Is Gingrich painting himself as a moderate?

Bill Shipp

Has Georgia's world turned upside down? Could be. Check out these barely connected items.

For the first time in decades, Georgia stands to lose a major military base - and in the midst of a war. Moreover, the Pentagon has recommended that some Georgia defense installations, earlier believed doomed to close, be kept open.

Just a year ago, who would have dreamed that Atlanta's Fort McPherson, one of the nation's best-known Army headquarters, would be headed for mothballs? Or that Pentagon budget-cutters would mercifully spare perpetually imperiled Moody Air Force Base at Valdosta and the Marine Supply Depot at Albany?

The Pentagon's Georgia-related proposals help shine a new light on the old notion of Two Georgias. The stereotype of a prosperous, upwardly mobile Atlanta and a depressed, struggling south Georgia may be headed for the scrapheap. Atlanta is beset with fresh economic and social problems, certain to be aggravated by the base closings. Yet parts of south Georgia, particularly on the coast, are thriving as never before. The prospective military moves will help them.

As the Defense Department unfolded its plan, another headline startled - and stirred memories. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich touted the presidential candidacy of Sen. Hillary Clinton and decried the deaths of 98,000 Americans every year because of medical malpractice.

Seems like only yesterday that Gingrich led the nation's Clinton bashers and, at the same time, stood at the forefront of the campaign to throttle malpractice litigation. He also was Georgia and Atlanta's Superman when it came to hauling in federal dollars and shielding the Peach State from military cutbacks.

In the last round of military base closings in 1995, Gingrich served as House speaker and generalissimo of the nation's conservative revolution. No Georgia base was diminished. In fact, several were enhanced. Certainly no one in government - not even in the Clinton administration - would have dared suggest that Fort Mac be axed. The old soldiers' post was an integral part of the speaker's special southside Atlanta protectorate. Deleting the Naval Air Station in Cobb County would have been out of the question, too. The NAS lay near the heart of Gingrich's congressional district.

Last week, those two installations along with Fort Gillem in Clayton County and the Navy Supply School at Athens were whacked almost without comment. Georgia's political power has moved south. Two lawmakers from the Coastal Plain, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, and Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, have emerged as the state's new political musclemen.

Here's the evidence: The Pentagon recommended adding personnel and expanding missions at bases all across south and middle Georgia. Fort Benning, Kings Bay and Robins Air Force Base were given renewed lives and larger payrolls.

The loss of Fort Mac and its satellite, Fort Gillem, add to the downward spiral of Georgia's foremost urban center. The financial calamities of Delta Air Lines plus multimillion-dollar cost overruns in the perhaps unneeded expansion of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport create an even gloomier canvas. Hey, whatever happened to "The World's Next Great City"?

While the Pentagon gods rearranged Georgia's defense and economic destiny last week, Gingrich popped up alongside Clinton at a press conference. This new dynamic duo had come to promote Clinton's health care legislation.

Gingrich even wrote an open letter to Congress endorsing Clinton's health care quality initiative.

"With hospital errors alone killing as many as 98,000 Americans every year, your co-sponsorship of this bill will help save the lives of your constituents," the Newt wrote as if he were oblivious of the recent campaign to portray medical malpractice as mostly the invention of trial lawyers.

As Newt cozies up to Hillary, one wonders whether he's close to performing a brand-new gymnastics feat, the Reverse Zell, that could land him back on his feet as a moderate Republican (as he once was) and in an influential role in the 2009 national administration.

Who knows? By the time the next round of base closings occurs, Gingrich might once again be able to come to the aid of his faithful former constituents. Whether the potential comeback kid of the 21st century would remember his supporters back here at the next base-realignment time or any other time is yet to be determined.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160 or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net . His Web site is www.billshipp.com . His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.