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CAESAR HAD BEST WATCH HIS BACK

To Democrats, it is a midsummer night's dream; for Republicans, a nightmare that they can't seem to end.

They know the public hates partisan bickering and that both Republicans and Democrats hate intra-party mayhem. But Republicans can't help themselves. It is just the way they are; their ideologues are ferocious.

So they go on gnawing at each other. The air is thick with charges of vile treason, drawn swords, night meetings. The unseating of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, more recently a Democratic enterprise, was plotted by Republicans.

Two weeks since the discovery of the plot, which was first uncovered in The Hill, a Capitol Hill dope sheet, a whole new vocabulary and folklore has sprung up. Now it is a matter of conventional wisdom that at the first party conference after the treachery came to light, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is not considered a hothead, "almost knocked over four guys trying to get to the mike to call Dick Armey a liar." Majority Leader Armey, a large, blunt Texan, is circulating a letter requesting the return of his good name.

Those who were striking at the king, a cabal of approximately 17 conservatives, say that Gingrich's praetorian guard were their allies. They say that Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas was not just a participant but an agitator, who approached a rebel on the floor and suggested a meeting.

Armey has been desperately protesting that he was just observing at the meeting and insisting that he warned Gingrich, if perhaps not in timely fashion, that there was skullduggery afoot. But House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio, whose fans think he would be a worthy successor to Gingrich if the need arose, says it was moderate Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut who gave the alarm that the knives were out.

Seething plotters charge that Armey found the plot "immoral" only after he discovered that he would not be the successor. Telegenic Bill Paxon was the choice. Gingrich's golden boy, who is married to golden girl Susan Molinari, has denied membership in the dumping scheme, but Gingrich accepted his resignation with considerable alacrity.

It's as if the Romans who wanted to off Julius Caesar, with daggers upraised, suddenly flung them to the ground when Cassius said, "Me next, right?" The idea that Caesar would have said, "OK, let's put this behind us," and fallen to discussing better ways of delivering bread and circuses, or perhaps human rights for gladiators, seems farfetched.

Yet Republicans, after a meeting Wednesday that yielded only a resolution to meet again to have it out, insisted it would be possible for their Caesar and his would-be assassins to work harmoniously together. More likely would have been a swift dispatch to the contemporary equivalent of the Tarpeian Rock, the height from which traitors were flung to their deaths.

Some think that the speaker's need for revenge was satisfied by the cashiering of Paxon as a member of the leadership. Paxon was the Brutus in the situation. Shakespeare's Mark Antony called Brutus "Caesar's angel" -- and Paxon was Gingrich's fair-haired boy, hand-picked for a job especially created for him.

In the somewhat fevered speculation that consumes the Republicans, Paxon is seen as the one most likely to live to fight for the speakership another day. The speaker, at the Wednesday meeting, urged members to claim victories and go on. He noted their majority in the House, which he more than anyone had engineered. He bade them remember that they were on the verge of triumph -- a balanced budget, a tax cut.

But the hard right is implacable. Its grievance against Gingrich is not his spectacular unpopularity in the country or certainly not a failure to raise money. He is his party's most spectacular fund-raiser, and hardly a member has not benefited from the largess he so effortlessly brings in.

Kasich says it is fate they are railing against: The fact that "there is a president who is able to take credit for a large part of our agenda. It is frustrating." Rep. David Dreier of California, the speaker's friend, paraphrases Machiavelli. "A good dust-up with rivals leaves a leader stronger than ever."

That may be so, but he must walk close to the wall, and possibly employ a taster.

Universal Press Syndicate

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