Newt Gingrich: Dead Man Talking

How the House speaker went from being the life of the party to the GOP's pariah in two revolutionary years

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., gives a lecture during the first day of his 'Renewing American Civilization' course at Kennesaw State College in Kennesaw, Ga., on Sept. 18th, 1993. Credit: Bill Clark/Getty

Newt Gingrich came to face the reporters, his cheeks reddened like a man who had lingered too long in the shower. His eyes still puffy with sleep, Gingrich circled the room, shaking hands limply, offering flat hellos, greeting some people twice absent-mindedly. The occasion was the Sperling press breakfast, a Washington, D.C., Stations of the Cross, at which important figures regularly submit to a group grope by the Capitol press corps.

In late June an overflow of nearly 40 reporters turned out, positioning dozens of tape recorders around the long breakfast table to capture the speaker of the House's zingers. The last time he had appeared at the Sperling breakfast, back in November amid the budget impasse and government shutdown, he'd made a fool of himself –– complaining self-importantly that Bill Clinton had not let him ride up front on Air Force One. The nation giggled at Gingrich's vanity. The Republican revolution that Gingrich had mobilized was collapsing in mirth and recriminations.

For some months afterward, the speaker literally disappeared from the action –– ridiculed by Democrats as "Phantom Newt" –– and seldom showed up on the House floor for debates. He turned legislative management over to other GOP leaders and retreated into introspection, presumably rethinking his grand strategic assumptions. Now he's baaack, embarked on rehabilitation, and the Sperling breakfast was one step in Gingrich's self-recovery program.

Gingrich's new message: He is not a revolutionary. A few days before, he explained to the New York Times: "I don't see myself as a radical in any historical terms. I see myself standing on the shoulders of the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan." The concept of "revolution" has disappeared from the nation's headlines, and from Gingrich's own political patter.

What the assembled reporters heard instead was one long, hyperbolic whine: about Bill Clinton's "astonishing" manipulations of truth, about the labor bosses' big money and their "outrageous abuse of power," about the Democrats' campaign to "destroy" Gingrich's character with frivolous charges of unethical behavior, about the liberal biases of the press. Life is unfair. But Gingrich promises to soldier on.

Reporters stopped taking notes while Gingrich rattled off the familiar defense of his party's tactics: Republicans weren't actually cutting anything –– not Medicare, not school lunches, not college loans, not public broadcasting, not environmental protection. This false impression resulted from a "systematic eight-month campaign of deliberate misinformation." Labor unions, trial lawyers and left-wing activists financed an attack campaign, the cost of which, during the course of the breakfast, Gingrich variously estimated at $35 million, $60 million and $200 million.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. of the Christian Science Monitor, the host of the gathering, gently tried to nudge Gingrich to a new subject –– the Clinton-Dole contest –– but the speaker's sour tone did not improve: "Is Dole a less affable, less sociable person than Bill Clinton? Yes. Does that define the future of American history? I don't think so." Clinton is like Nixon, Gingrich predicted, and the White House's legal troubles will end like Watergate, resolved by a jury of 12 citizens, not by public-opinion polls or elections.

"If you're only interested in government as the pure manipulation of public opinion, then you have to look on Clinton and [his principal adviser, Dick] Morris as a fascinating team," Gingrich allowed. "If you have any interest in government as an extension of real behavior by a free society, then you have to have a little bit of worry that here is a team which seems to have almost no connection between fact and fantasy. Just as a matter of how a free society governs itself, that's a little dangerous."

What was missing from this discourse, however, was any hint of self-criticism. In his months of private self-examination, Gingrich evidently did not turn up anything in his own performance that might explain the collapse of the conservative crusade or his own raging unpopularity. Toward the end of the breakfast, I offered him another chance to reflect on these matters. Did he have any second thoughts, I asked, about framing the right-wing agenda as "revolution" in government?

"Sure, sure, I have a lot of second thoughts," Gingrich replied, but then he abruptly deflected the notion of self-blame by claiming triumph in Clinton's steady march to the right. The revolution, Gingrich did concede, had been misunderstood, especially on school lunches and public broadcasting.

