At the American Legion hall in Tullahoma, Tennessee, there are 200 people waiting to hear Newt Gingrich tell them that the sky is falling and to raise the roof as he does it. Officially, it's a fund-raising rally for Van Hilleary, a Republican House candidate. The real draw is Gingrich, House minority whip, Republican carnivore, the man who would be king -- and who will be something close to it in the next Congress. That Gingrich has already spent 15 years there is no obstacle to the message he will offer tonight, the same one he will have delivered in 137 congressional districts by Election Day: 1) Washington is the mortal enemy; 2) the place should be dynamited; 3) he and his party hold the match.
In the mostly predictable world of stump talk, there is nothing quite like Gingrich's messianic oration. He describes a world beset by atrocities from the villages of Bosnia to the suburbs of New Jersey. "If we are not careful, our children could inherit a dark and bloody planet in the 21st century," he warns. Then he offers a vision of salvation and redemption. "I came here tonight to recruit you," he concludes. "To recruit you to the cause of freedom and to the cause of your country." When he finishes, there's more than just loud and sustained cheering. There are shouts of "Amen!"
That's a word you don't hear much on campaign trails lately. Everywhere across the political map, this is the year of fear and loathing. Voters fear the future, which looks to them like the present writ large: more concern about crime, more economic pressure on their families, more of that unnerving sound of something eating away at the edges of their lives. What they loathe is Washington, which is doing too much or not doing enough, and either way doing it badly. In this roiling situation, Gingrich, 51, may emerge as Washington's most influential Republican.
Almost since he first came to town in 1979, representing a House district in suburban Atlanta, Gingrich has been preaching and practicing a strategy of confrontation intended to break the Democratic hold on Congress by fracturing the place itself. By hammering away at its gentlemanly arrangements, its perks and, above all, its Democratic majority, Gingrich aimed to focus enough anger on Washington that voters would finally throw the rascals out. Among the newcomers who would rise in their place, he reasoned, Republicans would at last be the majority again.
In the process, Gingrich, a man willing to stick out his tongue at some venerable American institutions, has become a sort of Establishment guerrilla, attacking the institutions he badly wants to lead. In the election year of '94, when the Capitol dome appears in campaign commercials as something weirder and more sinister than Dracula's castle, Newt's Congress-bashing strategy is bearing fruit. It's the Gingrich gospel you hear in the words of voters like David Bywater, 26, a Nebraskan who is supporting Republican newcomer Jan Stoney against Senator Bob Kerrey. "Seniority means you've been around too long."