A new Newt? Let's wait and see about that


WASHINGTON -- Perhaps we can be forgiven a little skepticism about Newt Gingrich's intention to become a kinder, gentler politician in his future dealings with the Clinton administration.

We have heard the speaker of the House sing this song in the past, always after some rhetorical excess put him in hot water politically. The suspicion arises that we are being manipulated once again.

"Moral obligation"

Accepting his re-election as the House Republican leader, Mr. Gingrich said, "We find ourselves here with a Democratic president and a Republican Congress and we have an absolute moral obligation to make this system work. If the last Congress was the 'Confrontation Congress' this Congress will be the 'Implementation Congress.' "

That might be more persuasive if it were not so obvious that political pressures weigh on Mr. Gingrich every bit as heavily as any moral obligation he now feels after years as his party's junkyard dog.

The most obvious pressure, felt by members of Congress in both parties, is to respond to the electorate's anger at the failures of the political system to deal with national concerns. Beyond that, there are special pressures on the speaker himself.

The House ethics committee investigation of his own conduct has taken a more serious turn by focusing on whether he perjured himself in answering questions. That could cost him not just the speaker's chair but his seat in the House.

A close call

The inquiry is being viewed as far more sensitive politically than it may have seemed before the election. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., a Gingrich ally who is chairman of the ethics committee, had an unexpectedly close call in winning re-election after her opposition accused her of not pursuing the Gingrich case with enough vigor. The message to other House Republicans was that there was serious risk in appearing to be nTC too supportive of their leader. Some of them thus suggested publicly that he should step aside as speaker until the investigation has been completed.

Exit polls in the November 5 election showed Mr. Gingrich evoking a negative reaction from 60 percent of the voters and positive ratings from only 30 percent. In some districts, particularly in the Northeast, his negatives were at 70 percent or higher.

Many of Mr. Gingrich's allies in the House discovered through their own campaign polls that the speaker was poison with the electorate. They have put increasing distance between themselves and their leader throughout the year. Some even started voting "no" on procedural questions so they could increase artificially the percentage of votes on which they didn't follow the leadership. Anything to create the appearance of independence.

The speaker's weakness was also apparent in the way Democrats and the AFL-CIO used him as a poster boy, running against "Dole-Gingrich" as much as Bob Dole himself.

Testimony of the past

The notion of Mr. Gingrich as a thoughtful and restrained leader of the opposition is belied by his past. This is the man who presented himself in the 1970s as a kind of moderate Rockefeller Republican in his Georgia district, but became the most vociferous and aggressive leader of the Far Right in what was then the House minority.

And it was Mr. Gingrich who led the unrelenting assault on the business affairs of the former Democratic speaker, Jim Wright, demanding an investigation that eventually drove the Texas congressman into retirement.

Mr. Gingrich crowed loudly after the 1994 election that, in his view, had made him the ultimate leader of the political system. Then his own excesses evoked a strong backlash among voters who didn't agree that they had crowned a new sovereign in 1994.

Whatever his reasons, the speaker may be serious in his intention to present a different persona to the public. But it would be prudent to wait a few months before deciding the transformation is genuine.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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