Gingrich Will Rap Gavel More Softly

Ethics probes, low approval ratings may alter leadership style

There is little question that Newt Gingrich is set to be reelected Speaker of the House of Representatives.

But what remains unclear is the kind of leader he will be as the first two-term Republican Speaker since the 1920s.

Mr. Gingrich has assumed, for the time being, anyway, a lower public profile. His fiery partisan rhetoric has become paeans to cooperation with President Clinton. And he still faces two hurdles - public disdain and ethics charges - that could damage his effectiveness or even rob him of his leadership role.

As he prepares to be officially renominated House leader Nov. 20, Gingrich seems likely, at a minimum, to be more conciliatory in a second term - and may also change the way the House operates. "Everything depends on the results of the ethics investigation," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "If it's critical of him it will be difficult for him ever to rehabilitate himself. If it exonerates him, he has the opportunity to do so, but it will be tough."

Two years ago at this time Gingrich was king of Capitol Hill, the man who engineered the GOP takeover of the House for the first time in 40 years, the conservative theorist whose every pronouncement led to a news report. Within 18 months he was one of the most unpopular politicians in America, vilified as the man who shut down the government because Mr. Clinton snubbed him on Air Force One, the man who would "gut" Medicare.

Democrats and their political allies spent millions of dollars in TV and radio ads - by Gingrich's count ,75,000 of them - demonizing the Speaker and painting Republican congressmen and candidates as Newt clones. They also peppered the Speaker with 75 ethics complaints. Only one - alleging improprieties in funding of the college course he taught and claiming he misled the House ethics committee about it - remains under investigation.

But Gingrich prevailed. While the Republicans lost a few seats in the House, they kept control, an act unrepeated since the 1920s. And today Republicans are poised to nominate him again for Speaker, a move tantamount to reelection.

Gingrich has paid a price, however. The election results and the ethics charges were enough for public grumbling to break out in the ranks. The Speaker and his lieutenants have spent the past two weeks damping down a revolt by a small group of conservatives and moderates who called for Gingrich to step down until the ethics charge is resolved or he improves his image.

This week Republicans will "enthusiastically" close ranks behind the Speaker, says Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a moderate. But a few Republicans have said that while they'll vote for Gingrich in caucus, they will abstain on the House floor if the ethics committee has not made its report or if he is not exonerated. "I expect he'll be exonerated of any serious wrongdoing," Congressman Shays says.

In the meantime, the GOP caucus is reportedly ready to move power from the Speaker back to the committee chairmen, where more of it resided during the years of Democratic Party rule. The move would include more people in the decisionmaking process and should placate GOP moderates, who complained they were left out of the process last session. "If the last Congress goes down in history as the confrontation Congress, then this Congress may go down in history as the implementation Congress," Gingrich said last weekend.

But House Democrats are skeptical about talk of conciliation, at least in public. "I'm from Missouri. You'll have to show me," says Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who was reelected minority leader by fellow Democrats Nov. 18.

Observers disagree about whether the Speaker can change his image and regain some degree of public popularity. "I think he can," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's remarkable how politicians have done so in the past.... People's historical memories are very short."

But Mr. Sabato is pessimistic. "When the American people get a fix on a public official and make the kind of judgment they have about Gingrich, it's hard to come back," he says.

Shays says the Speaker must "be patient. Be less strident. Focus in on his vision for America and his strategy for achieving it. I think he's already doing all those things."

"I'd like people to know Newt as I know him," Shays says, "as a true visionary, a dedicated and patriotic public servant, and a highly caring person."

Mr. Hess says, "Gingrich needs some benign neglect for a time." But more than that, he says, the Speaker needs more self-discipline in his public statements: "Many of his problems have been self-inflicted." Sabato says the Speaker "needs to consult with some geneticists and find a humility gene.... He needs to resist the temptation to appear on all the Sunday morning talk shows.... And that's completely contradictory to his nature."

Sabato believes that the Speaker's unpopularity will again be a drag on Republican reelection efforts in 1998. "He is the devil made to order for the Democrats, who will continue to use him at every opportunity," he says. Hess disagrees. "I'd be surprised if two years from now the Democrats are morphing Republican House challengers into little Newts," he says. "You can only play the same note on the scale so many times."

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