Another reporter asked about Gingrich's last appearance at the Sperling breakfast, when he complained at length about his poor seat assignment on Air Force One. Gingrich's mouth flattened out in a tight grimace.

"Total mistake," he said tersely. "I should not have told you candidly a very complex idea which had nothing to do with my complaint. It was just a total mistake. This is not a system which tolerates that level of observation, and I was silly to try to do it."

In other words, the press was too dim-witted to grasp the subtleties of his thought. Even in the slow news season of June, the reporters did not see any news in these spewed complaints, and no blizzard of headlines was written at the Sperling breakfast that morning. The only news was that a politician who had climbed to power by slash-and-burn demagoguery and character attacks on his opponents was now warning America that such tactics are dangerous to democracy.

Genghis Khan territory
He's over. Eighteen months ago, Newt Gingrich was the astonishing shooting star of American politics who promised to reorder the universe. Now he looks like a used sparkler. Gingrich may or may not continue as speaker of the House, but he is effectively finished as a formative figure in the larger politics of the nation. After the GOP sweep he helped to engineer in 1994, Gingrich was toasted by the media as a brilliant, deep-think political strategist. Right-wing allies talked up his prospects as a future president. Now he is toast. Gingrich made himself the poster boy of the conservative revolution and became instead the Freddy Krueger whom Democrats will trot out to frighten voters this fall.

It is difficult to recall another important political leader who fell so fast and so far. A Democratic pollster, Tad Devine, sampled opinion in a Maine congressional district among Democrats and independents and found that Gingrich had a favorable rating of 4 percent and an unfavorable rating of 85 percent. When Devine asked voters to rate Gingrich on a one-to-10 scale, about half of them gave him zero. "We're talking Genghis Khan territory," Devine says. "Newt is right up there with Saddam Hussein."

Why do people so dislike Gingrich? "It's a combination of substance and style," the pollster explains. "They hate what he says, and they hate how he says it." Broader polls that include Republican voters produce results less extreme but still devastating to Gingrich's standing. A poll of New Jersey voters gave him a 14 percent favorable rating. Gannett News Service found that 62 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Gingrich is doing as speaker, while only 23 percent approve.

Under these circumstances, every Democrat is naturally running against Gingrich, and every endangered Republican is running away from him. Recently, the House freshmen have been desperately trying to assemble a record of anti-Gingrich votes; some of them are even casting no votes on the routine daily approval of the previous day's minutes so that they may claim to be independent of their leader. At the Republican convention in San Diego, the producers scripted things so that Gingrich would not speak from the podium in prime time. Why remind TV viewers what upsets them about the Republicans?

Gingrich is correct, of course, that the Democrats set out to demonize him and that their relentless campaign has accentuated his unpopularity. But for someone who likes to invoke his status as a historian, Gingrich has a very short memory. Everything that was done to him was, in fact, modeled after the tactics he employed against Democratic leaders on his way up. He filed the ethics charges that brought down House Speaker Jim Wright. Gingrich portrayed the late Tip O'Neill as bloated and corrupt. Gingrich has regularly called Democrats "sick" and accused them of "destroying" American values.

A comparison with Tip O'Neill is especially instructive. When the Reagan era dawned in 1980, the GOP launched a campaign of invective against the Democratic speaker, ran TV ads depicting a blowzy O'Neill driving his car into a ditch and derided him as a "big, fat slob." Yet the more the public got to know this overweight Irish pol from Boston, the more it liked the old guy. O'Neill's popularity soared as he battled Reagan's agenda, and Republicans dropped their attacks.

When the Democrats went after Gingrich, their message stuck. Why? Because he's an extremist, they said –– also corrupt and power crazed, the new Nixon. People listened to Gingrich and agreed. This much is certain: If Democrats win back control of the House this fall, Gingrich is dead meat.

Right now, it's a coin flip whether Democrats can accomplish this, but Gingrich has already privately assured other Republicans that he intends to retire from the House leadership if the GOP is returned to minority status. No one would try to talk him out of it, since a Democratic victory would be a stunning repudiation of Gingrich's politics.

