The 105th Congress is likely to see what will be the third public incarnation of Newt Gingrich (R-GA).
The first Gingrich was the bomb-throwing backbencher, a role the former history professor played from the moment his suburban Atlanta district sent him to the House on his third try in 1978.
He was considered the ultimate partisan, who was not afraid to take on any Democrat, including House speakers. In 1984, he made Speaker Tip O'Neill so angry that his response to a Gingrich assault was punishable under House rules, the first time those rules had been applied to a speaker since 1797. Gingrich doggedly pursued Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges stemming from a questionable book deal until Wright resigned -- a House first.
Gingrich's visibility as a conservative rabble-rouser gave him a following among fellow conservatives that allowed him in 1989 to skip straight to the number two GOP post of whip. He fired up the troops, convincing Republican House members that it was not necessarily their destiny to be the minority, and that the best way to become the majority was to accommodate Democrats as little as possible.
This strategy culminated with the 1994 elections, when Gingrich's "Contract With America" served as a blueprint for conservative candidates nationwide and allowed the party to capitalize on deep voter resentment with the status quo.
GOP minority leader Robert Michel had retired, leaving Gingrich as the House's number one Republican.
That election led to the Second Gingrich: Speaker Gingrich. The 1995-model Gingrich took the gavel in January and ran, tearing through the articles of the Contract with America and passing most of them swiftly, though few pieces also made it through the Senate.
But the confrontational nature of Gingrich's House seemed to frighten some Americans, and an all-out assault from liberal advocacy groups, labor unions and the Democratic Party steadily whittled away at Gingrich's popularity.
His public appeal went into free fall after the GOP Congress' budget battles with President Bill Clinton led to a series of government shutdowns in late 1995.
Republicans had a chance of spinning the standoff to their advantage until Gingrich made a fatal error: He said that part of the reason he had taken the fight so far was because of personal anger at Clinton for snubbing him on Air Force One on the way to and from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
All of a sudden, the entire government shutdown got itself a villain, and was seen as a Gingrich temper tantrum. The Republicans ended up giving in to the White House on a host of issues, and limped into 1996 with their credibility on budget issues torn and tattered.
As the 1996 election season progressed, Gingrich increasingly became seen by House Republican candidates as more of a liability than an asset. Ethical charges stemming from a college course he taught in Georgia dogged him all year. Gingrich didn't have to lead the party -- as its presidential nominee, Bob Dole was the top Republican -- and Gingrich ended up playing a relatively small role in the fall campaign.
Gingrich's role in the 105th Congress looks to be much different. The 1996 elections left him with an even slimmer majority than he commanded in the last Congress. Clinton coasted to victory over Dole, giving him some breathing room that Gingrich appears not to have.
Gingrich's admission in December 1996 that he misled the House ethics committee about his college course endangered his bid for re-election as speaker. The first day of the 105th Congress featured an ugly fight between Republicans and Democrats determined to make as much trouble for Gingrich as they could, and he ended up winning by a slim margin.
But the watchword at the beginning of 1997 seemed to be "cooperation," heard from everyone from Gingrich to Clinton.
Given these factors, a Third Gingrich is likely to emerge. But will it be a kinder, gentler Gingrich, one who clutches olive branches in his talons rather than arrows? Or will it be a vengeful Gingrich, who takes off after the White House and Republican defectors with all the considerable energy he possesses? Stay tuned.
Updated Mar. 3, 1997
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