Gingrich shouldn't whine about bad press coverage


WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich and his cohorts spend a lot of their time and energy whining about the press. In fact, the record of the last five months shows that Gingrich and his House Republican majority have exploited the press masterfully.

Their most significant success has come in selling the whole notion of the "Contract with America" as a mandate the electorate handed down Nov. 8. In fact, most voters had never heard of the contract by Election Day, and few Republicans running for House seats based their campaigns on it.

It is true, of course, that more than 320 Republicans did come to Washington in September to take part in a media event by signing the contract on the steps of the Capitol.

But most of them went home and got themselves elected by playing on the voters' resentment of the liberalism and isolation of the Democrats who controlled everything here from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Gingrich's genius showed itself in the way he then used the contract as a device for imposing an after-the-fact rationale on the Republican success and as a way of controlling the agenda for the months ahead.

And most of the news media, both electronic and print, simply fell into line -- even buying the notion of the first 100 days as some kind of legitimate testing period.

That strategy continues to pay dividends for Gingrich today. The newspapers and networks alike are falling all over themselves to follow an agenda set by the speaker.

Indeed, he has been successful enough in exploiting the press that he can now claim with more than a little justification that the speech he plans to give Friday summing up the 100 days is simply newsworthy enough to merit live TV coverage.

The makeup of the contract was, of course, fiendishly clever. Gingrich wrote into it a whole series of motherhood-and-apple pie specifics known to have widespread popular support -- term limits and a balanced budget, for example -- to put the Republicans on the side of the angels even if, as has happened, they couldn't finally deliver on some of them.

In his next phase, Gingrich can be expected to blame those failures on Democratic obstructionism.

But the operative point is not the success or failure of specifics in the contract -- the voters don't expect 100-day miracles -- but the picture projected through the television screens and news columns of Republicans aggressively demonstrating that government can work if they are in charge. As a practical matter, no real judgment can be rendered for months and perhaps not until next year.

Except for changes in process on which Democrats were quite willing to go along with the Republicans, none of the major provisions of the contract has made it through the Senate and into law.

And several -- term limits, the balanced budget amendment, tax cuts -- have either been scuttled or are being scaled back significantly.

The picture this week is, nonetheless, of Newt Gingrich and the Republicans celebrating a great success.

The speaker has not had things entirely his way. He clearly has been overexposed on television, where he gets more attention than O. J. Simpson's lawyers. He may not be as beguiling a figure as he seems to believe.

He reminds you a little of those automobile dealers who appear in their own television commercials because they apparently believe they have such reassuring personalities customers will trust them.

In Gingrich's case, the most recent opinion polls suggest that this is not necessarily so. They generally put his disapproval ratings as equal to or higher than his approval ratings -- a pattern very much like that shown these days for President Clinton.

Gingrich is also complaining bitterly about the press attention to the questions being raised by the Democrats and the press about his own ethics, depicting the entire issue as a product of a vendetta by House Democrats.

In fact, however, if Gingrich were not suffering political amnesia, he would see the pursuit of him by House Minority Whip David Bonior as strikingly similar to his own pursuit of a Democratic speaker, Jim Wright, five years ago.

All things considered, however, Newt Gingrich has little reason to complain about his treatment by the press. The ones who may have grounds for complaint are the viewers and readers.

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