WASHINGTON -- On the day when his Republican colleagues anointed him speaker of the House, Rep. Newt Gingrich was blistered by President Clinton's top aide yesterday as a "smear and innuendo" artist whose attacks on the White House staff Sunday were "totally reckless."
"The time has come when he has to understand that he has to stop behaving like an out-of-control radio talk-show host and begin behaving like the speaker of the House of Representatives," said Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff. "He's got to abide by a higher standard here."
Republicans on Capitol Hill defended Mr. Gingrich. But what was unclear was why Mr. Gingrich had chosen this time to attack the character of the Clinton White House. On Friday, he went to the White House and pledged to work cooperatively with the president.
The Georgia Republican's latest actions suggest a future of combative relations between Washington's two dominant power centers: the White House and the new Republican leadership in Congress.
The dispute began Sunday, when Mr. Gingrich appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Asked to justify his previous claim that the Clintons' are "counterculture" figures, Mr. Gingrich replied that he had been told by a "senior" law enforcement official that up to 25 percent of the White House staff "had used drugs in the last four or five years" before they were hired.
"It's very clear that they had huge problems getting people through security clearance," he said.
The Georgia Republican appeared to be referring to information from confidential FBI background checks and questionnaires filled out by prospective White House employees. The White House's inability to process those clearances this year became a symbol to Republicans of White House inefficiency.
Mr. Gingrich also lambasted Mr. Clinton's surgeon general, M. Joycelyn Elders, who has suggested that legalization of drugs should be considered and that she did not consider the actions of her son -- who was convicted of selling cocaine -- to be a crime.
"I assume he shares her values," Mr. Gingrich said. "I assume he thinks it's OK."
Mr. Panetta declined to get into the controversy over Dr. Elders. But twice yesterday, the chief of staff summoned reporters to his office to attack Mr. Gingrich.
No 'cheap tabloid' editor
"He's not the editor of a cheap tabloid newspaper," Mr. Panetta said. "He's speaker of the House. . . . He can't, on one day, say he's trying to work with the president and the White House to try to solve the major problems of this country, and then the next day engage in tearing down people's reputations without any substance."
On Capitol Hill neither Mr. Gingrich nor his fellow Republicans were backing down.
"This White House is going to have to learn that they no longer have lap dogs on Capitol Hill," fired back Rep. Robert S. Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican and longtime ally of Mr. Gingrich.
Mr. Gingrich declined to make himself available for comment yesterday. But his top aide, Tony Blankley, defended the propriety of his boss' comments about the alleged past drug use White House officials. "He was asked a question on television, and he gave an honest public answer."
This was the identical explanation provided by Sen. Jesse Helms,the North Carolina conservative set to take over the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said just before Thanksgiving that he thought Mr. Clinton wasn't "up to" the job of commander in chief.
Mr. Panetta likened the remarks of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Helms and said that if the Republicans were going to engage in highly personal attacks, it would be harder to fashion compromise and "work on the business of the country."
Mr. Panetta also made a point of mentioning Mr. Gingrich's own past admission that, while in college, he -- like Mr. Clinton -- had experimented with marijuana.
On Sunday, Mr. Gingrich made light of that fact, noting that such drug use was common in the 1960s and that it proved no more than that "we were alive and in graduate school in that era." He said his comments about the Clinton administration staffers involved more recent conduct.
On Sunday, Mr. Gingrich attributed his information about White House officials' alleged drug use to a law enforcement official he did not identify. Yesterday, Mr. Blankley said the source was Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who sits on the House committee that oversees the White House budget.
"If the White House wants to challenge that," Mr. Blankley said, "I'm sure Mr. Wolf would be eager to look into the issue further."
"I do not want to talk about this except to say the statements [Mr. Gingrich] made on television were accurate," he said. "The White House has dealt with this."
No one seemed to know whether Mr. Gingrich's estimate of White House officials' previous drug use was accurate.
Mr. Panetta said there was no foundation to what Mr. Gingrich had said, and he passionately -- and repeatedly -- denied that anyone on the White House staff now uses drugs.
Mr. Panetta went on to say that those who acknowledged using drugs in the past were subject to random checks. George Stephanopoulos, a senior White House aide, said yesterday that such tests are applied to about 12 percent of the White House staffers each year.