What a Plot! What a Cast! Happy New Year!

January 03, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

Washington -- The consensus among Washington's permanent elite, the non-term-limited, television-appearing, lecture-giving, book-writing dons of journalism, is that 1995 will be a very good year -- for us, if not for politicians or the people they represent way out there beyond I-495, the beltway around ZTC the city that separates the capital from the rest of the country.

News is change and conflict -- and, in the American version, ''personalities.'' In the home of individualism, our stories require winners and losers. Who knows whether we would be as fascinated by the Civil War if Abraham Lincoln had been as boring as, say, George Bush?

Beginning with the swearing-in of the new Congress tomorrow, we have the plot and the cast in place for stories strung out to the horizon of 1996, a year that will have the natural climax of an unpredictable presidential campaign and election. The change has been mandated by the voters who bothered to come out last November, and the conflict has been guaranteed by the personal triumph of a Napoleonic little speaker of the House with big ideas.

Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, the speaker and the talker, share many qualities, beginning with good hair, political minds both marvelous and flawed, and a tendency toward weight combined with the unfortunate belief that Americans want to see them on television 24 hours a day in bulging shorts or barber chairs. (In fairness, Mr. Clinton is in much better shape than Mr. Gingrich, though we must brace ourselves for the inevitable People magazine story, complete with before- and-after thigh shots, of how the speaker lost 30 pounds.)

Messrs. Clinton and Gingrich will have the lead in the dramas of '95, which will be kept interesting by their apparently uncontrollable disabilities. The president will be brilliant most days, but rarely consistent. He is like Roseanne, though he keeps the same last name, even if his wife doesn't. The speaker, like Bonaparte, will go too far, taking too much on his thinner shoulders. Never play cards with a man called ''Doc,'' eat at a place called ''Mom's'' or trust a man who uses the phrase ''Western civilization'' in conversation.

''I believe Western civilization is at stake here,'' Mr. Gingrich said to me more than 10 years ago. ''Political leadership is the only thing that can save it. I have dedicated my life to doing that. . . . I made my commitment when I was a sophomore in high school.''

He told me he found his calling when he went to an American World War II cemetery in Germany with his stepfather, a professional Army officer. Then he compared himself to Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communist revolutionary -- not in ideology, of course, but in commitment and fervor, saying: ''They can crush me. But they can't outlast me.''

I haven't heard a lot of talk like that around Washington over the years. But it would not surprise me to hear some now, from new Republican members who have attached themselves to Mr. Gingrich and his mission. I would also not be surprised to see some of them self-destruct trying to find Americans ready to join some sort of new crusade against . . . what? Single mothers? I don't know.

The supporting players who will give us our daily bowl of news are most likely to be Sen. Robert Dole and Sen. Phil Gramm, who is like Mr. Gingrich without the boyish enthusiasm and energy that makes the speaker good company -- if unmannered. Mr. Gingrich walked off the House floor the other day during tributes to his predecessor, Speaker Tom Foley, and Minority Leader Robert Michel.

Mr. Dole, the official leader of the Senate and Senate Republicans, will be harassed day-to-day by Mr. Gramm (and perhaps by his own deputy, Sen. Trent Lott), and the time will come when the party will split between the new-generation crusaders and old-timers like Mr. Dole. ''Dole is really one of us,'' say Democrats and journalists here for life. That is true, I think; Senator Dole loves Washington and the government -- and that is why Messrs. Gingrich and Gramm hate him.

But many of the new anti-Washington boys and girls will play the Washington game, too, though they don't know that yet. It is interesting how many of them say they will not bring their families to Washington. The capital is a seductive and expensive place, and there will almost certainly be pathetic scandals -- sex, money and all that -- involving rootless young crusaders with more power than dollars or sense, alone on Saturday night, paying mortgages, plane fares and tuitions on the $100,000-plus salaries they attacked as too high before they tried to live on them while living in two places very far apart.

Bad news, for them. Good stories, for us. Thank goodness no one is suggesting term limits or codes of ethics for the press.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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