MARIETTA, Ga. -- As his colleagues in Washington debated President Clinton's fate, House Speaker Newt Gingrich played host yesterday to a farewell town hall meeting in his district that combined effusive tributes for Gingrich with seething denunciations of Clinton.
At both his forum at Walton High School and at a news conference, Gingrich maintained his distance from the details of the impeachment process, which he has bequeathed to his successor, Rep. Bob Livingston, and to Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He relented to speak about Clinton only when Chris Bennett, a ninth-grader at Lassiter High School, asked him what the next president should do "to restore dignity to the office."
Gingrich responded: "I suspect every person in this room is a sinner. But there is an enormous difference between being human and failing to recognize the responsibilities and the duties you have voluntarily accepted.
"I hope that the next president, whoever they are and of whatever party, takes seriously being the leader of a free people, takes seriously being commander in chief, takes seriously that the Oval Office is the civic center of the American nation. And I think, frankly, any reasonable person who takes those three and does them will, in a heartbeat, will in the opening 24 hours, restore to the White House the dignity, the honor, the decency which it has so clearly lost in the last six years."
At the town hall meeting, the 33rd such forum that Gingrich has held in his district since becoming speaker in 1995, dozens of the 500 people present lined up to pay homage. They hailed Gingrich, who will leave the House on Jan. 3, as a compassionate visionary who made time for his constituents even after the Republicans took control of the House in 1994. With thunderous ovations, they urged him to run for president, which he later said he would not do in 2000.
Gingrich, who announced his resignation from the House last month after the Democrats gained seats in the Nov. 3 election, said he had consulted on Friday with Livingston about next week's impeachment vote.
He urged all House members to vote their consciences. While declining to specify his own views on impeachment, Gingrich emphasized that his withdrawal from the House's leadership had removed a political obstacle to the proceedings.
"For the last month, because I haven't been public, because I haven't said anything, the focus really has been on some issues that are pretty important to the country," Gingrich said with a grin. He acknowledged that he is such "a sufficiently vocal and polarizing personality" that Clinton had been able to use him effectively as a foil. As long as he remained speaker, he said, he would continue to serve as "the excuse."
"The president is a brilliant counterpuncher," Gingrich said. "He does almost nothing positive but he hits those who try to do things remarkably well. And now, frankly, he has to stand on his own feet. He and Gore have to decide are they going to handle Washington, are they going to lead the world, are they going to solve problems. And the country will measure them without being in some kind of fight with the Republican speaker of the House."
Gingrich, 55, said that after leaving the House he would give paid speeches and remain vocal on issues.
Pub Date: 12/13/98