Capt. Gingrich has an agenda

March 17, 1995|By Robert E. Thompson

Washington -- NEWT GINGRICH is not everyone's cup of tea. In fact, many Americans react to him as they would to a tankard of bitter hemlock brew.

There is little doubt that the right-wing patriarch of the House would enjoy broader public acceptability if he controlled his tongue as well as he controls his Republican colleagues.

But even his foes, of whom there are many, should appreciate the leadership and discipline he has brought to his party and his conservative cause. They also should appreciate the fact that he has stirred the once-sedentary political cauldron to the boiling point.

During the Democrats' 40-year reign in the House, which encompassed the tenures of nine presidents, GOP leaders opposed liberal initiatives but rarely offered an agenda of their own.

When Republicans -- Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- occupied the White House, GOP lawmakers followed their leader. When Democrats -- John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter -- held the presidency, the Republicans occasionally maimed or killed a bill but almost never initiated their own legislative package.

They played a defensive rather than offensive political game.

None had the audacity to draft a Contract with America, obtain the signatures of all the Republicans seeking election to the House and then, once they had routed the Democrats from control, set out to implement each of its proposals.

Tough, vindictive, autocratic and often demagogic though he may be, Newt Gingrich has demonstrated what leadership is all about. No one should doubt that he is the captain of the conservative cause.

He fully understands Harry Truman's maxim: A leader has to lead,or otherwise he has no business in politics.

Newt Gingrich is filled with ideas and ambition and has forced other leaders of government to think imaginatively about matters of state.

He has made the halls of government fascinating forums for debate about politics, philosophy and the destiny of the American republic. Where other GOP leaders have talked for years about turning the clock back, Newt Gingrich is actually attempting to do it.

Although both parties have moved rightward in recent years, the GOP took a giant leap in that direction with last year's election.

At the same time, few Democrats with any clout have defended their party's record of the past 60 years. The White House has railed against cuts in funds for the school lunch program and warned that a balanced budget amendment must inevitably lead to diminished Social Security benefits.

But few Democrats have spoken out on behalf of the remarkable innovations and achievements of the Democratic presidents who helped propel the republic successfully through the Depression, World War II and the Cold War. Few also have articulated a vision of the future.

On the day he became House speaker, Newt Gingrich, the historian, could declare that Franklin D. Roosevelt was the greatest president of the 20th century and that it was only through the efforts of liberal Democrats that racial segregation was abolished in America. But many Democrats appear afraid to say such things.

Bill Clinton may be the head of state, but since November Mr. Gingrich has acted as head of government.

An ironic aspect of the Gingrich blitzkrieg is that in trying to destroy Great Society reforms, he has emulated the Democrats who passed those reforms in the 89th Congress. In other words, today's House Republicans, like Lyndon Johnson's Democrats of years ago, have adopted an assembly-line approach to legislation.

Major reforms, including constitutional amendments, are rushed through committee and full House consideration with only token deliberation of their long-range impact.

Like a colorful buccaneer, Mr. Gingrich swashbuckles his way around Washington -- giving here, taking there -- forever on the move.

Just when it appears that he has simmered down, he tosses out a new bomb.

In an assault on the independence and integrity of the press, he recently urged wealthy advertisers to boycott newspapers that attack his program. Such publications, said Mr. Gingrich in a burst of hyperbole, harbor "socialists" on their editorial boards.

Although he is a historian who should know better, he blamed all the ills of public schools and public housing on liberal Democrats.

He has labeled House Democrats a "left-wing lynch mob." He even sought to exploit tragedy for party gain when he cited a South Carolina mother's drowning of her two children as reason to vote Republican.

Still for all his bluster and bravado, Mr. Gingrich has generated energy and excitement that too long have been missing from Washington. However grudgingly, his critics should concede that accomplishment to the bombastic gentleman from Georgia.

Robert E. Thompson writes for Hearst newspapers.

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