Bill Cunningham, making his first visit to the nation's capital, had a visceral reaction when he saw the gleaming Capitol dome, now under Republican management.
"God bless America! Normal people are back in charge!" the Cincinnati talkmeister boomed.
"I kind of see Republicans as normal and Democrats as far left-wing radical liberal loonies," he said.
Cunningham is part of a brigade of talk radio hosts, most of them fiercely conservative, that marched into Washington like conquering heroes yesterday to claim the spoils of victory. Many of them established beachheads inside the Capitol, broadcasting the kind of ideological message that even Democrats say helped sweep the GOP into power.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich gave the talk-show types space in the Capitol for the first time, installing one host, Wes Minter, in his burgundy-carpeted suite of offices. Gingrich, who frequently appeared on Minter's Atlanta program before Minter moved to Minneapolis, even stopped by for an early-morning chat.
Minter, who pronounced himself "thrilled" at Gingrich's ascension, asked the new speaker: "When your head hit the pillow last night, what went through your mind?"
"Nothing. I collapsed," Gingrich said. Next they discussed Gingrich's love of animals. Afterward, beneath the ornate chandelier, Gingrich autographed Minter's copy of the "Contract With America."
The Georgia Republican, who hosts his own cable TV program, extolled the virtues of talk shows with guest host Tony Snow on the "Rush Limbaugh Show." "Without C-SPAN, without talk radio shows, without all the alternative media, I don't think we'd have won," Gingrich said. "The classic elite media would have distorted our message."
While the big network anchors, Dan and Connie and Tom and Peter, are here this week, the spotlight has fallen on the radio personalities once considered on the fringes of the media world. About 70 percent of talk radio hosts are conservative, and many openly endorsed GOP candidates and denounced Democrats during the 1994 campaign.
"Talk radio has allowed the rest of America to penetrate inside the Beltway," said GOP strategist Bill Kristol. "To the extent there has been a popular rebellion against Congress and big-government liberalism, talk radio had something to do with that."
Snow's program had a triumphant air this week as he shot the breeze with Bob Dole, Trent Lott, Phil Gramm, Rep. Bob Dornan (who called Clinton an "illegitimate president") and Snow's former boss, George Bush.
Not even a token Democrat? "It's a Republican week," the Detroit News columnist said. "Certainly there's no attempt to discourage callers from saying you guys are full of it."
But Limbaugh's callers were "euphoric," as one put it, about the GOP takeover. "I'm not interested in compromising with the Democrats," said Linda from Charlottesville. "What are the chances of getting this odious crime bill repealed?" asked John from Odessa, Tex.
Michael Reagan, the former president's son, had a personal reason for bringing his Los Angeles talk show here. "More Reagan Republicans were elected on November 8 than when my father was elected in 1980," he said. "It's an exciting moment for me."
One or two liberals were sighted yesterday, relegated to a barren room in the Capitol basement. Larry Bensky of the Pacifica network said the Capitol "doesn't look like America. It looks like the suburbs that elected Newt Gingrich."
Judy Jarvis, a Hartford-based host who is sympathetic to Clinton, was rewarded with an interview with White House aide George Stephanopoulos. She said the avowedly Republican hosts will now become partisan cheerleaders. "They're in bed with these folks," Jarvis said. "They're now the Establishment. What are they gonna say: 'Today Newt walked on water for the fifth time this week'?"
Behind Jarvis, the thundering voice of Armstrong Williams, a conservative, nearly drowned out his colleagues: "No longer do we have to apologize for being Christian, for being conservative, for being moral!"
Some hosts pledged allegiance to the Newtonian order. "Newt's a great American," said Cunningham of Cincinnati's WLW. "He walks in the shoes of Jefferson. He'll bring fundamental change to America. If not, we'll kick him out and get someone who will toe the company line."
Dave Ross of Seattle's KIRO described the capital as a city of glittering monuments and well-tailored lawyers.
"Pretty soon you get sucked in," he said. "You take that power away, you send the Congress on the road, this city sinks back into the swamp. Move it out to St. Louis. Move it out to Topeka. But for God's sake get away from the marble buildings and columns."
Back inside the marbled splendor of the speaker's office, Minter of WCCO radio was being interviewed by WCCO television about his interview with Gingrich.
"A lot of people paint him as a mean monster of a guy," said reporter Esme Murphy. "Not at all," Minter said. "He's a gentleman."
CAPTION: Conservative radio talk show host Armstrong Williams revels on the air as the new Congress is sworn in.