Spiro Agnew With Brains

For years, Newt Gingrich desperately needed the press. Lacking any record as a legislator, he was the first member of Congress to recognize that vivid sound bites attacking Democrats could help him climb the leadership ladder. But now Gingrich is candid about expanding his search for ""counterculture'' enemies. A fat new target is the ""elite media.'' Imagine Spiro Agnew with brains.

The press has certainly done its part to keep the poison flowing in the other direction, especially The New York Times. Between ""The Politics of Meanness'' (Anna Quindlen), ""A Simple Case of Fraud'' (Bob Herbert), ""Newt Gingrich, Authoritarian'' (editorial) and an untrue story about Gingrich hypocritically trading his beat-up Honda for a Cadillac (he drives neither), the good gray lady was in a purple fit last week. But to what end? Apoplexy chokes reason. Whatever his excesses of intolerance, Gingrich is not the ostrich -- the liberals are. Until they recognize that, they'll never get their heads out of the sand.

In the meantime, Gingrich is confident he can bypass the mainstream media with computers and talk radio. This can be hazardous; Clinton staffers were at least as arrogant about the vast potential of ""new media'' in early 1993, and look where it got them. The difference is that Gingrich, who first surfaced in the early 1980s on C-Span, has worked for years to build a new conservative media establishment. In fact, the liberal domination of the media that he maligns doesn't really exist anymore -- thanks in part to Gingrich's own efforts.

Although nominal liberals still dominate the ranks of reporters, they are generally equal-opportunity character assassins. (Just ask the Clintons.) By contrast, conservatives dominate punditry, where they hold the edge not just on radio but among syndicated columnists and TV talking heads. So it's basically a draw. And this year the TV news magazines -- aired by the hated networks -- contributed directly to the GOP victory. For instance, the millions of people who watched ""PrimeTime Live'' shortly before the election saw an appalling story about regular SSI disability checks going to families whose children misbehaved in school. The message was: act up, win a free $400 check every month. It's no wonder the election went Republican.

Gingrich is right to criticize the press for not better absorbing the obvious message of the election. The voters were shouting ""Shrink government!'' at the top of their lungs, and hardly anyone in the media heard them. But the Times's erroneous Cadillac story was certainly not the ""exact, explicit, trivial, factual example'' of ""bias and slanting'' that Gingrich claims. Newspapers make mistakes all the time, especially when on the prowl for hypocritical politicians (ask the Clintons again).

In the same bulging vein, Gingrich barred The Atlanta Constitution from covering him after it ran a cartoon making fun of his now famous 1980 visit to the hospital room of his cancer-stricken first wife to work out the details of their divorce. Political cartoons are supposed to be rough; the higher you go, the rougher they get. Does anyone recall Gingrich's complaining about the reporting on, say, Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers? Gingrich recently defended his attacks on Idaho Democrat Larry LaRocco for lying about a sexual-harassment case. This involved a legal proceeding, he said, and was therefore fair game. At the same time, he views attention to his own tardy 1992 alimony payments -- also a matter of legal record -- as in the category of ""despicable trash.'' If Gingrich wants the personal attacks to stop, he'll have to stop them himself.

Still, the intensity of the resentment toward Gingrich reflects a sense of liberal denial about the election. Of course it's depressing for liberals that their politicians aren't as skilled as Gingrich at slash and burn. But the answer is not just to wield the garlic and cross and refuse to engage him on his view of the future. There's a certain kind of liberal who could more easily admit a case of hemorrhoids than allow that anything uttered by Newt Gingrich makes sense.

As it happens, most of his plans for reforming Congress do make sense, as do the parts of the ""Contract With America'' that provide a line-item veto and curb lawyers. His anti-bureaucratic vision is nothing short of inspiring. The point is not just to find where he falls short on voodoo economics, prayer in schools or welfare (those orphanages he wants are much more expensive than the system now); it's to weigh the implications of everything he says, good and bad. In the next two years, the press corps can referee the bickering and handicap '96. Or, if it aims higher, it could help the public understand which government agencies and programs really can be cut; it could cover more government, less politics.

The irony of Newt Gingrich is how much he has in common with those he lambastes. Gingrich's favorite line is: ""It is impossible to maintain civilization with 12-year-olds having babies, with 15-year-olds killing each other, with 17-year-olds dying of AIDS and with 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can't even read.'' It's a good line, as George McGovern himself would no doubt agree, and it suggests that Gingrich cares about more thanith the [party'prerogatives of society's haves. But if he really believes it, he will amend his silly pledge not to compromise and tone down the inflammatory rhetoric that makes real solutions harder. Then maybe the press will cut him some slack.