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Is a New, Softer Newt Gingrich Emerging?

A NEW Newt Gingrich is trying to emerge. ``A softer Newt?'' the next Speaker of the House was asked the other morning at a Monitor breakfast. ``Not necessarily softer,'' he told 45 journalists who had arisen before dawn to make it to an early get-together with this Republican star. ``But I'm looking for a better way of saying things.''

The man who has been dubbed ``Mr. Controversy'' conceded that ``most'' of the press scrutiny he has been under of late ``goes with the new territory.''

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Gingrich wasn't contrite. He wasn't taking anything back. But he obviously wished he had ``simply sidestepped'' some of the press's ``clever questions.''

``One thing I have to learn,'' he went on, ``is not to answer analytical questions because I'm not a college professor anymore. I'm the Speaker-to-be of the House, and the Speaker ... has a totally different role'' from the minority whip.

Asked about describing the Clintons as ``counterculture'' types, he said: ``If I had it to do over again, I probably wouldn't have said it.'' He didn't apologize, but he said, ``I don't think you should ever pick a fight if it's avoidable.''

Here a questioner asked: ``Don't you love controversy? Don't you delight in the battle?'' ``No,'' Gingrich replied. ``I simply like to achieve.'' Here he implied that the ``controversial'' Newt Gingrich was, in large part, a creature of the press.

He said, ``The Washington press corps, with some exceptions, is far more liberal than the country, far more intellectual and abstract than the country, and far more committed to a relatively secular world. Therefore by definition most Washington reporters on most mornings ... will end up being left of center.''

He added, ``That doesn't mean they are bad people or that they are prejudiced in the sense of cheating.'' But, he continued, these journalists tended to put ideas they were hearing and then conveying to the public through this left-of-center filter.

But Gingrich had clearly come to breakfast to make it up to the press, certainly not to irritate it. His main message was that he, not the reporters, must change.

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He said that he must ``close down'' that part of his personality that many people find abrasive. ``I've got to learn to be more careful, more specific, about what I say.''

He said that being a minority whip was like being a middle linebacker. But now he had been made coach and he must learn to act and talk like a coach.

The signs of a Gingrich transformation came through in the good humor and even warmth with which he talked to the assembled reporters that morning. No anger. No barbed comments. He even had some kind words to say about Herblock, the Washington Post cartoonist who had just depicted him as an irresponsible politician tossing charges around in a way reminiscent of Joe McCarthy.

``I regard [Herblock] as one of the great institutions of public life. His cartoons are a wonderful commentary on this society and the way it operates at the center of national power.''

Would a toned-down Gingrich likely be as effective in achieving his goals? And could he keep his conservative base unified if his supporters see him bending too much to what they view as a Washington restraint being put on him by the liberals?

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