Heavy breathing in the party of old-fashioned values

Washington/ Dole loves Gingrich, true?

THE presenter of NBC's sober current affairs programme, Meet the Press, startled American viewers - and a certain studio guest - last Sunday when he read out the following passage:

"He was overwhelmed by the sight of her, the shameless pleasure she took in her own body. Suddenly, the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress. She rolled on to him, sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders. 'Tell me, or I'll make you do terrible things'.''

The studio guest was Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and front-runner for next year's Republican presidential nomination. Just three days earlier Mr Dole, a 71-year-old war-veteran with a striking resemblance to Humphrey Bogart, had been delivering a speech in Los Angeles lambasting "the loveless sex" purveyed by the Hollywood film industry. Now, trapped before the TV cameras in the studio, Mr Dole twitched, gritted his teeth, rolled his eyes, and repressed the urge to flee.

Would he be surprised to learn, the presenter asked, that the passage had been written by his Republican colleague Newt Gingrich, that it was an extract from a novel due out this August, called 1945, about a Nazi Mata Hari and a philandering White House chief of staff?

Mr Dole's lips struggled to form a smile. Did he perhaps have any comments to make, the presenter continued, on the steamy prose of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a man no less publicly dedicated than he to the proposition that America's most desperate need is to rediscover good old-fashioned family values?

Mr Dole, trapped in the classic politician's dilemma of choosing between party loyalty and fidelity to principle, glanced around the studio, desperately in need of help. Finally, he took a deep breath, stared into the camera and muttered: "I don't particularly care for it."

Nor, one suspects, does Mr Dole care for the author. This weekend Mr Gingrich is touring New Hampshire, the state where the first, and typically decisive, vote is always held to nominate the Republican presidential candidate. The conventional wisdom so far has been that Mr Dole is streets ahead of his seven declared rivals. As Mr Gingrich has said: "It's Dole's to lose."

But Mr Gingrich's New Hampshire jaunt has suddenly sparked a riot of speculation in Washington that the House speaker, who publicly removed himself from the presidential race in April, may yet decide to unremove himself. Even the White House yesterday was discussing a possible shared "forum" with Gingrich, which is more than they have afforded any of the declared candidates Certainly, in recent interviews he has refused to rule out the possibility that he might make a late entry into the race. Asked by Business Week last month whether he foresaw any circumstances in which he might run, he replied: "Sure. Seven million people show up Tuesday morning with a draft petition and beg me.''

A veteran observer of the Washington scene remarked last week that Gingrich was motivated by pure maliciousness: "He's torturing Dole, that's all."

The torture will continue beyond New Hampshire, where he is scheduled to address several meetings and satisfy a long-awaited desire to have a face-to-face encounter with a moose. In July he ventures on a 25-city tour, sponsored by his publisher HarperCollins, proprietor Rupert Murdoch, to promote a book of political philosophy, To Renew America. The tour will have all the trappings of a presidential campaign: two or three speeches a day, countless opportunities to press flesh, posses of TV crews covering his every gesture.

Why is so much attention heaped on Mr Gingrich? It is because he has invested the historically grey post of House speaker with the authority of a prime minister and the energy of a whirling dervish. American politicians tend to be a philistine lot ("the business of America is business", President Calvin Coolidge once observed), and he displays a demonically eclectic range of intellectual interests.

He's an historian, drawing analogies between himself and de Gaulle or Wellington, whose Peninsula Campaign, he says, has provided the model for his legislative battle charge through Congress; he is an anthropologist - basing his observations on America's fraught gender wars on his study of the habits of the Kalahari bushmen; he is an ethologist - he has read extensively about the behaviour of chimpanzees and applied the lessons to the human zoo; he is a palaeontologist - studying the rise and fall of the dinosaur has taught him about the pitfalls that await politicians who fail to evolve with the times.

All this and a writer too. But has he got what it takes to become America's first philosopher-president? Bill Clinton doesn't think so. The whisper from the President's camp is that nothing would delight them more than to learn Mr Gingrich had won the Republican nomination. "Every night I pray for my wife, my son, my dog and for Newt to run, and not necessarily in that order," said Paul Begala, a consultant to Mr Clinton who is a rumoured candidate to run the president's re-election campaign. Mr Begala and other Democrats do not underestimate Mr Gingrich's populist talents but they believe that while he has the stuff to win the Republican primary vote, he lacks what it takes to convince the broad electorate. He may be the Elvis of the Republican militants, but national polls show that a majority of Americans find his shrillness off-putting.

His publishing deals with Rupert Murdoch - a man whose businesses depend to the tune of billions of dollars on favourable legislation in Congress - have created the perception among many that he is sleazy and not to be trusted. Some of the colder heads in Washington believe that he is destined to implode - or, more likely, spontaneously combust. There again the dynamic certainty he brings to the confused terrain of fin de siecle American politics, the messianic conviction he injects into his "America First" platitudes, might tempt Americans to believe he is the hero the age craves.

At worst, he will make a lot of money. He might even make some new friends. On the day Mr Dole was in Los Angeles slamming the film industry, actress Melanie Griffiths was in Mr Gingrich's congressional office, taking up an invitation to inspect his Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. Ms Griffiths, who is not noted for her reluctance to engage in loveless on-screen sex, was in Washington to persuade him to drop his plans to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

He evaded the issue and proposed that she might like to play a role in the movie he expects to be made from his book. When a reporter asked her whether she would take up the offer in exchange for winning Mr Gingrich's support, she giggled: "I would do whatever it takes.''

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