By Dan Balz
CONCORD, N.H., May 7 When House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) arrived in New Hampshire this morning, he was greeted by a front-page editorial in the conservative Manchester Union Leader with a headline that read, "Let 'Em Have It, Mr. Speaker." The speaker didn't disappoint.
Gingrich spoke to a joint session of the New Hampshire legislature here this morning and near the end of his address delivered the latest in his attacks on President Clinton and the scandals that surround his administration.
The speaker's words prompted a walkout by about two dozen Democratic legislators and left the state capital in an uproar long after Gingrich had departed for Washington.
Gingrich at first appeared surprised by the walkout, which began just as the speaker was describing the financial support that former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell had received after pleading guilty to embezzling funds from his law firm. As the Democratic lawmakers began filing out of the House chamber, Gingrich said, "People can walk out, but what I'm saying is a fact about a crime."
When the chamber settled down after the disruption, Gingrich continued, "Let me say how sad I am for the people who walked out. I don't remember Howard Baker walking out. I don't remember anybody in 1973 who said, 'Let's cover up a crime.'" He was referring to former Senate GOP leader Howard H. Baker (Tenn.), who was the ranking Republican on the Senate Watergate committee.
The speaker told New Hampshire lawmakers that he was sorry if he had offended the hospitality of his hosts, but added that he believed the public had the right to know the truth.
"If that makes some people uncomfortable, then I frankly don't know how to serve as speaker of the House," he said.
What Gingrich said here today was not materially different from what he has been saying about the president and Democrats for the past 10 days, but it came in a setting that was, in principle at least, bipartisan.
It signaled his determination to make good on his pledge not to give a speech without mentioning the administration's problems and came at a time when House Republicans are on the defensive over the conduct of their investigation into Clinton's campaign finance practices in the 1996 campaign.
State Rep. Raymond Buckley (D), who led the walkout, protested bitterly that the speaker had violated the traditions of the New Hampshire legislature with a partisan attack from the House floor.
"We told our leadership we would walk off the floor if he got into that muck," he said.
State Rep. Peter Burling, the Democratic leader of the House, was even more incensed, although he said he did not approve of the walkout by some members of his caucus.
He said he feared it would wreck bipartisan efforts to solve the state's school funding crisis.
"He chose to place his ego and his political ambition against the interests of the people of New Hampshire," Burling said. "In so doing, he launched an attack that was partisan, intemperate, ill-conceived, and to say it's untimely is to understate by half."
Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature, defended the speaker and criticized Democrats for being rude to a guest speaker.
"When you see some Democrats walking out of the House, defending Webster Hubbell and the conduct of the Democratic Party in fund-raising, I think it's a disgrace to their party," said Steve Duprey, the GOP state chairman. "Republicans didn't do it during Watergate hearings."
House Speaker Donna Sytek (R) said Democrats should have anticipated the speaker's criticism of the administration. "He said he was going to include it in every speech he makes," she told reporters.
She dismissed Burling's concerns that the partisan uproar would affect a bipartisan compromise recently struck to solve the state's school financing problems, the biggest issue facing the legislature this year.
"It's a totally separate issue," she said.
Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and the state's GOP national committeeman, said the Democratic reaction likely would help the speaker politically, particularly if he has ambitions to run for president in 2000. He said the partisan attacks would shore up Gingrich's support among grass-roots conservatives, who have been critical of the speaker for being too accommodating to the administration.
"Any time he comes across as tough on Clinton and causes liberal Democrats to be upset, it's got to remind conservative Republicans why they fell in love" with Gingrich originally, Rath said.
The editorial in the Union Leader, written by the paper's owner, Nackey Loeb, sent encouraging words to the speaker about those ambitions. "If the man behind the 'Contract With America' has a new plan in mind, we would like to hear more about it," she wrote. "Unlike so many who talk about what to do, he is a nice man who gets things done."
Gingrich's appearance here was his third visit in little more than a month to the state that plays host to the nation's first presidential primary. Sytek said Gingrich had requested an invitation to speak to the legislature.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company