The Man Behind the Gavel


NEWT GINGRICH was wearing a blue coat and pink pants when he walked into Eddie Mahe's office. It was 1974, and the young Georgian was looking for help in his first race for Congress. Mr. Mahe, then a top Republican Party official, pegged the situation in an instant: Mr. Gingrich was a college instructor and native Northerner who planned to run against a popular incumbent in the South while wearing weird clothes.

In other words, the man was doomed. ``I couldn't even figure out how he got through my door in the first place,'' says Mahe, now a Washington GOP political consultant.

Mahe was right. Gingrich lost that year. But he ditched the double-knits, kept running hard, and in 1978 captured the seat when the longtime incumbent retired. Since then his political career has exploded forward with the force and subtlety of a fastball. Today Newt Gingrich is set to hold a position Republicans had despaired of ever again calling their own - Speaker of the House.

The man whose saber-tooth tactics won this prize for the GOP is arguably one of the most complex politicians of the post-cold-war era. A conservative revolutionary and ex-liberal, a champion of virtue with a troubled family past, a war-trivia buff who also loves zoos - Gingrich is utterly different from his predecessor, Speaker Tom Foley. He's not your father's leader of the House.

Even political opponents concede he has energy and intelligence.

``I have some hope for him,'' says Richard Dangle, who was dean at West Georgia College when Gingrich was a tenure-less instructor. ``Newt has a very strong sense of history. He would like to be remembered as one of the great Speakers.''

In recent days Gingrich has shown that he understands the responsibility of his new position. He has called no one a ``McGovernik'' for weeks and has said soothing things about working with the White House. Still, that hasn't stopped him from calling the UN an incompetent organization that ``kills people'' by its behavior, and urging Hillary Rodham Clinton to rent the film ``Boys Town'' to understand the virtues of orphanages.

``If I were to act as Speaker the way I acted as minority whip, I would be an idiot, and we would fail,'' he told the Conservative Leadership Conference in a moment of introspection last week. ``When I was the minority whip, I could say virtually anything, because it wasn't going to happen.''

Newton Leroy Gingrich was born June 17, 1943, in Harrisburg, Penn. His teenage mother, Kathleen Daugherty, had married his father nine months before, but lived with him only three days. Her second husband, Army officer Robert Gingrich, adopted the young ``Newtie'' and raised him as his own.

The Speaker-in-training lived the life of a cold war Army brat, landing briefly at bases all over Western Europe and the US South. By all accounts, his childhood imprinted him with at least three strong traits: an affinity for the military, a habit of reading, and a love of animals.

Friends say that Gingrich has a photographic memory for the details of any war and battle that has taken place anywhere in the world. As an adult, he has become a staunch patron of the Atlanta zoo, donating money earned from speeches and visiting the facility whenever possible.

Gingrich-supplied funds have bought ZooAtlanta a black rhino from Czechoslovakia, a pair of emerald tree boas, and, most recently, two Komodo dragons. The Komodos' names - not picked by Gingrich - are Gasher and Slasher. ``Somebody in the reptile house had a little too much fun with that one,'' says a zoo spokesman.

Given his youthful interests, it is not surprising that Gingrich at first chose the path of academia. His dissertation topic was Belgian colonial Africa, and in the early 1970s he landed at West Georgia College, near Carrolton, as an instructor in European history.

He was a popular teacher. But it quickly became apparent that his real interests were politics and a kind of science-fiction-like futurism unusual at the time. The narrow research of the career professor bored him.

``He never applied for tenure,'' recalls former dean Dangle. ``He just went away.''

By then he was in heavy pursuit of his real calling - politics. With his first wife, Jackie, providing much of his staff support, he ran for Congress in 1974 and '76 as a relatively liberal Rockefeller Republican. He talked of inclusiveness, of building a progressive GOP in a region then still dominated by the Democrats.

Seeing the future

But he didn't like to lose. Sometime in the late '70s, he saw that the future was on the Republican right wing, say former colleagues. That's the direction he moved. In 1978, he finally won. ``I said he had changed. He said he had grown,'' remembers Dangle.

His marriage was one casualty of his quest. Though he had campaigned as a champion of family values, he was divorced in 1980 at a time when his wife was seriously ill.

Remarried in 1981, Gingrich developed into a one-man political artillery barrage. His constant ethics charges against former Speaker Jim Wright helped drive the Texas Democrat from power. Gingrich's aggression earned the support of GOP backbenchers tired of being the permanent minority.

Thus began the Newt Network. To an unprecedented degree, Gingrich has organized personal political-action committees, foundations, and educational endeavors into a loose conglomerate promoting his ideas and channeling funds to political fellow-travelers. His lectures on ``Renewing American Civilization'' have been taped and sent to thousands of local politicians around the country; his use of C-SPAN time to promote the GOP conservative agenda revolutionized television coverage of the House.

Politician, lecturer

Former GOP Rep. Jack Kemp and Senate majority leader Bob Dole have, to a certain extent, melded politics and education in a hydra-headed organization as has Gingrich. But neither of them has carried the idea as far.

In the past, House leaders rose by seniority and careful cultivation of colleagues. In the Gingrich-driven future, they may have to also cobble together cable TV shows on ``The Five Principles of American Civilization.''

``I think Gingrich has really made a major change in the way that would-be congressional leaders consider their futures,'' says Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and co-author of a recent book on the rise of the GOP House caucus.

In promoting the quality-control theories of W. Edwards Deming and the Alvin Toffler ``Third Wave'' concept of the dominance of the information society, Gingrich may have built a national following - but that hasn't always pleased the folks back home. Throughout his career, his local political base has at times appeared insecure.

In 1990 he won reelection by a scant 974 votes. In 1992 his district was carved up in state-wide redistricting, and he waited until the last minute before jumping into a new district where a Republican attorney from northern Atlanta thought he had a clear field.

The attorney, Herman Clark, almost defeated Gingrich in a hard-fought primary. He depicted Gingrich as out of touch with Georgia and ran an effective radio ad that sang of the congressman's 22 bounced checks from the now-defunct House bank to the tune of ``Old MacDonald Had a Farm.''

``It went, `here a check, there a check, everywhere a check, check','' recalls Mr. Clark, who quickly adds that ``I have no quarrel with Newt, and I would still like to be a congressman from Georgia some day.''

Perhaps a seat still looms in Clark's future. The network Newt Gingrich has laid could prepare a politician for more than a speakership. Who knows? Maybe Gingrich, not Bob Dole, will be the senior GOP member of Congress next in line for a serious run at the White House.

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