Gingrich basks, edgily, in eminence


WASHINGTON -- At the start of his biggest week yet as House speaker, Newt Gingrich went scouting for hot-off-the-press copies of the major newsmagazines, all of which, he'd been told, were full of long stories about Newt Gingrich.

He wound up, Sunday evening, at a newsstand at National Airport in Virginia, and he wasn't disappointed. He's on the cover of U.S. News & World Report, the star of an eight-page spread in Time and paired off side-by-side with President Clinton in Newsweek, which described him as "the most effective lawmaker since Lyndon Johnson."

That's pretty heady stuff, and Mr. Gingrich is clearly savoring his personal triumph these days.

"This is a guy who used to tell me he didn't even read the Washington Post," says Vin Weber, a longtime friend and adviser. "I think he likes the notoriety and the fact that he's at the center of everything that's happening politically in the country."

Over the past week, Mr. Gingrich has been stretched out on the couch by David Frost in a PBS special. He's been featured on network TV talk shows. And this Friday, he'll deliver a presidential-style televised address to the nation, something no House speaker has done before.

His success in pushing most of the ambitious "Contract with America" through the House has surprised even Mr. Gingrich, who says he expected to run into more opposition. But as he nears Day 100 as leader of the House, his insecurity is also evident.

With the public deeply divided over his conservative agenda, the next few months are make-or-break, he says. The fight to balance the federal budget will determine the success or failure of his Republican revolution, he indicates -- and, not incidentally, the presidential campaign that, he hinted yesterday, he'd love to launch.

Asking too much?

To meet Mr. Gingrich's goal of radically downsizing the federal government may call for a degree of Republican unity, and personal self-discipline by the speaker, that is impossible to achieve.

For months, he's been promising to change his ways, with only limited success. Meantime, public attitudes about him are growing more pronounced -- both pro and con, polls show.

"I think people think I'm probably too flamboyant and too risk-taking for them to be comfortable with as a leader at this level," Mr. Gingrich said yesterday, with the sort of bluntness that has become a trademark. "But they think, in fact, that we're getting a lot done. So they have sort of a mixed view."

Love him or hate him

Opinion polls confirm that Mr. Gingrich has become a polarizing figure. They also reveal growing concerns about his character, an apparent result of the series of ethics charges (the Democratic "smear campaign," he calls it) stemming from his personal and political activities.

Still, Americans rate Mr. Gingrich as doing a better job, on balance, than Mr. Clinton, according to the latest survey by Times Mirror, which owns The Sun and other papers.

As Mr. Gingrich puts the final touches on his "hundred days" speech, he's beginning a two-month public relations campaign to lay the groundwork for the Republican effort to balance the budget by 2002. A 110-page briefing paper, drawn up by the Gingrich inner circle, offers talking points for Republican House members (Example: A child born this year would have to pay $187,150 in her lifetime just to pay her share of the interest on the federal debt).

Democrats, meantime, are gearing up to retaliate. Yesterday, in a National Press Club speech, Vice President Al Gore began a weeklong administration counterattack against the Republicans and their contract that is to culminate in a speech Friday in Dallas by Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Gore termed the Republican tax-cut proposals "extremist" and "despicable," adding that the GOP was asking "hard-working, middle-income American families . . . to pay for another round of Republican tax cuts for the wealthy."

On the other hand, both Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, stressed yesterday during question-and-answer sessions that they want to cooperate with the Republicans. hTC Moreover, when asked to assess the speaker's performance, Mr. Gore refrained from criticizing him personally, adding that he considers Mr. Gingrich and his wife to be his friends.

For his part, Mr. Gingrich had only nice things to say about Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to India, praising it as being "in the highest tradition established by Eleanor Roosevelt . . . for the first lady to be an ambassador of goodwill."

Such comparisons come easily to the speaker, who once taught college-level history courses. At one time or another, he's compared himself with virtually every major figure in American history and more than a few heroes of world history (usually military men) as well.

Invoking Eisenhower

At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, he likened his progression from the back benches to the speaker's chair to the transformation of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower when he became supreme allied commander in World War II.

"To lead at this level is very, very hard, and I think I underestimated how hard it is," Mr. Gingrich said, reflecting on the changes in his life since the first of the year.

"I frankly have been so tired at times that I don't even want to go to a movie or do anything. I find if I can take half of Sunday and just hang out with Marianne and literally just vegetate that I need that just to get through Monday."

He marveled at how he's become a celebrity.

Gingrich's story

"Marianne and I, we hid yesterday for about eight hours," he said. "Got on the Metro, wandered around Pentagon City Mall and then went over to the airport, just wandering. And the scale of recognition, I mean, the number of people who walked up from Iowa or New Hampshire or other states that Bob Dole visits and said, 'Hi, you're Newt Gingrich,' it's just literally unending [and] it's very sobering. . . . I mean, it's very strange to realize that virtually everything I do has some impact automatically, by definition."

Mr. Gingrich said earlier this year that he would not be a candidate for president in 1996, and even his close friends think his time to run would be in 2000 or later. But the 51-year-old speaker indicated yesterday that he hasn't completely given up dreaming about a try for the White House next year.

"Listen, I think it is a question that is impossible to avoid," he said.

"Now if you're me, I don't have to answer it." Pause. "But I think it's a terrific question."

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