Know Your Right Wingers
SOURCE: August Pollak
To many, Newt Gingrich remains the conservative mastermind turned Speaker of the House who engineered the 1994 Republican House coup. Though the GOP takeover was certainly impressive, there is much more to the story of the amphibiously-named presidential hopeful. Gingrich has managed to reshape his political image (if not his more portly physical one) into a possibly viable 2008 presidential candidacy. Give Newt some credit for this. He went from beloved Republican leader to the Elephant graveyard in the span of four years. Now he’s back—and he’s got plenty of skeletons along for the ride.
In 1974 and 1976, Gingrich twice lost bids for Georgia’s 6th House seat, before he won it. Then, in 1978, the future co-author of the Contract with America began his steady ascent to the Speakership after longtime incumbent Jack Flynt, to whom Newt had lost twice, retired before the election. Newt finally established himself in Congress by organizing the Conservative Opportunity Society in late 1982. This group of young conservative representatives dedicated itself to developing wedge issues aimed at dividing Democrats and developing conservative political tactics. Then, Gingrich began his moralizing attacks in 1983 when he demanded that two members be expelled from the Congress for participation in the Congressional Page sex scandal. This would serve as good practice for when he took on Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Hypocrisy interlude! In 1998, while 55-year old Gingrich was promising that he would mention the subject of Clinton’s sex life in every speech as long as he was Speaker of the House, he was having an affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide. The irony not quite deep enough for you yet? Okay, try this: One of his former mistresses told Vanity Fair that “[Gingrich] prefers [oral sex] because then he can say, ‘I never slept with her.’” Sounds like someone else didn’t have sexual relations.
After three terms, Newt was elected Republican Minority Whip in 1989. In 1991 a new scandal hit, and Newt was there to turn up the pressure cooker. “Rubbergate” involved hundreds of representatives overdrawing their House checking accounts without being penalized—essentially receiving interest free loans. Gingrich and his followers blew the issue wide open under the logic that the scandal would implicate more Democrats than Republicans and highlight Democratic corruption.
Hypocrisy interlude! While Newt was having a grand old time firing away at every Democrats he could find who overdrew, he neglected to highlight one minor fact: He overdrew his own House account. Oops!
Gingrich introduced the notorious Contract with America for the 1994 midterm elections. The contract was a set of proposed legislation that Republican candidates pledged to support, signaling a new, conservative political agenda of congressional “reform,” such as requiring a three-fifths majority for tax increases, an audit of Congress, and a ban on proxy votes in committee. The contract worked brilliantly. The Republicans picked up 54 seats, overthrowing the Democratic majority for the first time since 1954. Suffice to say that Newt was all but a shoe-in for Speaker of the House.
From there, things went downhill. Over the next two years, the GOP discovered that holding the House majority was pretty cool, but that President Clinton just kept getting in the way. When a budget impasse occurred in 1996, Newt engaged Clinton in a multi-trillion dollar staring contest. Unfortunately for Gingrich, he was blinking before the game even began.
The day before the budget shutdown commenced, grumbling Gingrich implied that the shutdown was due in part to his being snubbed—forced to go out the back door of Air Force One—following his return from Israel for Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. The media cast the budget shutdown as a petulant fight picked by Gingrich. Clinton ended up winning both the budget battle and the public relations war.
Around this time, one of the first bombs Newt threw at the Democratic leadership came back to haunt him. Back in 1988 when Gingrich was still a sprightly young rep, he brought ethical charges against then-Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright for pursuing a book deal while he was still Speaker. Guess what Newt did in 1994? It’s time for another…
Hypocrisy interlude! Gingrich signed a book deal with a $4.5 million advance while still Speaker; exactly what he used to stick it to Wright six years earlier. To make this even juicier, the advance—coincidentally, of course—came from Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins publishing company at the same time that Murdoch was lobbying for looser foreign media laws. In the end, political pressure forced Gingrich to return the advance.
By this point, even the Republicans weren’t too thrilled with their leader. Members of the Republican leadership initiated a coup attempt against Newt, with starring roles for now-disgraced Rep. Tom Delay and current Majority Leader John Boehner. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), then the House Majority Leader with an arguably funnier name than Newt, allegedly supported a plan by 20 or so Republican conspirators who whispered about relieving Gingrich of his duties. On the dark night of July 10, 1997, these sneaky plotters met in the office of Steve Largent (R-Okla). Only a simple majority of Republicans would be necessary to pull the chair out from under Gingrich, as the Democrats could be expected to support ousting him. Then, as so often occurs in these clandestine plots, everything unraveled amidst disagreement over who would be the next dear leader. Armey backed out after “praying with his wife.” In the end, Armey—who denies any part in the attempted “coup”—warned Gingrich of the dissension against him. Gingrich was then able to shore up support and survive relatively unscathed.
But not for long. As the 1998 mid-term elections approached, Gingrich needed a rally. His approval rating in the summer before the elections was at a level that would make even President George W. Bush cringe—25 percent. At the time, the country was awash in the Lewinsky scandal, and Gingrich thought it would be a stellar idea to make the president’s love life the lynchpin of the GOP’s strategy to pick up more seats (he estimated 30) in the mid-term elections. But it didn’t shake out that way.
In fact, the Democrats picked up five seats. This popular repudiation of the Newt’s electoral strategy, combined with his public image issues and past transgressions led him to step down from the Speakership as well as his seat in the House, despite winning his district.
Today, Newt is making a comeback. He is writing op-eds, making speeches, and promoting a new book called "Winning the Future" about the “21st Century Contract with America.” He now has a tendency to make ironic statements such as, “Congress is addicted to pork.” (You can’t the link to the article, because www.newt.org requires a $5.95 a month membership fee.)
Currently, Gingrich is a senior fellow at a conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, but he also has some murky plans for the future. Asked if he intends to run for president, Gingrich responded “Not at the present time,” but, “I’m open to the possibility of changing my mind.”
It sounds a bit like Newt may have already made up his mind to change his mind: "In a lot of ways I’m doing what Reagan did from 1964 to 1975,” he said modestly. “We’ll see what it leads to." Polls show Gingrich at a distant third in a potential primary against John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, but still… President Newt? Sounds a bit slimy to me.
Illustration: August J. Pollak