces of enfilading artillery.
Across the stage strode new members of Congress, flush with the expectation of remaking an institution that has thwarted the ambition of generations.
One such newcomer, Republican Zach Wamp of Chattanooga, Tenn., a die-cast and fresh-scrubbed freshman full of zeal, exulted, “It is a fantastic day for all Americans,” as he prepared to bound up the stairs toward the House chamber for his investiture as one of Newt’s minions. “This is the beginning of the downsizing of the federal government.”
Even so hoary a veteran of American politics as David S. Broder of the Washington Post, the cardinal of capital political correspondents, could not contain his exhilaration at the history he was about to witness.
“I’m about to see something I’ve never seen in my entire career--the installation of a Republican Congress,” Broder said.
The House press galleries were packed with reporters who seldom venture into the alien turf of Congress but who could not resist an opportunity to be present at the GOP ascendancy.
Below them on the floor, infants and small children squirmed and whimpered in their parents’ laps, their presence both a House tradition and evidence of the new leadership’s avowed emphasis on family life.
Two floors below, deep in the bowels of the Capitol building, talk show host G. Gordon Liddy was interviewing a new Republican member, Mark Edward Souder of Indiana.
The conservative Souder, who lists his occupation as general store owner, thanked the Watergate burglar for “all the work you’ve done to educate Americans and help elect a reform Congress to get all those fingers of government off your neck and off the necks of all Americans.”
Three doors down, Larry Bensky of KPFK in Los Angeles, an affiliate of the leftist Pacifica Radio network, derided Liddy and his conservative brethren in broadcasting. “It’s fair to say that Gordon and I are not on the same page. We speak the truth!” Bensky said. He planned to interview Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. Bernard Sanders, the progressive independent from Vermont, to get the liberal perspective on the day’s events.
Quite a few House Democrats managed to contain their excitement on Day One of the Republican revolution.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) was one of a handful of members in the House chamber who refused to rise when Gingrich was escorted down the center aisle, casting about with an almost embarrassed expression at the company she was forced to keep.
She remained seated and declined to clap as others jumped to their feet at some of Gingrich’s more partisan applause lines during his acceptance speech.
“From time to time I give myself permission to exercise some integrity with respect to my feelings,” she said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby shortly after the speech. “I was not feeling any sense of pleasure or joy.”
Waters said that her stoic actions were neither planned nor intended to dishonor Gingrich’s triumphant day. “It was no big statement,” she said.
Rather, she added, a melancholy mood washed over her as she sat on the House floor, a sense that it would have been only a “hypocritical motion” to celebrate when she clearly felt otherwise.
While all this ruckus was going on, the Senate was much more subdued, as is its custom. The members were sworn in by Vice President Al Gore in groups of four or five and then the upper body broke for lunch.
Capitol tours went on as usual, although the numbers were smaller and security much tighter than normal. Hoban Yoon, a visitor from Seoul, said that he was aware that Wednesday was the opening day of the new Congress and that he had heard “a different party had gained power.”
“We thought there was a special ceremony or show--but we didn’t have an invitation,” Yoon said as he craned to view the fresco on the ceiling of the Capitol dome.
Toward the end of a long day, Gingrich arrived late at the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show, where the rainbow-suited characters who “morph” into high-tech super-heroes to defeat futuristic villains cartwheeled and signed autographs for about 300 school-aged children of members and staff.
After going through their high-kicking, fist-throwing and crime-fighting television show routine, the Power Rangers stood, arms akimbo, as Gingrich rushed onto the stage.
Linking the Power Rangers’ popularity with youngsters to his appeal with their parents, he noted that their emphasis on “family values” and “anti-drug” messages fit nicely with GOP political themes. And, he added, “they are multiethnic role models with male and female characters.”
Times staff writers Michael Ross and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.
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