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Nashville Scene A Class of Their Own

Political reporter chronicles congressional class of '94

By Marc Stengel

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  You can hardly imagine political reporter Linda Killian doing anything else. In conversation, her recall of events, tactics, and policy issues streams forth as if from a transcript. Her 1998 book, The Freshmen: What Happened to the Republican Revolution? may be her first, but it builds upon years of hacking the trade for newspapers large and small, for Forbes and The New Republic, and for National Public Radio's All Things Considered. In this latest, largest effort so far in her career, she is a latter-day Boswell intent on documenting the acts and antics of 1994's revolution-mongering congressional class.

"When people ask me my leanings," she says, "I suppose I'm a moderate in political temperament. I definitely made an effort to be fair in this book, and I was glad to read that one reviewer characterized it as a critical but sympathetic look. So it's OK, I guess, for liberals to read it."

The irony of such a book, especially in 1998's midterm election week, is its documentation of a work-in-progress. The '94 Congress That Would Be King was, of course, chastened by its subsequent history. Now, four curious years later, Killian's chronicle is uniquely poised to serve both as a contextual, "long-view" explanation of what has transpired and as a crystal ball for what a dazed electorate might shortly expect.

"At least half the class arrived, and they weren't very different from any of the previous congressmen," Killian observes. "They wormed themselves into the system right away. They wanted to bring pork back to their districts and to move up on committees. But I would say that about 25 or so of what I call the True Believers--and they call themselves that--are still in there pitching and fighting. And I wanted people to know who they are. You don't have to agree with these guys to be sympathetic to what they are trying to do--to their mission and to their zeal.

"After the '94 election, of course, these guys are on top of the world. They roar into Washington, and right away the freshmen are signaling their independence. The freshmen weren't tools of Gingrich from the beginning--even though that's how they were portrayed. For example, they decided they wanted term limits for the speaker. Early in the balanced-budget negotiations they split with the leadership about a tax provision; they wanted a two-thirds vote for any tax increases, so they raised hell about that. They were willing to oppose their leaders early on."

"Then," she continues, "we had the end of the first 100 days, and that was the highest point of the 104th Congress. It was fabulous. And I remember that I came down to Tennessee right at the end of the first 100 days to interview Fred Thompson in his office in Nashville. He was smoking a big cigar. Of course, the Contract With America items had just sailed through the House and were now sitting in the Senate. Fred looked at me, and he said, 'Well, the point of legislation is not fast legislation; it's good legislation.' He signaled to me that they--the senators--were not going to let these little pipsqueaks over in the House dictate the agenda of the Senate. And that was exactly what happened. All that legislation just stalled over there."

Underlying Killian's dense reportage--sometimes unnerving in its detail--is a tapestry of missed opportunities, unfettered hubris, and unintended consequences that can't fail to elicit winces of recognition from a reader. While generally admiring the naive enthusiasm of this freshman congressional class, Killian reserves her weightiest judgments and even outright scorn for "the monumental tactical blunders of Gingrich and the Republican leadership."

"The real irony," she points out, "is that substantively, these freshmen didn't do too bad. On the PR battle, they lost, of course. They looked mean and petulant. However, they did manage to bring Bill Clinton to the center. What they wanted was a balanced budget, and Clinton agreed to that. He stood up in front of the country and said, 'The era of big government is over.' He signed welfare reform; he signed a tax cut. By the time of the '96 election, the voters were saying, 'That's not bad. They pulled Clinton to the right, and he pulled them to the left.' "

As this past Tuesday's election can't help but remind us, The Freshman must stop short of telling a finished tale. Far from being frustrated by the fact, Killian seems impatient for the next chapter to unfold. She is convinced that, like the Democrat's Watergate Class of '74, "there will be a lot of national leaders of the Republican party in this class too. But the one difference," she continues, "is that Democrats are career politicians; and a lot of these guys from '94 don't want to be career politicians." Speculations about what they will and won't become seem to monopolize Killian's attention span.

"Some people are artists; I'm a political junkie," she confides. "Even so, writing this book was very different from anything I've ever done. Covering Congress as a newspaper reporter, you want to know how they're going to vote on X, Y, or Z, or what do they think about this or that issue. That's pretty much the extent of it, whereas [with The Freshmen] I was trying to get inside their heads. Not all of them liked it. But when you spend that much time with different people and are that informal with them, things inevitably slip out."

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