WASHINGTON -- The doors to the House chamber flew open yesterday afternoon and a new Newt Gingrich strode down the center aisle.
Where he had been the relentless partisan whose belligerence brought down the Democratic House, he was now the statesman praising Democratic liberals for ending racial segregation and inviting House members into his office individually to speak their minds.
Whether Mr. Gingrich can sustain his new image -- and whether he can establish a record of achievement as speaker of the House to match his success as a partisan fighter -- are questions even he admits he cannot answer.
In his acceptance speech yesterday afternoon, the new Republican speaker extended a conciliatory hand to his Democratic adversaries and pledged to run an open, honest House of Representatives.
His expansive, inclusive and, at times, poignantly personal speech was much at odds with his reputation as a polarizing, take-no-prisoners politician.
"I know I'm a very partisan figure," Mr. Gingrich acknowledged in remarks delivered from handwritten notes. But he said it will take a bipartisan partnership in Congress to end what he called a "moral crisis" of violence and poverty gripping America.
"I want us to dedicate ourselves to reach out in a genuinely nonpartisan way, to be honest with each other," he said. "If each of us will reach out prayerfully and try to genuinely understand the other . . . then I think a year from now we can look on the 104th [Congress] as a truly amazing institution."
Whether Democrats will be willing to join in such a marriage -- and whether Mr. Gingrich can serve as matchmaker -- is an open question.
At a news conference yesterday morning, Mr. Gingrich admitted that there is a very real danger that his reputation for controversy could get in the way of what Republicans hope to accomplish now that they're in charge in Congress.
"Sure," he told reporters. "I'm trying to learn how to remain open ++ without being destructive." But when the opportunity presented itself, Mr. Gingrich couldn't resist taking shots at the new Democratic minority.
Asked about a Democratic effort to embellish on his party's proposed House rules reforms, Mr. Gingrich termed the idea "fairly stupid . . . cheap and nasty" and "a pathetically narrow partisan gimmick."
"It does at times make one wonder about just how dumb they think the American people are," Mr. Gingrich said, referring to a Democratic plan to have dozens of speakers complain that GOP reforms don't include a ban on lobbyists' gifts to House members and limits on book royalties. "I think I'm a pretty good student of how to be effective in opposition. I just think this is a dumb tactic."
If those barbed remarks were a reminder of the man whose relentless attacks led to the downfall of the Democratic majority, his acceptance speech less than two hours later offered a glimpse of the figure he would like to become.
Mr. Gingrich, the spark behind the new Republican majority in Congress, has blossomed almost overnight into what Time magazine described this week as "America's pre-eminent political leader."
Yesterday, he drew attention to historical figures he regards as models, including Henry Clay, "the first strong speaker," and Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose success in establishing a welfare state Mr. Gingrich hopes to emulate in reverse.
He singled out Rep. Ronald V. Dellums of California, a liberal Democrat, for his "great work" in advancing freedom in South Africa. He praised the liberal wing of the Democratic Party for ending racial segregation in America, and he credited Roosevelt with saving the nation from despair and possible dictatorship during the Depression.
"The fact is, every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right," said the one-time college history teacher. He chided fellow Republicans for having "overreacted" when they cheered boisterously at Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's mention that yesterday marked the end of 40 years of Democratic rule in the House.
Mr. Gingrich went on, though, to urge Democrats to study what Republicans, and especially the current crop of Republican governors, are doing to cut government red tape and "replace the welfare state" with what Mr. Gingrich likes to call "an opportunity society."
"There's much we can share with each other," he said.
At times, his 35-minute speech was strikingly informal in tone (he referred to Mr. Gephardt as "Dick," noted that the last speaker from Georgia, back in the 19th century, "had a weird accent, too,". It was also pointedly personal, when he somewhat heatedly tried to defend his controversial remark that orphanages represent one alternative to government bureaucracy in caring for neglected children.
"My father, who's here today, was a foster child who was adopted as a teen-ager. I am adopted. We have relatives who are adopted," Mr. Gingrich declared. "We are not talking out of some vague, impersonal, Dickens 'Bleak House,' middle-class intellectual model. We have lived the alternatives."
At other moments, he was eloquent. After quoting Alexis de Toqueville's description of the House as an assemblage of "obscure individuals . . . even persons belonging to the lower classes of society," he remarked: "Here, we are as commoners together . . . Republicans and Democrats . . . liberals and conservatives, but Americans all."
Mr. Gingrich never mentioned President Clinton by name, and his remarks seemed to suggest that he doesn't regard the Democrat in the White House as a major factor in governing the country.
But earlier in the day he included the president as he acknowledged in a television interview that "this is the beginning of the honeymoon" and that no one can predict the success or failure of the new Congress.
"I think we have six months to really perform well. I think the president has this year to perform well. I don't think anybody has to rush in and do something, you know, in 24 hours that is decisive," Mr. Gingrich said. "And . . . historically, the odds are pretty great you can't do something decisive in 24 hours."