Having Read George Bush's Lips and Believed, Newt Gingrich Says No to Taxes—and to the President

updated 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/12/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Asked to recount the formative incidents in his life, Newt Gingrich doesn't hesitate. One of them, says the combative Republican Congressman from Georgia, occurred when he was about 9 years old and went to see the movie Sands of Iwo Jima. He ended up sitting through the John Wayne classic four times that day, unable to tear himself away from the thrilling scenes of marines battling to victory. The movie, says Gingrich, "really drove into me a sense that the highest purpose is to do your duty." So it shouldn't have been surprising last month when Gingrich seized the opportunity to follow in the Duke"s footsteps. This time the field of battle was Capitol Hill, where Gingrich led the hell-for-leather charge of rebellious Republicans who for a month plunged the entire budget process into chaos by angrily refusing to go along with President Bush's call for the hated new taxes he once had said no to.

Gingrich is perhaps the most cordially detested man in Congress—reviled by Democrats for his street-fighting tactics, distrusted by the White House for bushwhacking the President and criticized by fellow Republicans for his love of publicity. Yet through it all, the 47-year-old House Minority Whip remains unrepentant, insisting that his hard-line politics and confrontational approach have helped reinvigorate the GOP. "I joined a Republican Party that was used to losing, used to being browbeaten by the Democrats," Gingrich once said. "I represent a totally different style."

That much was clear from his role in the budget fiasco. His break with Bush came Sept. 30, the day of the public unveiling of the Administration's fiscal 1990-91 budget package, which would have reduced the federal deficit by $40 billion next year and $500 billion over five years—mainly by raising taxes on gasoline, tobacco and alcohol, and by cutting Medicare spending. By leading the Republican revolt against the proposal in the House. Gingrich left Bush in the humiliating position of having to beg Democrats to support a new compromise plan that barely passed last week over the continuing objection of Gingrich and the Republican insurgents. Gingrich argues that "as much as I like George Bush, in the end I have an independent judgment and an independent responsibility I can't avoid."

In fact flouting convention has long been a Gingrich hallmark. As a high school student in Columbus, Ga., he boasted to buddies that some day he would marry the geometry teacher. His friends scoffed. But by the end of his senior year, Gingrich was secretly dating the woman, Jacqueline Battley, and married her a year after graduation, despite a seven-year difference in age. In 1981, after his first term in Congress, during which he stressed "family values," Gingrich divorced Battley, with whom he had two daughters and who at the time was recovering from a second cancer operation. Soon afterward he married his present wife, Marianne Ginther, 39, a former business consultant.

Almost from the moment he entered the House of Representatives, in 1979, Gingrich was regarded as a brilliant but bumptious partisan. Early on, he recognized the power of the newly formed C-SPAN cable network, which broadcasts proceedings from the House floor. Gingrich and several conservative allies hit on the idea of using so-called special orders (congressional downtime set aside for members to air views before a mostly empty chamber) to launch harsh attacks on liberals on such emotionally charged issues as abortion and school prayer. The result was a kind of political performance art: Viewers tuning in to C-SPAN had the impression that Gingrich and company were heroically slashing away at their adversaries, who in fact weren't within earshot. After one particularly scalding speech on Nicaragua by Gingrich, then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill denounced the practice as "the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress." Gingrich characteristically paid back in kind, later calling Democrat O'Neill a "thug."

Until his budget blitz, however, Gingrich had achieved his greatest notoriety as the man who brought down O'Neill's successor as Speaker, Jim Wright of Texas. It was Gingrich who relentlessly challenged the propriety of Wright's involvement in a questionable book deal, charging that it was a sham intended to circumvent congressional limits on outside income. Although troubled themselves by Wright's conduct, some Democrats accused Gingrich of using the case to score political points and inflate his own image. Gingrich strenuously denies the charge. "It's not a thrill to topple somebody," he says, adding that just before Wright resigned, "I saw him having dinner with his daughter, and I felt very sad. This is a human being."

As Gingrich sees it, his pugnacity is simply the result of strong beliefs coupled with an iron will. Born in Harrisburg, Pa., Gingrich was adopted at the age of 3 by his mother's second husband, Robert Gingrich, a career Army officer. During high school Gingrich spent much of his time boning up on history and politics. Even then, "he was very concerned about the state of the nation and felt he had an obligation to do something about it," says Jim Tilton, a Washington tax lawyer who knew Gingrich in school and has remained one of his closest friends and advisers. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Gingrich went on to get his doctorate in European history at Tulane University. (Despite the hawkish views he espouses today, Gingrich used student and paternal deferments to avoid the Vietnam War draft.) In 1968 he worked on the presidential campaign of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, whose progressive civil rights policies he admired, and after a brief stint in academe decided to run for Congress. He won a seat on his third try.

Gingrich does not like to discuss his past personal life, either his breakup with Battley or his two daughters by that marriage, Kathy Lubbers, 27, and Jacqueline, 24. But he warms when the topic turns to Marianne, whom he regards as one of his closest advisers. (The couple has an apartment on Capitol Hill and a home in suburban Atlanta.) Before challenging the President, Gingrich says, he sat down and hashed out the issue with his wife, who argued that politicians pushing for new taxes were disastrously out of step with the public. Marianne sees herself as her husband's reality tester: "I try to keep my mind-set outside the Beltway."

Inside the Beltway, some Republicans are furious with Gingrich's decision to break ranks with Bush. "He's made it difficult for the President to lead," says Marge Roukema, a moderate Republican from New Jersey. "There's a place in the party for bomb throwers, but not in the official leadership." Some conservatives disagree. "Newt is the voice of the grassroots populist conservative voters who supported Reagan," says GOP direct-mail specialist Richard Viguerie.

Hardly bashful about his ambitions, Gingrich acknowledges that his aim is to help lead the Republicans into the majority in the House and then eventually be elected Speaker. When the subject of a possible presidential bid comes up, he gently deflects the question, without denying that the thought has crossed his mind. "My style is to stay on the offensive," he says, "to take risks, to recover very fast when you make a mistake, but to keep moving forward."

—Bill Hewitt, Linda Kramer and Sarah Skolnik in Washington, D.C.

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