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FUSSING OVER GINGRICH BOOK DEAL

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Opinion pages and airwaves have been bristling with indignation about Newt Gingrich's making hay with a book deal. A man of modest means by congressional standards, the House speaker-elect will receive a reported $4 million for editing an anthology on democracy and penning a work tentatively entitled "To Renew America."

Hubris! huffs the Christian Science Monitor. A crusader for reform caught wallowing in business as usual! opines the New York Times. Unconstrained by proof, House Majority Whip David Bonior implausibly charged an actual quid pro quo, with the publisher's owner, magnate Rupert Murdoch, supposedly promised legislation helpful to his television holdings.Gingrich himself put his finger on these scolds' real reason for fury when he noted that conservative ideas sell. If several publishers (not owned by Murdoch) tried to win the speaker's business away from HarperCollins, it must be because they sensed best-sellers in the making.

It is Gingrich's extraordinary success as mastermind of the Republican victory in November's election that explains his detractors' passion. Far from being business-as-usual, his lucrative potential contract (the details are still in flux) is unprecedented for a member of the House.

In particular, it bears no resemblance to the underhanded po-li-ti-cal/-fi-nancial arrangements that forced the resignations of prominent House liberals Jim Wright and Tony Coehlo in the 1980s. Gingrich's venture is a straightforward marketplace transaction.

As such, to be sure, it entangles Gingrich's intellectual revolt with commerce and offers up to his critics a natural target. The new speaker prides himself on winning the competition of ideas. Conservatives, he says, convey a more honest assessment of the country's problems and a more attractive vision of its future than the incumbents they unseated. For him, it turns out, this vision of the public good will also be a source of private enrichment - and donations to charity, his spokesman says.

This is legal. Indeed, many call it the American way, though it doesn't quite match the ideal of the disinterested citizen-legislator of term-limits legend. One wonders what Gingrich would say if either Clinton tried it while in office.

A piquant cross between seer and huckster, Gingrich leaves liberals openly apoplectic - and his sympathizers wondering when his taste for provocation will land him in real trouble.