Could the House brat be maturing?
Listen to him talk: "That was the old me -- abrasive, confrontational," says Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "You'll see a change now . . . My friends have been more tolerant of me than they should have been . . ."
Look inside his congressional office: Amid the professional clutter and personal sparseness is a photo of Gingrich's idol, Dwight D. Eisenhower. "I'd like to have Eisenhower's humanness . . ." he says, slouching on his navy blue couch. "One of the reasons I keep reading Eisenhower is that he was very successful at getting along with people who despised him."
Watch him operate: Over a recent weekend, he listened intently as a small cadre of political allies lectured him on the art of sociability, and instructed him on how to avoid alienating everyone with whom he comes in contact, specifically Office of Management and Budget Director David Stockman and White House assistant Richard Darman, with whom he was scheduled to meet the following Monday morning.
"Newt has problems with interpersonal relationships," said Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a friend. "I tell him that every day."
"You would have been so proud of me," Gingrich crows to Weber one hour after the White House meeting. "I was disgustingly positive."
"There's no question that he wants to be an insider now," says Weber the next day. "He never gave a damn before. The question is what price is he willing to pay?"
Newt Gingrich may be just about the most disliked member of Congress.
Many of those interviewed for this story were uncomfortable talking about him because they did not want to tangle publicly with Gingrich. Of those, many of his Republican colleagues insist that he is inconsequential, insignificant and naive.
Yet, there he is taking control of the GOP platform in Dallas, constructing a policy statement that was even to the right of the White House; zigzagging around the country, a new folk hero of the Right; promoting his first book, "Window of Opportunity," and becoming a well-quoted spokesman of his party, to the dismay of its institutional leaders.
He's the noisy and intense fourth-term Republican from Georgia who jumped from the obscurity of his ranks when he so incensed Tip O'Neill on the House floor one day last spring that the speaker rose from his chair and loudly blasted Gingrich's verbal acrobatics as "the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in the House."
The networks recorded the event on the evening news.
"I am now a famous person," says Gingrich, 41.
But before anyone jumps to the conclusion that he has had a change of heart about his role as the acrimonious counterpuncher as he is sworn in to the 99th Congress today, hear him out:
"Think of me as a backbencher who used to work very hard trying to figure out how can I articulate something in a flashy enough way so the press can pick it up. Now all of a sudden I have this microphone, and when I yell it comes across like a painful noise because the system is now geared to carry me.
"That's requiring that I change my style. I will be somewhat less confrontational, and somewhat less abrasive in the future because I am no longer the person I once was. A Newt Gingrich press conference or interview is now potentially a real news story. That means I can be much quieter, much more positive. And so I'll change. And it will take two to five years for my reputation to catch up and in some ways it never will. There are scars I have made in the last two or three years that will be with me through the rest of my career."
His tactics in the House have been called guerrilla warfare and hitting-below-the-belt. And those are the kinder descriptions. But to understand his means it's essential to know his anticipated end.
Newt Gingrich believes he is on a mission to reform the globe, a mission that started at age 15, when he wrote a 200-page term paper on the world balance of power while living with his Army family in Stuttgart. It continued through his years as a student at Emory University and as a college history professor at West Georgia State in Carrollton, Ga., and through two congressional-race defeats before he was elected in 1978. It's an obsession that friends say contributed to the end of his first marriage.
"He really believed when he was a junior in high school that he was destined to save western civilization," says Jim Tilton, a friend of 25 years from Gingrich's high school days. "After a while a young wife is bound to wonder when the payoff is going to come."
A self-proclaimed "revolutionary," Gingrich says he determined to accomplish such sweeping goals as "moving the Republican Party, the nation, the western alliance and the world from here to here." Left to right, he explains, towards a more conservative America combining traditional values, high tech and free enterprise.
On the issues, Gingrich is a darling of the New Right: anti-tax-raising, anticommunism, antiwelfare, anti-ERA. Last month, he surprised many by leading 35 conservative members of Congress in the more liberal position of supporting economic sanctions against South Africa unless progress was made toward ending apartheid.
"Amazing, isn't it?" said one high-ranking Republican congressional aide. "Newt Gingrich, the spokesman on South Africa? Has he ever been there?"
In fact, it's not his politics, but his methods that his enemies find reprehensible.
For one, he and his Conservative Opportunity Society -- a band of 12 maverick Republicans -- have set out over the past year to disrupt House proceedings in order to break "the minority Republican mindset of the past." They have mainly succeeded in threatening the civility and comity of that club.
One of the group's first and favorite tactics has been the use of a "special orders" privilege, which allows them to make speeches at the end of the legislative day attacking the Democrats, with no one to watch except an estimated 250,000 C-Span viewers on cable television. In retaliation, the speaker ordered the cameras to pan the chamber showing it empty.
More recently, part of his plan has been to publicly criticize his fellow Republicans.
