Getting Out of Washington

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The problem with Republicans these days isn't so much the lack of an agenda; it's the shortfall of charismatic leaders. Last week, just as Newt Gingrich was signaling that he'll step down in mid-1999 to run for president, the party's rising star, Bill Paxon, announced that he was quitting electoral politics entirely. The move came as a shock to both his admirers and his detractors, of which there were many, because of his efforts to overthrow Gingrich last year.

Paxon had long been contemplating a move up, not out. As of early February he had decided to challenge Gingrich's No. 2, majority leader Dick Armey; a victory would have made Paxon the Speaker apparent. But late on Feb. 20, as he sat at home with his 21-month-old daughter and dialed potential supporters, Paxon lost his will. Whether he realized that running would be very hard on his family, as he said later, or saw that his race against Armey would be nasty and not necessarily successful, he wanted none of it. The next day, his face drawn with exhaustion, he stood before his wife, ex-representative Susan Molinari, and said, "I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this." House Republicans met the news with gasps. "We're saddened," claimed Gingrich, who had begged Paxon not to challenge Armey but was stunned by the decision. "I understand how much public life costs."