There was a moment when House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) hauled his garbage out to the curb during his ethics crisis in the winter of 1996 and his eyes briefly flickered over to the cameras recording his every move in Marietta. Hundreds of miles away in Washington, Gingrich's longtime political adviser Rich Galen picked up the phone and called his friend, urging him to remain silent.
"I saw you look at those microphones -- just stay with it for another week and a half," Galen remembered chastising the speaker. "He blew his stack."
Losing control of his mouth, especially in the presence of reporters, has been one of his greatest failings -- as Gingrich himself admits in a new book. But in the past few weeks, he seems to have finally learned the lesson. In a series of television and print interviews, there was the speaker looking relaxed and confident, smiling as he demurely deflected questions on possible impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
The appearances were to kick off his book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," a short personal account of his tumultuous four years as speaker that he is now promoting in a national tour. The book, which marks the end of Gingrich's once-controversial publishing deal with HarperCollins, signals a sort of coming out for the less mean, more lean speaker. The cover suggests what's coming: The congressman who spent most of his career uniformed in a blue suit, white shirt and red tie poses as a Baby Boomer Everyman in leather bomber jacket, denim jeans, open-collar shirt and unscuffed suede hiking boots.
The book, which is written in a slightly folksy tone, offers Gingrich's version of events along with a light dose of political dogma. He candidly acknowledges his own strategic blunders, and takes credit for a few victories. On one level, the story is an inside narrative of how one of the nation's most complex public figures managed to avert falling over the political precipice and positioned himself to be one of his party's potential presidential front-runners in less than a year.
Only in the last 20 pages does Gingrich offer an easily digestible political formula to cure the nation's ills. He calls it "four goals for a generation," and it centers on drug use, education, taxes and retirement.
But even with the new packaging, the speaker's allies -- and the book itself -- make clear that his essential nature remains the same. Gingrich harbors the same grand political vision and ambition that helped propel him into power in 1994.
"What we see in Newt has been a more disciplined control over his public presentation, not a change in either his convictions or his grand strategy," said Tony Blankley, his former press secretary.
As his tour begins, Gingrich's favorable poll ratings have been creeping up, recently rising to 36 percent -- though his unfavorables are still high at about 50 percent. One question consuming Capitol Hill these days is whether he will remain in the House or plunge into the 2000 presidential race.
But without question the speaker is mounting a campaign for what he calls "another quantum leap" in the nation's policies and political system. And he'll do it in at least two cities associated more with presidential contests than book tours: Manchester, N.H., and Des Moines, Iowa.
In contrast to his policy-oriented "To Renew America," published in 1995, Gingrich's recent book is a carefully crafted confessional in which he admits he made mistakes while offering lengthy explanations for each misstep. Most of the Republicans' early problems came from misreading their opposition and pushing for change too quickly. Writing that he is "astonished at how badly I had underestimated the size and intensity of the problems that would confront me as Speaker of the House," he issues a scathing attack on how the "liberal elites" tried to scuttle the GOP's work.
"They hit us. We make an excuse. We offer a helping hand. They bite the hand. We offer an excuse," he writes. "You really have to have been inside some of our struggles to appreciate the radical difference between the systematic hostility of the Left and the confused efforts at accommodation and compromise on the part of certain Republicans." In spite of his recent struggles, Gingrich writes that he has not lost sight of his overarching vision. Referring to himself as a "transformational leader," he sketches this mission in the broadest of terms.
"I, on the other hand, was essentially the political leader of a grass-roots movement seeking to do nothing less than reshape the federal government along with the political culture of the nation," he writes at one point. At another point, he says his job is to "change the country's habits of governance so that they more truly reflect the manners and morals of the vast majority of the American people."
According to some of Gingrich's closest advisers, political observers frequently overlook this aspect of his personality. "Newt always viewed himself as having a larger purpose than being speaker of the House," explained his former chief of staff Dan Meyer.
As one Republican lobbyist put it, Gingrich's strength lies in his ideas rather than in being a bureaucrat.
"Newt's quandary is he is in a time where Americans don't want or need a visionary as much as someone who makes the trains run on time," he said. "He's not good at making the trains run on time."
Failing to reconcile this quandary, Gingrich acknowledges, caused some of the problems that led to the aborted coup attempt last July.
"I was thinking about long-range planning when what I should have been doing was making sure we could get through the summer of 1997," he writes.
Yet Gingrich's willingness to be contrite may rehabilitate his public image. "People in a political environment never admit mistakes," said one Republican leader, adding that Americans tend to be forgiving. "Strategically, I think this is good for him."
By all accounts, Gingrich has gained back his confidence in the months since the coup and immersed himself in the business of legislation. He negotiated the long-simmering dispute between budget hawks and asphalt lovers over the $217 billion highway bill, which ultimately passed by a wide margin. He employed procedural tactics to ensure that a campaign finance bill would go down in defeat, and has established a bevy of task forces to grapple with domestic issues ranging from drugs to education.
The majority of Republicans are firmly behind the speaker, with many seeing no obvious successor at the moment. "He's as strong today as he's ever been, because he's exerted control over our agenda," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "He's the most popular elected leader we have in our conference."
But conflicts on the House floor may never be over. Last week, the speaker provoked cries of outrage when in a fit of pique he decided to bulldoze a bipartisan coalition of reformers and kill their campaign finance bill.
"I wish he had waited a little longer and he could have included this lesson in the book," joked Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), usually a Gingrich ally, who bore the brunt of the speaker's wrath. "The lesson learned is you don't do something out of anger."