"Democrats have been in the majority for almost 60 years cheerfully fighting in public," he says. "Majorities worry about gathering the energy of conflict in order to dominate."
He has labeled David Stockman as being engaged in the "terrorization of the president." And he dubbed Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole the "tax collector for the welfare state," for his suggestion that a tax increase might be necessary.
Says Dole: "His agenda is in getting attention so he has to go after large targets. He's making a lot of noise, but I haven't seen any impact . . ."
It's hard to know what all the fuss is about upon meeting Gingrich, who can be quite likable. Spending a day with him is like following around a hyperactive schoolboy who only aims to please his audience, even if it is in a shrill sort of way. Conservative columnist George Will has called him "a cherub with a chip on his shoulder."
He's attractive in a boyish way, with a round, pudgy face and a thick helmet of graying hair that falls in a thatch across his forehead. His voice is raspy and brisk, and his demeanor engaging. Put him in front of a huge group, and he paces and challenges, tells jokes and runs the world. Throw him in with a small group, and even his friends say he fumbles, to the point of being offensive.
Weber tells this story: "Once we arranged a lunch with three other members to discuss the Grenada project, a friendly lunch just to smooth over a communications problem. As soon as we sat down, there's Newt whipping out a notebook and talking about how all human activity is organized on four levels . . . I told him that he's the kind of guy who, if I brought my car to him with a rattling muffler, he'd try to teach me how to build a car."
"Sure," says Gingrich, when asked if his friends' assessment of his marginal social skills are accurate. "I'm the guy in the eighth grade who did not go across the floor and ask the girl to dance for two reasons. One is, she might say no and I'd be embarrassed; two, she might say yes and I'd have to dance . . ."
In fact, Gingrich attributes much of the way he is now to some difficult times as a child. He was the only child of a broken marriage, and he talks easily about his mother's remarriage, and about his fondness for his stepfather, an Army officer who adopted him. Gingrich's birth name is McPherson, which changed with his adoption when he was about 3.
"It was fairly confusing . . . I suspect some of my sense of the world changing, and my interest in looking at the complexity of human dynamics comes from my childhood. It sobered me. I'm more sober than hardened."
In November, Gingrich's road from being just another congressman with a cause to someone to be reckoned with was made that much more difficult by the publication of a profile in Mother Jones, a liberal, California-based magazine. The article chronicled his bitter 1981 divorce from his high school math teacher, Jackie, and his marriage to his second wife, Marianne, and provided unflattering descriptions of his life style, including details about his personal life during his 20-year marriage, and the alleged insensitivity with which he handled the divorce. The article attributed these descriptions to unnamed sources.
"I didn't find much in it off the mark," says his ex-wife, Jackie Gingrich.
The article took on a life of its own on Capitol Hill as his detractors embraced it. Photocopiers on the Hill worked overtime the week it came out.
House Minority Leader Bob Michel's office got one anonymously in the mail. But the Democrats were more direct. California Rep. Tony Coelho, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent copies of it to the 252 Democratic House members.
"I'm not surprised," says Gingrich. "He is not my friend."
"I thought everyone in the House should know about Newt," says Coelho. "There were some flattering things in there about him."
Perhaps Coelho was reading a different piece.
"It was one of the saddest things in my public career," says Gingrich of the story. He says the thrust of the article is untrue and blames most of it on a disgruntled ex-staffer. But he agrees the divorce was not pleasant.
He and Jackie met when he was 16, and a transfer student from overseas to Newton D. Baker High School in Columbus, Ga. She was seven years his senior.
"He couldn't have been there a week, when he said to me, 'I'm going to date Jackie'," says his old friend, Jim Tilton. "I said, 'You're crazy.' But he always had this kind of undaunted self-confidence about him."
Gingrich did date her after he graduated. She eventually moved to Atlanta to teach, and he followed to attend Emory University there. They were married within the year, and eventually set out to New Orleans and Tulane University for Gingrich's PhD studies in history.
"Jackie was my math teacher in high school and it really made a tremendous amount of sense to marry at the time, when I was a freshman in college," he says. "Who you are at 19 may not be who you are at 39. We were married not quite a year when Kathy was born, so I had a daughter in my sophomore year of college with all the economic pressures that implies, and then Jackie Sue was born when I was in graduate school.
"I think the most diplomatic thing to say is I understand what they mean when they say irreconcilable differences. We had been talking about it off and on since 1969. I am a very shy person. I had not dated much when I met her. I think I was very lonely and I think I was very driven . . . If you decide in your freshman year in high school that your job is to spend your lifetime trying to change the future of your people, you're probably fairly weird. I think I was pretty weird as a kid."
Some friends of the couple said the divorce was particularly difficult on Jackie. By the time they went through it, Jackie was in and out of the hospital, battling cancer.
