WASHINGTON -- "Hatred," muses David E. Bonior, the Michigan congressman who is Newt Gingrich's chief nemesis, "is a very strong word."
It is not an emotion that the bearded and cardigan-clad Democratic whip will own up to in this case. But his teeth have been so fiercely clenched in the House speaker's hide for the past two years that it often looks like nothing less.
When Gingrich was re-elected as speaker last week, Bonior refused to join the congressional leaders who escorted him down the center aisle of the House floor. When the two find themselves alone in an elevator together, their conversation consists of a perfunctory "hello" and no more.
Since Gingrich's rise to power two years ago, Bonior, 51, has been a virtual one-man prosecution, filing charges with the House ethics committee, pressing the committee to appoint an outside counsel and hold public hearings, and staging news conferences to rail against the speaker's truthfulness and fitness for office.
With the ethics panel expected to begin public hearings on the matter tomorrow, and with the special counsel to deliver the findings of his yearlong investigation by tonight, Bonior will achieve at least part of his goal. But he will feel no sense of satisfaction, he says, until Gingrich is gone.
"I dislike him as a person with regard to his own ethical standards," Bonior, an 11-term liberal Democrat, said in an interview.
"I think he's hypocritical. He lies. For me to say I like the guy is certainly not possible. He is someone who I don't think meets the standards of a member, let alone speaker. He doesn't deserve to stay. He needs to go."
Bonior has been so relentless in his crusade to oust Gingrich that he is despised by Republicans, who have publicly called him everything from a "worm" to "swine" to a "whiny, wacky windbag."
Gingrich, for his part, declines to comment on Bonior. But at a breakfast with reporters yesterday, Dick Armey of Texas, the House majority leader, called Bonior "the most tragic person in this whole episode," saying he had done nothing for the past two years but engage in a "get Newt" campaign.
"I've seen a totally changed David Bonior in the last year," says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate Republican from New York. "He's totally consumed by the Gingrich matter. I like David Bonior. I think he's a decent guy, but he's carried this a little too far."
Some Republicans say Bonior has been so ferocious that he, ironically, helped Gingrich win re-election. Bonior, they say, turned himself into the common enemy of Republicans and thus mobilized wavering House members.
"He turned it into a macho issue," says a Republican lobbyist, "and bonded the Republicans."
Democrats have tended to keep their distance, urging on Bonior from afar but leaving him out there to take on the speaker of the House by himself.
Only now that Gingrich has admitted to ethics violations, is on the verge of receiving punishment and is considered to be damaged property -- now that Bonior's efforts appear to be bearing fruit -- have fellow Democrats begun to gather round and openly cheer.
As the Democrats met last week before the opening of the 105th Congress, Bonior received several heartfelt rounds of applause and declarations of thanks.
"There was maybe a little element of, 'We should have been there with you,' " said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
Frank added: "Had [the ethics investigation] turned up zero, there might be some people criticizing him. But he's been essentially vindicated."
Unlikely attack dog
In a way, the role of attack dog is an unlikely one for Bonior, a reflective man whose usually soft-spoken style suggests his background as a Catholic seminary student. He is sober to the point, some say, of being humorless. Add a gray, professorial beard to a grim visage, a stern eye and a righteous tongue and the result can be offputting. Even Democrats have griped about his dour demeanor.
"He looks like Rasputin half the time," says a former Democratic congressman who asked not to be named. "But he's our Rasputin."
An old-style Democrat in an ethnic working-class district, Bonior says his lead in the Gingrich case is "not something I relish" or enjoy. He defends himself against complaints -- heard on both sides of the aisle -- that he has been too hard-edged.
"He operates in a very tough way, this guy," Bonior says of Gingrich, "and we just needed to be strong in exposing him." Without the Democrats' bold efforts, Bonior adds, "this would have been buried a long time ago. They wanted to sweep this under the rug, and they still do."
Bonior's crusade possesses a symmetry that seems too tidy even for fiction. As minority whip, he has become to Speaker Gingrich what Gingrich, as minority whip, was to the soon-to-be-ousted Democratic House speaker, Jim Wright, in 1989.
But Bonior, who entered politics after stateside service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, insists that his zeal is not payback for Gingrich's nearly single-handed destruction of Wright. Rather, he says, his passion is born of moral outrage at the speaker's actions, including the violations to which Gingrich has admitted -- providing false statements to the ethics committee and using tax-exempt organizations for apparently political purposes.
In his mind, the Georgia congressman is like a driver cutting in front of a line of cars in a traffic jam, refusing to play by the rules.
"Everyone takes their time and gets in line," Bonior says. "Then you see some screwball zooming up on the shoulder of the road just to cut in. It irritates people. Well, that's Gingrich."
Bonior never lets such drivers in. "What I do in those situations on the road," he says, "I usually pull my car over and don't let anybody by on the outside."
Some Democrats say Bonior took on the Gingrich case because, in the No. 2 leadership post in his party, he felt obliged. The House minority leader, Richard A. Gephardt, who is thought to have presidential ambitions, did not want to engage in such risky business, they say. What's more, the Missouri Democrat had his own tangle with the ethics committee last year that ended with a dismissal of charges -- relating to the financing of a vacation home -- but with criticism by the panel.
Bonior, who played quarterback at the University of Iowa, which he attended on a football scholarship, has not shied away from taking on giants, even within his own party. A champion of labor unions that have helped finance his increasingly expensive campaigns, he battled President Clinton, unsuccessfully, in leading an impassioned campaign against the NAFTA and GATT trade accords.
During the Reagan years, he led the Democratic opposition to aid for the Nicaraguan rebels and supported a cutoff of aid to El Salvador. A believer in Catholic social doctrine, he is one of few liberal Democrats who oppose abortion rights.
Bonior, a father of three, divorced from his first wife (his college sweetheart) and now remarried, says his fervent "play-by-the- rules" mentality stems, in part, from his love of sports -- football, basketball and, most of all, the Detroit Tigers.
Aside from being praised as a lawmaker of integrity -- a man "very certain who he is," as a Democratic aide said -- Bonior is applauded as a shrewd inside player, especially adept at counting votes, the main function of a whip.
After losing in his first attempt at the party whip's post in 1989, Bonior defeated Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland two years later and correctly predicted the exact number of votes he would receive (160 to Hoyer's 109).
Names forever linked
This time, he is making no such predictions about his fortunes or Gingrich's -- except to say that he knows that his name will forever be linked with the effort to topple a powerful speaker of the House.
"This is a piece of my career that will be known that way," he says with resignation. "But there are other things that I will involve myself in -- and this will pass."
Pub Date: 1/16/97