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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Gingrich Valedictory Stresses GOP Unity

    By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, November 19, 1998; Page A33

    In the end, there was just one television camera crew stationed outside the Cannon House Office Building yesterday to record the departure of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) from Capitol Hill. He was not in a mood to talk to the press, but when they told him they were from his home town and asked, "would you tell Atlanta" about the speech he had just given, Gingrich relented.

    "It's been a great, emotional experience for Marianne and me to have had these years working together with our team," he said.

    Nothing bespeaks the transfer of power in Washington more than the roving television camera crews. Inside the Cannon Building at that moment, 15 cameras were poised outside the closed door to Room 345, the Caucus Room. Inside the room, Gingrich's House colleagues in the GOP -- the party he led to majority status in 1994 after 40 years in the political wilderness -- were about to choose his successor.

    It was, by all accounts, an emotional moment when Gingrich and his wife, Marianne, entered the room at 10 a.m., an hour after the scheduled starting time for the meeting of the House Republican Conference. Rep. Stephen Horn (Calif.), who took notes, said he glanced at his watch and timed the initial ovation at two minutes. There were at least three more.

    Unity was the dominant theme of Gingrich's farewell address, his parting advice to the often fractious GOP Conference that he could not always control. During the 15-minute speech, Gingrich handed over the speaker's gavel to Rep. Bob Livingston (La.) and told him: "Your success as speaker will be in large measure dependent on whether the people in this room will stand together and be united."

    It was not Gingrich's last day as speaker. He will actually preside until the end of the current Congress in early January, when the full House convenes and formally elects Livingston to be his successor. In fact, Gingrich would still nominally preside if members were to gather in a lame-duck session next month to consider articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

    Still, there was a strong sense of poignancy in the room, according to several members present. "You had a sense of history happening as he was leaving the stage," said Rep. David M. McIntosh (Ind.), one of the conservative firebrands who first came to Congress in the great Republican tide of 1994.

    "There was a sense there that we owe him a debt of gratitude," McIntosh added. "He still has a lot to offer. The suggestions he made were good ones, yet we are going to have new leadership. Newt almost sounded, I don't know if reconciled is the right word, but like, well, maybe there's something good that will come out of this as well."

    Describing the mood in the Caucus Room as Gingrich, a former college history teacher, made his valedictory remarks, Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.) said: "It was somber in a way to see someone who has accomplished so much be forced to leave under these circumstances. He was very good, very solid, very philosophical. As usual, he put things in historic perspective. He was subdued, but he didn't show any resentment."

    It was a moment of mixed emotions for the House Republicans. Many of the veterans had spent years in what seemed liked permanent minority status until Gingrich came up with the "Contract With America" to use against the Democrats. Suddenly, they found themselves committee chairmen.

    "It was an historic and very moving moment for me," said one of the chairmen, Bill Archer (Tex.) of Ways and Means. "He made a gigantic contribution not only to the Republican Party but to the country."

    But if the Republicans were grateful to their outgoing leader for what he had once done for them, they were at least as thankful for his decision to step aside -- without a fight -- in the wake of the party's disappointing performance in this year's midterm elections.

    "People admire him for realizing what the situation was and doing the right thing," said Horn. "The situation was that the party here, the legislative party, was very upset that we did not do better."

    Livingston, Horn added, will bring "common sense and decency" to the speaker's office. "He's not out there haranguing you and crowds of thousands. He's trying to get something done."

    But another Californian, Rep. Jerry Lewis, who first entered Congress with Gingrich in 1978, said the House GOP may someday long for the talents Gingrich brought to bear.

    "Newt didn't change that much from the day he walked in here," Lewis said. "He was a visionary then and he's a visionary now. We would not be in the majority had it not been for the dream of Newt. . . . At this moment, it's easy to look back and say absolutely it was the right thing. But we need to keep our vision intact, too. Without Newt, that will be a lot harder."

    Whatever Gingrich thought about this changing of the guard, he was keeping it to himself. He left the Caucus Room by the front door, slipping down a staircase before many of the horde of reporters noticed him.

    As Gingrich strode across the foyer of the Cannon Building, a photographer in a balcony overhead shouted, "Newt, Newt." The outgoing speaker looked up, smiled wanly and offered a weak, half-wave.

    Outside in the bright morning sun, Gingrich lingered long enough for a reporter who was not from Atlanta to ask about his speech.

    "It was off the record," replied the speaker who always loved to talk. Then he climbed into the back seat of a black van and departed Capitol Hill for Reagan National Airport. He was thousands of feet in the air, en route to a vacation in Florida, when his fellow House Republicans formally and unanimously chose Livingston to be his successor.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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