Gingrich Goes Ballistic

WAS NEWT GINGRICH EXPERIENCING meltdown? Last Friday it looked and sounded that way. He was on the stage of a Washington hotel ballroom speaking to the friendliest of audiences, the Republican National Committee. And yet his eyes were narrow in hate, his face moist with sweat from the glare of TV lights. His topic: the sins of his many enemies. "I am a genuine revolutionary," he declared. "They are genuine reactionaries ... There is no grotesquerie, no distortion, no dishonesty too great for them" to use. Washington, he warned, "is going to be a mean, tough, hard city."

Then it was on to some mean, tough, hard Newtonian attacks. "Elites" who run public broadcasting finance "anti-Semitic and racist propaganda." The Washington Post printed a "piece of trash" about him. "Important Democrats." he said, in a not-so-veiled allusion to the First Lady, would turn down business deals by saying they could "make too much money in cattle futures." "Barney Frank hates me," Gingrich said: Minority Whip David Bonior has "never recovered" from GOP attempts to help Nicaraguan contras. "If you want to talk about ethics," he said, what about the Clinton administration's long list of troubles on that front?

In fact, this was no meltdown. It was a controlled thermonuclear reaction. After weeks of being hassled by Democrats and the press about his now famous book deal with Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins, Gingrich deliberately chose to go critical. Last Thursday night, after endless cat fights on the floor of the House, he met with his inner circle of aides. He had spent the day with Jim Kemp, a pro-football player. He was in a feisty mood. The book-deal story wasn't going away. He wasn't doing any weekend shows, so he had to get his arguments out there in advance. He had to respond personally. He had to make it clear that he wasn't going down easy -- about anything. "If it's not the book it'll be something else," he said. If the elites wanted war, they'd have it.

Gingricb's combative handling of the issue has less to do with publishing than politics, less to do with authorship than leadership. His maneuvers raise questions. Will he listen to advice he doesn't want to hear? Will his style help unite the GOP, or cause new divisions? Is he as shrewd at media defense as at offense? Whose interest is he serving by trying to make his own fate synonymous with that of the GOP revolution? Above all, can he take the heat? After two painful years in the glare, Bill Clinton and his advisers are delighted to sit back and watch -- and hope. "You think Newt can take it as well as dish it out?" asks Clinton adviser James Carville. "I guess we're about to see."

We are. The reason is Gingricb's twobook agreement with a company owned by Murdoch, the Australian-born media magnate with a Croesus touch and conservative views (following story). Gingrich has agreed to forgo his $4.5 million advance for a book on "renewing America" and take only a symbolic one dollar. Last week he said he would take a royalty rate no greater than the one Vice President Al Gore received for his book on the global environment, and submit the contract -- still in draft to the House ethics committee.

Even so, House Democrats are righteously indignant. They see a chance to topple the new GOP speaker -- or slow his agenda -- by using the same accusatory tactics he employed to unseat a Democratic speaker, Jim Wright, in 1989. In those days Gingrich focused on a book deal engineered by Wright, whom Newt called "genuinely corrupt" and comparable to Mussolini. Now Minority Leader Dick Gephardt's office is a clearinghouse for research on Gingrich, Democratic insiders say. Last week Gingrichs last campaign foe, Ben Jones, said he would ask the ethics committee to include the book deal in an earlier complaint he had filed about Newt's campaign finances. And word went out to the House Democratic rank and file: use your C-Span air time to attack the book deal.

For a man supposedly so shrewd and now so powerful, Gingrich's handling of the book issue is puzzling -- and gives hope to Democrats that he eventually will melt in the hot glare of the spotlight. Though he says an "elite establishment" despises him, it is Gingrich who has inflamed the issue. He did so by grudgingly dribbling out key facts: that he met Murdoch at the time his book agent was negotiating with HarperCollins; then that the meeting had touched on Murdoch's desire to derail FCC action against his Fox television network, and finally, that a Fox lobbyist was there.

Defense moves have backfired. After a day of Democratic goading on C-Span, Gingrich's lieutenants demanded that the speech of Rep. Carrie Meek of Florida be "taken down" -- stricken from the record. The resulting floor fight over her remarks -- and therefore the book deal -- led the evening news. Gingrich aides said he had not known in advance of the move to quash Meek, who was merely one of many speakers trooping to the podium. "I thought he knew everything they did over there," Congressman Frank, an anti-Newt guerrilla leader, said with a laugh.

Threatening the White House didn't work, either. House banking-committee chairman Jim Leach sent a memo there that Gingrich saw in advance, GOP insiders say. Given "ad hominem criticisms of the speaker," Leach wrote, "comity on controversial legislation is difficult to obtain." Translation: cool it if you want anything done, especially the Mexico bailout deal now pending in Congress. When the document leaked -- within hours, of course -- Democrats had a new excuse for angry indignation.

Gingrich's in-your-face approach has its supporters. Rush Limbaugh is one. (As it happens, they now share a book editor, Judith Regan.) "Mr. Newt" is entirely in the right, says Limbaugh. Most of the GOP's younger House members back him, too. But while Republicans generally share his critique of "elites," they aren't uniformly supportive. Bob Dole -- an ally but no Friend of Newt's -- has blandly observed that the book deal will continue to get coverage. The RNC crowd last week cheered wildly at first -- they loved the cattle-futures attack -- but grew a bit sober as his assault droned on. Afterward, some RNC members were privately worried. "The Republican revolution isn't about him alone," said one RNC member from the Northeast.

ln fact, Gingrich had decided to use the RNC meeting as a platform even though party chairman Haley Barbour, NEWSWEEK learned, had privately advised him in December to drop the book deal -- and wasn't eager to have him bring it up again. Many other Republicans, not all of them inside the Beltway, have advised Gingrich to can it. "It's a distraction from the substantive work the party needs to do," said Republican strategist William Kristol.

The Democrats, meanwhile, were fighting Gingrich on other fronts with the sharp scalpels of legislative procedure. In both chambers, they filed dozens upon dozens of amendments to slow the GOP advance, which this week will center on two items: a ban on "unfunded" federal mandates imposed on the states and a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. Gingrich branded the amendment strategy "dilatory" about the nicest thing he said about Democrats.

In the slow-paced Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia seemed to have found his true and fitting role: curmudgeonly Democratic obstructionist. The GOP proposals would over-turn the ancient federal order, he said, pulling a dogeared copy of the U.S. Constitution from his coat pocket. "This is my contract," Byrd declared.

In recent polls the public has expressed cautious new faith in Washington's ability to deal with the country's problems. Numhers are up for Clinton, Gingrich and the Congress. But that won't last, says Illinois polltaker Michael McKeon, if Newt and his enemies don't move on to more important matters. "The Democrats look like they don't have anything else to say," says McKeon, who specializes in probing the sentiments of unaligned voters. "And Newt looks like he only cares about himself." Ironically, there might be a gripping book to be written about the battle of the book. But it's probably not one Newt or his foes would want to read.