Is a Sweeter Newt In Our Future?

Newt Gingrich's life as Speaker is a continuing crisis. First, he's leading a Republican revolution. Then, he's vying with Bill Clinton for national leadership, a battle he loses when the president is able to make Newt look responsible for closing down the government. Next, he's under fire for ethics violations. And all this is quickly followed by a failed effort to dethrone him.

Mr. Gingrich may well be the most unpopular politician on the national stage. Only 30 percent of the populace will admit to liking him. How bad is that? Well, my old friend, that truly great journalist Richard Strout, would probably refer here to what he called the "Caligula poll," asserting that even that very unpopular Roman emperor's rating would have been no lower.

The Gingrich I've gotten to know over the years is the one who, since coming to Congress in 1979, has been a guest at some 30 Monitor breakfasts. From almost the moment he arrived on the scene here, Newt has been in the center of a congressional battle over something or other.

I can think of no other public figure who is more consistently able to state his case and argue it in a more interesting way. Thus, he comes in again and again to meet with us. We journalists, in turn, always fill up the hotel room, often to overflowing. He's always a bit prickly. But he's also entertaining. We'd miss Newt if he were pushed off the stage.

So - like other Washington observers - we are left with this question: What is Mr. Gingrich's future?

Well, it would seem that Newt is going to try to be someone else - or close to it - to continue making the grade as Speaker. In one interview he says he would like to be like Speaker Sam Rayburn, the crony of Harry Truman and a crafty, most effective leader of the House. Then in a more recent interview Gingrich says Speaker Tip O'Neill is his model. The well-liked O'Neill always maintained harmony in the ranks.

What Gingrich is saying, I think, is that he's going to try to be a better leader. He's been charged with introducing policy without first conferring with the GOP House members. He says he will try to stop that. Indeed, he indicates he will now listen attentively to the wishes of his colleagues before making any plans and moves.

Also, Gingrich is going to try to be less visible as part of his effort to meld more with his colleagues. In fact, he's been doing this since being reprimanded and fined on an ethics charge.

Is the Speaker on the right track? It's arguable that the "new" Gingrich was quite effective in the recent budget negotiations with the president. Just getting a Democratic president to accept what has for years been a basic GOP goal - a balanced budget and big tax cuts - has to be called a Republican victory. Sure, Clinton got a lot of the spending provisions he favored, particularly those to help the poor and aid education. But most Republicans seem well satisfied with the results.

On the other hand, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, at a Monitor breakfast shortly after the budget deal was struck, told us how surprised he and others on the Clinton team of negotiators were over how conciliatory the Republican leadership (with Gingrich playing a leading role) turned out to be. The Clinton contingent had expected much stiffer resistance to several of their spending programs. Gingrich as a "soft" negotiator who may have gotten more if he had pushed harder? Could that be the "new" Gingrich at work?

It's much too early to see whether a sweeter, less-aggressive, lower-profile Newt Gingrich really is emerging. And, if so, whether he will become a more effective Speaker and, perhaps, more popular with his fellow Americans. More to the point, will he be able to keep his job?

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