"He can say that we had been talking about it for 10 years, but the truth is that it came as a complete surprise," says Jackie Gingrich, in a telephone interview from Carrollton. "He's a great wordsmith . . . He walked out in the spring of 1980 and I returned to Georgia. By September, I went into the hospital for my third surgery. The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up? When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from the surgery . . . To say I gave up a lot for the marriage is the understatement of the year."
Asked if, in fact, he handled the divorce as insensitively as portrayed, Gingrich responded: "All I can say is when you been talking about divorce for 11 years and you've gone to a marriage counselor, and the other person doesn't want the divorce, I'm not sure there is any sensitive way to handle it."
About Mother Jones' version of his personal life during his first marriage, Gingrich says: "There were long periods in my marriage when I was in enormous pain, and I did a lot of things during that time that reflect how much pain I was in. I am not going to argue every point of that story, but I will say that it painted a picture of me that is essentially untrue."
Gingrich met his second wife, Marianne Ginther, 33, in 1980 through a former member of Congress. She was living in Ohio when they met and she eventually moved here, taking a job with the Secret Service. They were married in 1981, and she is currently living in Georgia and finishing her BA at Georgia State College. He says they would like to have children.
"People think that because Newt is a conservative Republican, I'm just sitting home unemployed, barefoot and pregnant," she said in a telephone interview. "Well, that's just not true. I still have fun."
One Republican member of Congress tells this story about Gingrich:
"We were in Dallas at the convention and a local reporter from my home state asked if I could get him a five-minute interview with Newt. So I walked across the floor, you know, to a friend, to ask him if he would do it. I said 'Newt, it's good deal, with about a 1.5 million viewer reach.' He looked me right in the face and said, 'You'll have to deal with my publicity agent.' I just said to myself, 'You SOB!' "
Gingrich has yet to master the art of meshing politics, good press and the approval of his colleagues. To many, he has made the fatal mistake of appearing anxious to tap-dance for the media. And "Don't get in my way" is a favorite expression, his detractors say.
Again, he says, it's all simply part of the plan.
"We are engaged in reshaping a whole nation through the news media," he says. "We were designed to create a vacuum in terms of creating a confrontational activism that was media oriented. The traditional Republican Party is very uncomfortable with media. All the energy you normally spend trying to be speaker or president, I can pour into thinking through trying to solve this larger equation."
This is all a bit much for his colleagues to swallow in an institution where the practicality of getting votes and the hopes of higher office are the guiding lights.
Many are convinced that he would like to run for president someday, or perhaps for speaker of a Republican House, and that his proclamations of global reformation are really contrived altruism.
"It's not altruism! It's not altruism!" he says. "I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it. Ronald Reagan uses the term 'opportunity society' and that didn't exist four years ago. I just had breakfast with Darman and Stockman because I'm unavoidable. I represent real power. And I can also, as an elected official, I can hold a press conference and that's a form of real power. The ambitions that this city focuses on are trivial if you're a historian. Who cares?"
"I think he has a place, he has chosen to make himself a lightning rod," says Rep. Jack Kemp. "Newt is -- I don't want to call him revolutionary -- but he wants to see change -- I wouldn't have done it the same way myself. Stridency for the sake of stridency is not too helpful.
"I'm not sure how many people like to see someone up there ranting and raving and waving their arms and pointing their finger at another member of the House," says Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), retiring chairman of the American Conservative Union. "His is a style of stridency, not ideology."
"He is without question one of the most important conservative leaders in the country because he has taught conservatives how to make their vision of America part of operative debate," says Paul Weyrich, head of the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress and one of the more vocal leaders of the New Right.
When Congress is in session Gingrich lives in a basement apartment in Arlington, a paneled, warm-looking place that looks more like the residence of a graduate student than a member of Congress: brown overstuffed velvet couches, a cluttered bookcase, a small table with canary yellow folding chairs surrounding it.
"I guess I haven't gotten over being a college professor," he says of his immediate past profession. "This place makes me feel bohemian."
"Actually," he adds a moment later, "I'm here because of money. My two daughters are in private schools and it gets expensive."
"You know," he says after the apartment tour, "I'm not a callous person. In some ways, this is a lonely, painful business. I canceled all tomorrow's business to go home because I decided I had been away from Marianne too long. She has a real back problem and she's feeling lonely."
Gingrich works 12-hour days and knows that this kind of pace means personal sacrifices. How many more years will there be like this?
"Oh, this is just the beginning of a 20-, 30-year movement," he says. He is told that history has a way of glorifying the final resolution, while often dismissing the person who acted as the catalyst. Is he concerned that if he is successful, this could happen to him?
"I'll get credit for it," he says. "As a historian I understand how histories are written. My enemies will write histories that dismiss me and prove I was unimportant. My friends will write histories that glorify me and prove I was more important than I was. And two generations or three from now, some serious, sober historian will write a history that sort of implies I was whoever I was."