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CONGRESS - Team Gingrich

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in the Jan. 14, 1995, edition of National Journal.

Early 1989 was a pivotal time for dispirited House Republicans. Despite George Bush's election victory the previous November, the Democrats had gained five House seats, and their lock on the House seemed stronger than ever. Within weeks, however, an unexpected sequence of events sent Republican Whip Dick Cheney of Wyoming to the Pentagon and produced a razor-thin victory for Newt Gingrich of Georgia as his replacement. 


In February of that year, the conservative theoretician and firebrand Gingrich circulated among a small group of activists a seven-page document detailing how Republicans could use the 1992 elections to drive a party realignment ''from the presidency down to the precincts.''

The game plan fell short in 1992: Bush lost, and although Republicans picked up 10 House seats, they remained far short of a majority.

But the roots of Gingrich's elevation to Speaker were planted in the 1989 primer. Then, as now, he recited a four-part mantra for political organizing: Define a vision; set the strategy to implement it; prepare tactics designed for success; develop projects to achieve goals. Now, though, he has sold that message to a far broader audience, he has the institutional clout to enforce discipline and he has assembled a loyal army for his crusade.

''Newt's team is vast,'' said Rep. Christopher H. Shays, R-Conn., a leading party moderate. ''Newt empowers people. When they come to him with an idea, he encourages them and gives them help. . . . I am one of countless numbers of people who have played a role in something far larger than all of us.''

The notion that a Speaker would have a ''team'' of activist followers is a vivid example of how much the House has changed. Democrats called former Speaker Jim Wright, D-Texas, a ''lone rang er,'' and many viewed Thomas S. Foley , D-Wash., his successor, as reactive. Gingrich, by contrast, revels in convening meetings at which he and colleagues review the political landscape, consider options and set strategy.

''His complete focus is on getting projects completed,'' said Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, a Gingrich ally and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. ''Newt bites off a lot. . . . But he has a computer -like ability to track projects and to marshal forces. Like Eisenhower in World War II, he is the Supreme Commander. He is not worried about traditional lines of authority.''

In an interview last fall, Gingrich said that he relies on ''a constantly evolving process with hundreds of people every day,'' in Washington and across the nation. (For a report on Gingrich's rise, see NJ, 9/24/94, p. 2198.)

The new Speaker gives plenty of room to self-starters who can identify new missions and win his OK to lead them. ''He is such a motivator,'' Rep. Jennifer B. Dunn, R-Wash., said. ''The reason that I have worked so hard for him is that he encourages Members to play to their strength. His only requirement was to be on time and not to leave early.''

Gingrich also appears eager to encourage fresh faces--including women and minorities--in a party that is still working to break free from its image as a haven for wealthy, white male country-clubbers. ''In the 1980s, we failed to make the case that Reagan policies helped minority groups and middle-class working families,'' a top House GOP strategist said.

A striking characteristic of the most energetic Members surrounding Gingrich is their relatively brief service in the House. Jim Nussle of Iowa and John Boehner of Ohio, probably the two most influential members of his transition team, gained notoriety in 1991 as members of the ''Gang of Seven'' GOP freshmen intent on exposing the House's corrupt or outdated operations. Of the eight other top transition team members, five--including Dunn--were first elected in 1992. (Gingrich came to the House in 1978; nearly all of the new Republican committee chairmen outrank him in seniority.)

Gingrich's spontaneous and frenetic leadership style has its risks. As he has shown in recent weeks, he sometimes makes statements or takes actions that surprise even his closest advisers--and that he eventually concedes were mistakes. He has bruised the egos of some veteran GOP lawmakers who were left behind by his political steamroller.

Although he prides himself on accessibility, demands on his time have become crushing. ''The problem is not his intention but his schedule and preoccupation with everything else,'' said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., who has been a Gingrich ally among GOP moderates. ''The key to influencing Newt is diligence. . . . And it is important to understand that he is absolutely bored and has no time for the details. You can engage him with the vision.''

Gingrich has drawn vague, sometimes overlapping lines of authority that his close supporters will have to resolve. For example, he recently delegated Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., to work with leading thinkers across the nation to develop a new political vision--at the same time that his longtime associate, Jeffrey A. Eisenach, is undertaking a similar task. Eisenach, a former Gingrich political aide, is president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a think tank that has worked closely with Gingrich. Eisenach said that he and Hoekstra ''expect to talk frequently.''

