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Newt leaves the water

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What's being missed, amid all the hoopla, is how much Bill Clinton has needed Newt Gingrich, and may need him still. Indeed, few realize how much alike they are. Each grew up in the hardscrabble postwar South, essentially without fathers; talented; nerdy; incredibly ambitious, incurably lusting after power.

Both tried the conventional paths-to-success; Bill was a Rhodes scholar, Newt, three years older, earned a Ph.D. in European history; dabbled in teaching; wanted politics instead. Neither was taken very seriously at first. Both lost races for Congress in 1974.

Gingrich, in fact, lost again in '76 before two years later, finally winning a House seat in Georgia the night Mr. Bill first was elected governor of Arkansas. Two years later, Bill lost, though he reclaimed the governorship in 1982. Neither has lost an election since.

Hard to believe now, but they were both seen as minor leaguers back in the ancient year of 1991. That's when George "Desert Storm" Bush was riding high in the polls. All anyone remembered about Clinton, then governor somewhere off in the hookworm-and-incest belt, was his long and boring speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention. Newt was annoying, in your face, and very nearly lost his seat in the House in the 1990 election. Nevertheless, Gingrich was telling people his GOP would control the House of Representatives by 2000 and that he'd be speaker. Bill was running for president.

The experts sniggered at both. But Bill and Newt succeeded, and have been scorpions in a bottle since, defining their successes in large part by the failures of the other. Gingrich humiliated Clinton in 1994 with his tactically brilliant capture of Congress. Yet he got cocky, and soon managed to overreach and become the perfect foil.

Head-to-head, Newt was less charming; a little fatter, grayer and a whole lot nastier, and the pivot swung when Gingrich shut the government down in 1995, in part (he said this himself) because, when returning on Air Force One from a state funeral in Israel, he didn't get to use the same exit off the plane as did the president.

Yet ironically or typically, as cartoonists and public opinion turned against the Newt, Bill was setting up his next fall, huddling and cuddling in the Oval Office. Helped by his enemy's excesses, the once-hapless Bill easily won re-election. Then, when once again Bill got in deep lipstick, the Republicans overdid it, going on and on about it long after the folks clearly wanted, please Jesus, to hear about something, anything else.

Last week the voters (the few who showed) gave Newt's Republicans majorities in both houses of Congress for the third time in a row. That hasn't happened since the 1920s. The GOP took the governorships of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, Illinois. Ten years ago this would have seemed victory beyond imagination. Now, however, it was less than expectations; indeed, the Newtoids lost a few seats in the House and didn't gain Senate seats he had promised The Troops, whose sufferings under his ego can only be compared to those of a junior lawyer in the Fiegerdome, revolted. Seeing the trend, the Speaker played a brilliant political hand.

He quit. That means he is free to run around, speechify, raise money, perhaps run for president in 2000. Without him as a lightning rod, his Republicans may look more sensible and moderate against the remains of the Clinton administration. (If they screw things up -- well, see, they needed Newt after all!)

So will Bill finally self-destruct at last, without the saving balance of his erratic adversary? Anyone's guess, but fortunately for Clinton, not all the Republicans get it. House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Henry Hyde, the onetime homewrecker of a married hairdresser named Cherie, sent the president a list of 81 Lewinskyite questions to which he demanded answers. The GOP may save Bill yet.

Newt, at any rate, wasn't just plain stupid.

Local Results: Next spring, I am announcing, in the spirit of Newt, that I no longer will be available to play major league baseball. Similarly, these people should hang it up politically: John Smietanka, twice rejected for attorney general. Steve Kaplan, twice rejected for Oakland County Prosecutor and last week, for circuit judge, and Vernice Davis-Anthony, who John Engler keeps putting on the Wayne State Board of Governors and the voters relentlessly keep tossing off.

Also, Geoffrey Fieger, whose talents, considerable as they are, are not managerial, collegial or political. The news coverage, as noted here, was slanted against him, especially in the Detroit newspapers. The facts, however, are:
1) He did not run a disciplined, well-organized or focused campaign, though it did somewhat better at the end. 2) Any Democrat would have lost this year, and his remarks after his loss -- blaming everyone but himself -- lacked grace. When you come up short, the best advice was offered years ago by my favorite philosopher, noted deep thinker Hank the Deuce.

"Never complain," said Henry, caught out with his blonde one night, somewhere behind the lines of his second marriage. "Never explain." My sources say he died happy, and I hope you all do the same, though not for a good while.

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