For Incoming Speaker, a Really Wonderful Life

November 27, 1994|By KAREN HOSLER

The balance of power between the White House and Congress may have officially tipped toward the Capitol when Newt Gingrich was featured last weekend in a television skit on "Saturday Night Live."

Already we had a Gingrich 100-day agenda, a Gingrich transition team and plans for two days of gala Gingrich swearing-in festivities. But now the chief architect of the Republican takeover of Congress has earned himself such cult figure status, he's considered great material for popular entertainment. A Gingrich character played the Jimmy Stewart role in a takeoff of the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," in which guardian angel Richard Nixon showed him what America would be like if he had never been born.

What's next? A parade down Pennsylvania Avenue?

Newly elected presidents are the only politicians normally accorded this kind of honeymoon hoopla. Yet, President Clinton has been eclipsed like a defeated incumbent by a Georgia congressman about to assume the relatively obscure post of speaker of the House.

"Newt has certainly seized the day," said John Sheehan, executive director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which monitors press coverage. "But if the focus wasn't on him, I don't know where it would be. He sees this as his opportunity to put forward his plans. He sees himself as responsible for the Republican agenda. And he knows he has to move as fast as he can. Bill Clinton didn't even get a honeymoon."

There have been a handful of other prominent House speakers. During the 1880s, Republican Thomas B. "Czar" Reed of Maine easily over shadowed weak presidents like Democrat Grover Cleveland. And Joseph G. "Uncle Joe" Cannon was pretty much an equal partner in government with fellow Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft. When Democrat Jim Wright of Texas assumed the speakership in 1987, he took it upon himself to restore Democratic programs the Reagan administration had sought to dismantle and even dabbled in foreign policy.

But historians say Mr. Gingrich's situation is unique: a leader rising to his party's top office in Congress just as his party is taking control of the Capitol after 40 years in the minority. He is moving quickly to strengthen congressional power and making symbolic public gestures that underscore who is in charge.

"Newt is not only interested in changing policy, he wants to restructure American politics," said David Mason of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank allied with the new speaker. "As a history professor himself, he knows it's important for him to be visible to do that."

Despite his months of optimistic preparation, Mr. Gingrich says he was psychologically unprepared to find himself suddenly at the center of the American political universe.

"I saw more reporters and more cameras than I had ever seen anywhere outside of the closing weeks of a presidential campaign," he told a Heritage Foundation audience shortly after the election. "It was astonishing."

The extraordinary attention on him, he contends, reflects the American voters' dramatic decision to ask a Republican-controlled Congress, rather than the Democratic White House, to set national policy.

"It's certainly unlike any congressional takeover we've ever seen before," observed Thomas Mann, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There is a genuine ideological bite to this Republican majority that is comparable to a new administration taking over."

But Mr. Gingrich quickly established himself as the chief spokesman for the new Republican majority, and he has maintained the spotlight through a series of carefully calculated appearances. "The role of a leader in a free society is first to set an agenda and communicate goals and standards," Mr. Gingrich told the Heritage audience. "It is second to convey symbolic power."

The 100-day plan prescribed in Mr. Gingrich's "Contract with America" is the Republicans' very ambitious starting place next year. But the speaker presumptive has already moved beyond the tax cuts and anti-government reforms in the contract to describe a complete redesign of government.

"This is exactly like the invention of the New Deal, where Franklin Roosevelt and his team experimented, experimented and experimented," Mr. Gingrich said. "The difference is, where they were acquiring power for Washington, we're giving power out back home."

Mr. Gingrich's bold comparison to FDR's action-packed first 100 days in office may be overreaching, said George C. Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University.

"FDR was dealing with an enormous national crisis and widespread panic," he said. "The country was so anxious for something to be done, Congress passed a piece of folded-up newspaper when legislation regulating the banks wasn't ready in time."

Even so, Mr. Gingrich has laid the groundwork for a transition that will allow him to hit the ground running when his new majority is sworn in Jan. 4, with more power than many of his predecessors.

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