Gingrich has also left unclear how the Hoekstra and Eisenach efforts relate to his own plan to lay out his vision in To Renew America, his celebrated book venture. He has suggested that he will hire researchers or writers to assist with the project. But he has not explained how he will find the time to work on that book and on two others that are in the works, given the House's daunting calendar for the coming months. Aides say that Gingrich's schedule has been stretched to the limits in recent years; he sleeps six hours a day and works the remainder.

Unlike previous Speakers, Gingrich has promised to maintain active professional dealings outside the House. In addition to writing books, his activities include a course that he is again teaching each Saturday morning at Reinhardt College in Waleska, Ga., and an hourly interview program that he co -hosts each Tuesday night from the Capitol Hill studio of National Empowerment Television, a conservative cable network. His comments in these and other forums could provide plenty of grist for critics.

Gingrich's far-reaching network of allies has brought him into contact with many emerging leaders of the national conservative movement, from state and local elected officials to Washington operatives such as pollster Frank Luntz and grass-roots antitax organizer Grover G. Norquist.

Another longtime compatriot is former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., now a Washington lobbyist and commentator. During the 1980s, Gingrich and Weber were ideological soul mates in the struggle to keep the GOP on a rightward keel, particularly on economic policy matters.

The two parted ways when it came to challenging House Democrats: Gingrich highlighted scandals involving Democratic Members and accused the majority of abusing its power, while Weber preferred a less confrontational, more personal approach. In a sense, Weber was a victim of Gingrich's attacks; he retired in 1992 rather than endure a campaign that would have focused on his sizable number of bad checks at the House bank--part of a scandal that Gingrich seized upon as a symbol of House mismanagement.

But members of Gingrich's staff say that their relationship is ''very warm'' and that Weber is a leading member of the Speaker's kitchen cabinet.

Gingrich also draws advice from motivational and management experts who- -from the often-staid perspective of Capitol Hill--are on the fringe of political discourse. ''Newt is drawn, to an extent, to bullshit artists on the outside,'' a top House GOP aide said.

Joseph R. Gaylord, a political consultant and longtime Gingrich adviser, seems to be trying to impose order on these and other aspects of the new Speaker's life. Sources close to Gingrich variously described Gaylord as Gingrich's political guru, his best friend and his unofficial chief of staff. Gaylord attends frequent meetings with Gingrich, other Members and staff in the Capitol. But Gaylord says that reports about his influence are exaggerated, and he has become more reclusive with the news media. Bridging factions

Major changes in House operations have been inevitable since Election Day. Even some Democrats concede that a shakeup was overdue, given the breakdown of authority in the chamber.

Already, Gingrich has consolidated more-sweeping power than has any other Speaker in nearly a century.JBut his undisciplined style is jarring to many in the House, which remains a creature of rules and traditions. It may take time for him and the institution to adjust to each other. And, despite the surface unity within the GOP, he faces potential problems in managing his own party.

In contrast with recent Speakers, Ging-rich has little background in what had been considered two fundamental elements of legislative leadership: a track record in handling major legislation in committee or on the floor, and experience in managing the agenda as a party leader. Although he had been his party's No. 2 leader for nearly six years, Gingrich's professed lack of interest in policy details and his awkward relationship with Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who retired last year as GOP leader, left him without a traditional apprenticeship.

As he has moved into the top leadership ranks, Gingrich has worked closely with several informal groups of Members to define and achieve his goals. For more than a year, according to participants, his most important inner circle of advisers has been the senior planning group of Richard K. Armey and Tom D. DeLay of Texas, John R. Kasich of Ohio, Paxon of New York and Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania. The Republican Conference elected Armey and DeLay last month as Majority Leader and majority whip. Kasich chairs the Budget Committee. And Walker, after losing to DeLay for whip, chairs the Science Committee and remains a Gingrich confidant. Boehner, Hoekstra and Nussle are increasingly active members of the top echelon, according to GOP sources.

Tony Blankley, Gingrich's chief spokesman, said that Gingrich and his staff have worked especially closely with Armey and his top aides--in notable contrast with the frequent tensions among House Democratic leaders over recent years. ''This season wouldn't have happened without Armey working shoulder to shoulder with Newt . . . and (Armey press aide) Ed Gillespie working shoulder to shoulder with me,'' Blankley said. Gingrich's chief of staff, Daniel P. Meyer, and his counterpart in Armey's office, Kerry Knott, have also worked closely, Blankley said. The new Speaker and Majority Leader ''are comrades in arms. Armey is an extraordinarily able and friendly companion.'' (For more on Armey, see NJ, 1/7/95, p. 8.)

