STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK. There still has not been a single vote cast in the Republican presidential race, but Newt Gingrich has emerged, at least for now, with a commanding lead nationally in polls. And also a lead in some of the early voting states. One part of his appeal is his record as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s. That same record explains why some Republicans are lining up to say he's not the right man for the White House. NPR's Andrea Seabrook has some history.
ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: Democrats had controlled the Congress for decades. By the 1980s, Republicans were sort of thought of as a permanent minority until a zealous group of true believers set out to build a real GOP majority. Gingrich was at the center of those so-called Young Lions, because, says Texas Republican Joe Barton, of the power of his ideas.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE BARTON: You really never hear Newt talk about what can't be done. He's always talking about what could be done.
SEABROOK: These two men are very close. When Gingrich was Republican whip, Barton was his chief deputy. Decades later now, Barton was among the first to endorse Gingrich's campaign, even back when it looked dead. Why? Barton says because Gingrich is that perfect political combination of whip smart and soul-inspiring.
BARTON: People that don't know him get to know him, they're inspired by him. And, you know, quality counts, even in politics, and he's a quality guy, and it's showing in the polls.
SEABROOK: Now, not all Republicans who worked under Speaker Gingrich are starry-eyed. Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette says, remember, Newt ticked off a lot of people back then.
REPRESENTATIVE STEVE LATOURETTE: There were a lot of moments where he was not as adept as he could or should have been as the speaker, and he'd probably acknowledge that.
SEABROOK: LaTourette remembers meetings the basement of the Capitol, Newt pushing, pushing his agenda, until two or three in the morning, not doing a whole lot of listening.
LATOURETTE: You know, he would have an idea that wasn't fully grown, and then sort of he'd shout it out anyway.
SEABROOK: And then came the coup: a group of Republicans unhappy with Gingrich started a whisper campaign calling for new leadership. Newt got ahead of it, quashed it, and ended up securing his speakership. That is, until it crumbled under the intensely partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the loss of seats in the 1998 election. The speaker resigned in disgrace. Later, it came out that through that entire period Gingrich himself had been having an extramarital affair with a much younger staffer. That woman, Callista Bisek, is now his third wife.
One of Washington's great ironies is that there was really only one man pushed out of the leadership team after that attempted coup, a young guy from Ohio named John Boehner. He's the current speaker of the House. Another weird thing? This commercial, taped and aired just three years ago...
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: Hi, I'm Nancy Pelosi, life-long Democrat and Speaker of the House.
NEWT GINGRICH: And I'm Newt Gingrich, life-long Republican, and I used to be speaker.
PELOSI: We don't always see eye-to-eye.
SEABROOK: This ad is for an environmental campaign run by Al Gore, President Clinton's V.P.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)
GINGRICH: We do agree, our country must take action to address climate change.
SEABROOK: Could this be a glimmer of bipartisanship for a would-be Gingrich presidency? He was asked about it on a Fox News show just last month by conservative columnist Stephen Hayes.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
STEPHEN HAYES: Is the Earth warming? If so, why is it warming, and what is that urgent action we need to take?
GINGRICH: Well, first of all, that was probably the dumbest single thing I've done...
REPRESENTATIVE LOUISE SLAUGHTER: Sometimes I feel like I'm waking up in the 19th century here.
SEABROOK: New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat. She too was in Congress with Gingrich. But what she remembers is a memo his staff circulated. It was called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control."
SLAUGHTER: They had a lexicon of words that they could use when they talked about a Democrat - don't say Democrat, say dishonest.
SEABROOK: The memo listed positive words Republicans should use to describe their ideas, like opportunity, common sense, and reform. It also listed negative words the GOP should use to describe Democrats' ideas, like welfare, pathetic, and criminals' rights.
Today, Slaughter says...
SLAUGHTER: I really do believe that he was responsible for a lot of the absolute vitriol that we have in the House.
SEABROOK: There is no one in Congress, in either party, who thinks Gingrich isn't smart. But there are a lot of people in both parties who have had tough relationships with him. He's a fighter, most people say. And don't expect that to change if the country chooses a President Gingrich. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.
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