Tom Foley was in for breakfast the other morning. He's just plain ol' Tom Foley now - no longer the congressman he was for so many years nor the Speaker he was for the last several years. He sits beside you and you once again feel his warmth and good humor and are impressed by his intelligent discourse. So you ask yourself: How in the world did the voters back in his Washington State district decide to vote such a great guy out of office?
I thought of this a short time later when Newt Gingrich was at my side at another Monitor breakfast. Could it be possible - I asked myself - that the voters back in Georgia might throw out a Speaker who only a few months ago possessed almost as much clout as the president?
I tried out this question on several veteran newsmen and got the same answer from them all, uttered with conviction. There would be no surprising upset of Gingrich - his district was filled with conservative Republicans who would keep him in office.
But just before the 1994 congressional elections, my unscientific breakfast-connection questioning had also come up with a unanimous response: Even though the polls showed otherwise, Foley would still win. The voters - according to these veteran journalists - would in the end decide they shouldn't throw away the substantial benefit of having a Speaker from their district. How wrong they were!
Is there a Democratic tide flowing these days - one that might prove my breakfast experts once again to be wrong? To look at the presidential race, one might well think that there is. President Clinton has the kind of big lead among voters nationally that back in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt would have indicated that the Democrats in November would sweep the country, up and down.
But Mr. Clinton's lead is an uneven one. In states like New York and Massachusetts he is way out in front; but in many states in the South and West the president's lead is slim - or nonexistent. So just as Clinton even now looks to be in a close electoral-count race, the Democrats nationally are also in a close, overall contest for seats in Congress. No big, Roosevelt-type sweep now seems likely. But if somehow Clinton in the end wins by a landslide, including a one-sided electoral victory, then look for Congress to go Democratic again - at least in the House - and for some shocking upsets to occur that could even involve Mr. Gingrich.
No, at this time Speaker Gingrich really doesn't look vulnerable. Nor is he talking and acting like a candidate who fears rejection. Instead, he's obviously focusing on rebuilding himself into the highly influential Speaker he was before his confrontation with the president turned him into a less-effective House leader. He'd actually been very successful: The president adopted much of Gingrich's more-conservative-government agenda. But in his battle with Gingrich over the budget, Clinton was able to convince much of the public that the Speaker was a bad guy with a hurtful program.
Thus the Gingrich I was looking at was no longer the conquering hero who had for months been breaking bread with us. He's usually superconfident, ebullient. At this morning session the Speaker was subdued. He usually likes to spar with reporters, turning our sessions into a debate. But there was little of this sort of thing at this unveiling of a new Gingrich. He was patient with those who asked abrasive questions - even those who probed into whether some of his actions in the past have been ethical.
Newt obviously had decided to try to be less combative and more congenial. And he certainly wasn't about to add heat to the controversy he had stirred up at his last breakfast with us - last November - when he had complained about his treatment on Air Force One. So now, when asked whether he regretted his comments at that time, he said it had been "silly" for him to try to deal with a situation that was filled with so many "intricacies."