Newt Gingrich is back. "I never left," he contended in a phone interview the other day. "The publicity I've been getting lately says I'm back. But I've simply been doing a lot of thinking and planning."
The House Speaker had to be joshing a little bit. He has to know that since he was disciplined by his colleagues he has retreated from the political-combat arena. He hasn't been talking to the press. And if he hasn't been hiding - well, that's what it has looked like to a lot of us.
He's no quitter
But, contrary to what his critics have been saying, Mr. Gingrich told me he has never entertained for a moment the idea that he should step aside. That "planning and thinking" he was referring to was focused entirely on how to do a better job as Speaker so he could silence these critics.
Since the Gingrich I've known through the years has always stuck determinedly with anything he is involved in or advocating, I believe him. Newt may be irritatingly abrasive at times - at least to his adversaries - but he is no quitter.
He believes he has come out of the rough and tumble of his first years as Speaker well prepared to do a better job.
"It was a great learning experience," he said. "It had been a tremendous leap for me. I had jumped from minority whip to Speaker in one jump. We Republicans didn't know how to deal with a majority - nor did the Democrats know how to deal with a minority.
"The responsibility of leading a group of Republicans with wide differences was greater than I thought it would be. Now I will lead with a knowledge and a sensitivity to this responsibility and not as a history teacher."
Some observers say Gingrich stubbed his toe immediately after he recently stepped back into the limelight. They thought he might have injured himself irreparably by indicating that he was willing to work on balancing the budget first, before seeking tax cuts. Newt says he was misquoted - that tax reductions have always been his first priority.
But some GOP conservatives apparently were saying Newt might have to be replaced. And this fed a number of articles predicting that Gingrich's end was possibly in sight.
But then Gingrich went to China and waved the American flag boldly and nobly shortly after Vice President Al Gore was embarrassingly conciliatory on his visit to that country. As a result, Newt got rave reviews from the very papers that earlier had called for his ouster.
So what's next for the "new" Newt Gingrich, who now says he intends to reflect the wishes of his Republican congressional colleagues rather than try to lead in a more personal way? What does that mean? Does it mean that the old, confrontational Gingrich has been replaced by an amiable, patient, lovable fellow? He smiled throughout his appearance on the Larry King show the other night.
I liked the old Newt better.
But I'm of the school that believes Newt will be Newt. His leadership style may change, but I think that will be based more on what the Speaker has learned about the political realities of his job. He learned that he could put through his Contract With America in the House, but that it means very little when it has to be approved by a Democratic president who won't go along with most of it.
This time around the Speaker isn't going to mount a crusade for change. He knows that once again he risks a severe and even devastating defeat if he tries to push his agenda over the wishes of President Clinton. He learned that lesson well when Mr. Clinton faced him down and almost destroyed him politically on the budget issue.