WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich, master of the stiletto sound bite, is still adjusting to the subtler arts of wielding more power than any member of Congress has in decades.
It's a life where suddenly nearly everyone is listening, always.
Take his offhand remark last Sunday that nearly a quarter of the White House staff had used drugs in the past several years.
The White House fiercely denied it, and it made Page 1 news for two days running.
But he never intended such an impact, he said yesterday at a Monitor breakfast with reporters.
Or his now-famous characterization of the president and Mrs. Clinton as ``counter-culture McGovernites '' (not McGoverniks as quoted, he says): ``If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn't say it.'' On the other hand, with the public beyond the Washington beltway, he says, such comments probably have not hurt him politically.
In fact, the incoming Speaker of the House notes the ``startling'' turnaround in the public view of Congress in the weeks since the election. While Congress was among the most negatively viewed institutions in the country a week before the election, shortly afterward polls began showing that a majority would rather have Congress than the president lead the country.
The public will not be disappointed, he asserts. The new Congress will quickly show ``more proactive reform behavior than the American people have seen since Lyndon Johnson.''
Much of it, of course, will be undoing the work of President Johnson. Senate Democrats are still in a position to block action that Republicans send up from the House, since the GOP lacks the 60 Senate votes needed to pass most bills.
But for senators to stand in the way of action as popular as current polling shows much of the House Republican agenda is, he says, would be ``highly irrational'' for them.
Mr. Gingrich makes no apology for the way he is concentrating power in his Speakership to a degree not seen since 1910. ``The American people are tired of gridlock with a decentralized, diffuse system that can't get anything done,'' he says, ``where every baron has the power to stop things, but nobody has the power to get anything done.''
ONE of Gingrich's priorities is to decentralize power from the federal government to the states. But to decentralize, he explains, ``requires a pretty strong, centralized system.''
In moving from minority whip to Speaker, Gingrich sees himself moving from middle linebacker to head coach - and quarterback, he adds later, ``a player-coach.'' So he will have to adapt his approach to the job accordingly.
``I've got to learn to be more cautious,'' he says.
He will not avoid confrontation, exactly. Citizens have no tolerance for confrontation that is purely partisan or purely based on personality, he says. But they have ``enormous enthusiasm'' for confrontation necessary to bring about change.
He can foresee strong areas of cooperation with the White House. After meeting with the president last Friday, Gingrich anticipates cooperative action in the first days of January on the Shays Act (applying laws to Congress itself), limiting mandates on state and local governments without the funds to pay for them, and granting a line-item veto to the president.
Gingrich is a rich fount of historical comparisons and philosophical commentary, along with his political barbs. He notes that both he and Rep. Richard Armey of Texas, the incoming GOP majority leader, hold doctorates and had academic careers.
``Both Armey and I come out of a background where we believe ideas matter. We also believe in longer time horizons,'' Gingrich says.
And so he cheerfully told gathered reporters, expounding on H.L. Mencken's impact on the culture of American journalism, ``the press in America has always been brutal.''