Gingrich's inner circle of Members is part of a somewhat larger crew that he has called his ''working group.'' It has included about 20 Republican Members- -Dunn, Shays, David Dreier of California and Deborah Pryce of Ohio are regular participants--plus Gaylord, a handful of political advisers and Gingrich's wife , Marianne.

Despite Gingrich's staunchly conservative image, several of the Members closest to him hold relatively moderate political views. Shays, for example, was the second-most liberal House Republican in the 1994 National Journal vote ratings. (See this issue, p. 83.) Dunn, Hoekstra and Pryce lean toward their party's left on social and foreign policy issues.

Those close to Gingrich say that he is open-minded on many issues. ''Newt is much more of a broad-based intellectual than are the other (GOP) leaders,'' Gunderson said. ''He is caught in a real catch-22 dilemma. . . . He is a visionary. But he is caught up with a power base that is conservative populist.''

A top aide to a conservative House Republican close to Gingrich said that many conservatives ''don't trust'' the new Speaker. ''They believe that he has sold them out time and time again, on issues like school prayer and business regulation,'' the aide said. ''We hear the grumbling.'' That perception was an important factor in DeLay's victory over Walker, who was Ging rich's choice for whip, the aide added. The grumbling has come mostly from a renegade faction of 30-40 conservative Members, many of them from California. The group is not well or-ganized and has no acknowledged leader.

Gingrich angered many of these conservatives last summer when he worked with GOP moderates crafting a compromise with Democrats on the crime bill. Other Republicans were reluctant to criticize him directly, but they attacked Members such as Kasich and Shays after it was clear that they had Gingrich's mandate and had kept in close touch with him in cutting a deal. ''The crime bill was a learning experience for Newt and a lot of people,'' Hoekstra said. ''It was the beginning of the party's dealing with tough issues.'' SHARING CONTROL

Gingrich's proclivity to jump quickly from one project to another, his impulse to micromanage and his willingness to walk the political high wire have been instrumental in the extraordinary transformation that he and his party have engineered.

But as a legislative leader, Gingrich will have to hold some of these tendencies in check if he hopes to succeed in the long term. That may be easier said than done.

''Like Ronald Reagan, Newt is still a bit of a loose cannon,'' said Frank W. Gregorsky, who was his top aide from 1981-83 and continues to do some work for Gingrich, Eisenach and other conservatives. ''He gets credit for maturing and moderating. But he's like the weather. The cycle is set. . . . As Speaker, he will unsettle Washington permanently. He will be more of a revolutionary than a manager. He is the strategist who is also the commander. That's unusual in politics.''

Reagan passed off most of his managerial duties to others. But the executive branch is better suited to delegation of authority than is the less structured legislative branch. And Gingrich has been forced to operate in an overwhelming media spotlight, his aides said. ''Newt and I have been agog at the intensity of news coverage since the election,'' Blankley said. ''He is getting the kind of coverage that an incoming President gets.''

Although Democratic political operatives have complained that most of the coverage has been ''softball,'' the intensive partisan combat in the early days of the 104th Congress has shown that Gingrich will be under constant pressure.

Some Republicans recall nervously that Wright wielded expansive power as Speaker--only to collapse suddenly under the weight of an ethics scandal. But others close to Gingrich heatedly reject any comparison to Wright. And the analogy falls short, at least for now, because Gingrich enjoys much stronger allegiance from his party conference than Wright did. His vital role in conceiving and executing the GOP's election triumph--especially the victories of many freshmen--has created a far deeper reservoir of goodwill than Wright ever had.

But governing, especially when a new majority has promised an overhaul of government, is different from campaigning. The task is even more difficult, Gregorsky said, because Republicans are still in ''shock'' at taking control of the House sooner than they expected. Whether Gingrich can realize his visionary dreams will depend, in no small measure, on the support of his team of Members and other allies.

''The challenge of building a capable team around him is bigger than the personal challenge that he faces,'' one of Gingrich's close advisers said. ''The people around him are capable and experienced, but they are experiencing somelevel of future shock.''

But the Speaker, too, must accommodate his style to the new political realities.

''Newt recognizes that he has a bottleneck--himself--as he holds decisions ,'' Hoekstra said. ''He will find out that he has to give things up or he will be swamped. . . . Politicians are no different than the private sector. Giving up control is risky. But giving up control empowers.''

Like the federal government--which, Gingrich often says, suffocates initiatives by local government and the private sector--the Speaker must devolve more authority to other Members.

Ultimately, Gingrich can succeed only if they succeed.

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