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Lessons From an Embattled Speaker

A battered Gingrich 'gets back up off the mat' and begins to find footing as House leader

There was a time when Newt Gingrich sought the limelight, declaiming on the need to reshape the federal government. But for his efforts, all he reaped were ridicule and low public-approval ratings.

Chastened, the House Speaker, who used to invite reporters into his office daily, took a low profile, delegating many of his duties and evading the journalists who chased him between the House floor and his office. But that didn't help either - and may have made matters worse.

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Now, as he begins his fourth year as Speaker, the Georgia Republican appears to have learned some big lessons about managing the business of the majority party in the House.

For Mr. Gingrich, it's been a school of hard knocks. People who know him or who watch him closely say he has learned to be more careful about what he says. And earlier this year he found out the hard way that he must assert himself and be seen leading - that delegating too much power can lead to trouble (read, "a coup").

But the infamous July coup attempt, in which some GOP leaders closest to Gingrich were caught talking to a small group of conservative rebels about a possible overthrow, proved to be a turning point for the Speaker.

"It really was a wake-up call to him," says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "He pulled up his socks and changed his style of leadership. He got more focused, he got tougher. He consolidated his position and certainly goes into the new year wonderfully stronger than a year earlier."

Gingrich and Big Bird

Indeed, during this congressional recess Gingrich is busy tapping out another book on his 486 laptop about the lessons he's learned at the helm of the House.

Gingrich is the first to acknowledge that "I made a public-relations mistake in the way I explained things." Citing as an example a 1995 fight over public-television funding, he adds, "You ended up with 'Gingrich wants to get rid of Big Bird,' which was never true, ... as distinct from ... why did the money go to some elite national organization called the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as opposed to finding ways to get [public] television to be self-funding?"

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Still, Gingrich says he may have finally hit his stride: "I still have a lot more to learn. But I think that this year we began to build into a rhythm that is pretty good and that is pretty encouraging.... And that, I think, has the House ... frankly running dramatically better than it did the first two years."

Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who early in the year labeled the Speaker "road kill on the highway of American politics," agrees. "From July to November was the most impressive we've been since we took over the majority," he says.

Indeed, late summer saw the Republicans hammering out the details of a historic deal with President Clinton to balance the budget and cut taxes. In recent months, Gingrich also won praise from many, including President Clinton, for his efforts to renew the president's "fast track" trade-negotiating authority. A recent poll showed the Speaker's still-low approval rating creeping upward. Some pundits even list him as a 2000 GOP presidential contender - a long shot, at best.

"With the American public, he is nearly as unpopular as ever," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Their opinion of him is fixed, and it's not going to change. Within Congress he's stronger, thanks to the stupidity of the [GOP] rebels, who ... probably assured that he'll stay in office through next year and maybe longer."

A 'funny' time

Gingrich himself is somewhat reflective about his rise to power.

"It's been a fascinating four years," the Speaker says, standing before the fireplace in his office's "dinosaur room," which is dominated by a huge cast of a skull of the once-fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex. "Some of it is very funny, and some of it's very sad, and some of it's just confusing."

Gingrich's position certainly is more secure than it was at this time last year, but challenges remain. At any time, the conservative rebels could return to the warpath and try to bring him down. Some observers say the only reason Gingrich has survived this long is the lack of any viable alternative around whom House Republicans could rally. His future probably depends on how well the GOP does in next year's House elections.

Moreover, Gingrich still faces ethics charges - which he denies - that he benefited personally from GOPAC, the political action committee he headed before the GOP captured Congress.

Because of who he is, Gingrich's position "will never be secure," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R), a Connecticut moderate and Gingrich supporter.

But Rep. John Linder (R) of Georgia, chairman of the House GOP campaign arm, says the Speaker "is in fine shape. If we had a vote tomorrow for who would be our nominee for Speaker, Newt would get 200 votes."

The Speaker's revived assertiveness, and his more-calculated public statements, may indicate he finally understands the difference between the guerrilla tactics he used in the minority and the responsibilities of governing - especially with a majority that has shrunk from 23 votes to 10.

For one, Gingrich toned down his radical talk this year. "He's expressing himself better," says Representative Shays. "He recognizes it's hard to have a revolution when you have a margin of only 10 votes."

Representative King says the key is whether Gingrich can keep himself under control. "So long as he can function as a chief of staff or a commander rather than a guy who has to be in the front lines shooting his mouth off..., he'll do OK," he says.

Getting up off the mat

So Gingrich forges ahead, preparing for the 1998 elections and trying to articulate a GOP agenda for the next several years. He's fresh from a trip to Britain, where he was received, well, royally, and hailed as one of America's leading political thinkers. He recently spent two hours talking one-on-one with Clinton. Still enormously popular with GOP activists, he embarks in January on an 18-state fund-raising tour.

"When you study history ... [you find] a lot of this is a process of endurance," Gingrich says. "I mean, nobody does it right 100 percent of the time. And so what you do is you get back up off the mat and keep trying."

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