Gingrich Won't Stay On Sidelines Forever

Have we seen the last of that remarkable, ebullient, articulate, argumentative, and sometimes obstreperous fellow who, for a while, took center stage away from President Clinton? I'm talking, of course, about Newt Gingrich, whose career as Speaker of the House skyrocketed brilliantly at first and then fizzled.

No, Newt will always be Newt. He knows he's unpopular but blames the Democrats and their anti-Gingrich attack ads for much of this. And he knows that even some Republicans see him as no longer an asset. But he is sure he can turn that attitude around.

So it is that Mr. Gingrich for the time being is playing the only role that remains open for a beaten-down politician: He has abandoned confrontation and has embraced cooperation. Indeed, he has even turned his back on assertive leadership, telling anyone who asks who's "running things in Congress" that it is now Sen. Trent Lott who will be calling the Republicans' signals.

At a rather recent Monitor breakfast the Speaker was putting this "New Gingrich" on display. Gone were his biting comments and sarcasm. He was persistently smiling and jolly. You may have seen the television programs that feature Gingrich playing happily with animals. In that setting he looks like a jovial teddy bear.

Well, that's the way Newt struck many of us at the breakfast as we watched and listened. And for those of us who are rather fascinated by Speaker Gingrich when he is so skillfully spearing his opponents, it was a little disappointing.

But - never fear - the Old Newt will be back. I got assurances of this from Gingrich's close friend and able aide, Tony Blankley. Mr. Blankley, who won plaudits from the news media for his performance as Gingrich's press secretary, says that because of events Newt is having to be quiet and subdued.

I was putting in a bid for another of the many Monitor breakfasts we've had with Speaker Gingrich. But Blankley said "not for now," that Gingrich was trying to stay out of the spotlight these days.

But Blankley did agree to my suggestions that the irrepressible Newt would at some point find his moment again and come out of this self-imposed silence. Blankley, who is leaving government for opportunities in civilian life (he was once a child actor - might Hollywood be beckoning?), believes that the conservative issues that Gingrich pushed with such success (for a while) will once again call for Newt's help. And when that time comes, Blankley says, the old Gingrich will rise again.

Blankley was only a few feet away when Gingrich self-destructed politically a year ago this month. This, too, was at a Monitor breakfast. Newt was dubbed a "crybaby" by the press for the complaints he uttered there about being mistreated on Air Force I. Blankley tried to catch Newt's eye that morning and get him off the subject, but to no avail.

Actually, Newt was only trying to say the president missed an opportunity on that long trip to and from the Middle East to bring Gingrich and Bob Dole up from the back of the plane to talk about how to settle differences on the budget.

But Blankley knew that the news media would interpret these words merely as petty moans from the Speaker for being deposited in the back of the plane. So Blankley fidgeted while Gingrich ignored. After the breakfast gaffe, the Speaker plummeted in public favor. The president was running him - nearly - out of town.

But Gingrich is back. He's still Speaker and the same man who for a while had been described as "one of the most powerful" speakers in history. Can this unique political figure, bursting with energy and ideas, stay long on the sidelines? Unless he's downed by the ethics charges now pending against him, there's not a chance.

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