Gingrich's sweet talking hits sour note with many

ON POLITICS

January 06, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Liberal House Democrats, listening to Newt Gingrich at his swearing-in as the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years, could not be blamed if they thought there was something wrong with their hearing.

Their ears told them he had just extolled Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt as "the greatest president of the 20th century," praised FDR Democrats for creating "modern America," referred to the New Deal as "that great heritage" and observed that "it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that ended segregation."

Fellow conservative Republicans may have thought the same thing when Gingrich told them, "It doesn't hurt to have a copy of the portable FDR" to go along with the portable Abraham Lincoln. Gingrich, after all, has made a career of deriding the legacy of FDR as "the welfare state," as indeed he did once again in his swearing-in remarks.

His single-minded mission in public life since entering Congress in 1979 has been bringing down the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives and raising the GOP in its place to bring about what he likes to call "the opportunity society" -- replacing "dependency" with individual "responsibility."

Few Democrats or Republicans who heard Gingrich are likely to expect a diminution of that mission, for all of his latest paeans to FDR and the New Deal. Liberal Democrats particularly remain wary of Gingrich as a vessel of political conciliation now that he exercises control of the House. Rather, they see his swearing-in remarks as a studied effort to project a new image to a television-viewing populace that knows little about him.

Democratic Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, an old liberal, says of Gingrich's FDR references: "I think he was trying to soften his image without softening his position, and it's his position that matters."

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland agrees. "I took it for what it's worth," he says. After years of attempting to bring the Democratic Party into disrepute, he says, Gingrich backed off on this very public occasion as a tactic to alter "the perception of the American people, to the softer image of a Jack Kemp with a higher sense of purpose."

Rep. Marty Frost of Texas says Gingrich "sounded like Ronald Reagan to me" in his praise of FDR. "Everything Newt Gingrich does is carefully calculated," Frost observes. "He was obviously trying to dispel his old image. Remember the old adage, 'Watch what he does, not what he says.' He's not a guy who stands for anything the core constituency of the Democratic Party stands for."

Two liberal Democrats from Massachusetts, Reps. Barney Frank and Joe Kennedy, are equally skeptical. "I'm always astounded when Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich and George Bush talk in such glowing terms of Democrats who have one quality in common -- that they've all died," Kennedy says. Frank calls it "political necrophilia."

Kennedy dismisses the Gingrich remarks as "window-dressing for the real Republican agenda -- to provide greater protection for the wealthiest in the country at the expense of the poorest in the country." Frank adds: "He is the most manipulative person I've ever had anything to do with. He wants to undermine our ability to go after him the way he went after us. He has the right wing very much in hand. Now he can make these gestures."

Gingrich's most interesting gesture was his proposal to have conservative Republican House members exchange "long weekend" district visits with black and Hispanic Democratic members. It would in effect be an invitation for Gingrich conservatives to inner-city districts where the work of FDR and the New Deal that the new speaker extolled is far from done. On the other hand, the inner-city Democrats would get a look at Republican suburbia, where Gingrich would claim his "opportunity society" thrives.

The exchange program is a simplistic idea, but it wouldn't hurt -- any more than the new Republican speaker's deification of Franklin Roosevelt, father of the modern Democratic Party that Gingrich has demonized for so long.

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