More to the point, if the Democrats are in command again, all of the various ethics charges that Republicans have so far managed to smother will become reactivated and threatening to Gingrich. Some are petty complaints, but the cumulative substance is quite ominous. The latest accusations, which were documented by the Los Angeles Times in late June, allege that Gingrich, between 1984 and 1994, used six tax-exempt organizations to augment his partisan political efforts. (At the Sperling breakfast, Gingrich rebuked a Los Angeles Times reporter: "Your paper managed to make a long story out of nothing.")

The ethical questions, in any case, exposed the hypocrisy of Gingrich posing as a reformer who would clean up American politics. In short, he promised change, then delivered the same stuff that has sickened Americans about Washington.

Though it seems unlikely, Gingrich's ethical problems might still become a campaign issue this fall if the House ethics committee ever breaks out of its deadlock. The special counsel hired to examine some of the charges, attorney James M. Cole, filed a lengthy report with the committee in mid-August on whether Gingrich improperly used tax-exempt funds for political activity through a course he taught at two Georgia colleges. Cole's conclusions are confidential and are not yet known, but the ethics committee has been stalled in a 5-to-5 split among its Republican and Democratic members.

Given the partisan intensity and the Republicans' desire to protect their leader, it seems unlikely that any action will be forthcoming before the election. Gingrich is still loved, meanwhile, among the hard-core faithful, and the Republicans are now using him mainly to shake money out of fat cats at private dinners and to stir up the party's foot soldiers.

When the College Republican National Committee assembled in Washington, he was awarded their first annual Lee Atwater Republican Leadership Award. In the Blue Room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, the crowd was on its feet, rhythmically chanting his name and clapping. Some of the young men were in tuxedos, a few in white tie.

Gingrich returned their devotion with the hand-grenade rhetoric that has made him famously unpopular with the general public: "I wish every one of you would go back to your campuses and go head-on at the mindless conformity of your liberal professors who do not deserve to be tenured." Gingrich went on to bash immigrants and Americans who don't speak English, Clinton and liberals in general. He compared Bob Dole to Dwight Eisenhower and the Democrats to European socialists.

Conceivably, with luck and pluck, Gingrich might somehow manage to reduce the public's loathing (after all, Bill Clinton's popularity has waxed and waned like the moon). Except that Gingrich has also sown more fundamental problems for himself within his own Republican ranks. His rocky performance during the last year inspired a subversive idea among fellow Republicans: Maybe Gingrich is not as smart as they thought.

Pork as usual
He really is misunderstood. Inside the House Republican caucus, Gingrich is crossways with his own troops. Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation and a social conservative who for 20 years has been a pivotal player in managing the Republican coalition, does not conceal his contempt for the leader: "Newt's a brilliant fellow who is very able to excite people and motivate them, but he believes in very little, so most of his views are negotiable. Newt creates scenarios for himself, and he becomes morally certain that they are going to play out. Then when it doesn't happen, he goes into a blue funk."

Weyrich is very close to the Republican freshmen whose red-hot solidarity provided the energy for Gingrich's revolutionary agenda. Now those right-wingers feel distrust and betrayal. "After the government shutdown failed, Gingrich turned on his own freshmen," Weyrich says. "He is now at odds with them. They have frequent, nasty arguments in their own caucus. There's a group of freshmen who are so angry they even talk of bolting –– throwing out Gingrich or even leaving the Republican Party and becoming independents. These guys are serious, but some of them may not be back after this election."

Rep. Scott Klug, a third-term Republican from Wisconsin, puts a more sympathetic spin on Gingrich's difficulties. "Newt is not as ideological as he's been painted," Klug insists. "It's the inside image vs. the public image. There's always been a sense among the conservatives that Newt is much more moderate than he should be –– that he listens to the moderates too much." Gingrich is trapped, in other words, between the necessities of governing and his own big mouth.

Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, chairman of the House banking committee and a leading Republican moderate, thinks the language of "revolution" mischaracterized what they were up to. "Newt is identified with confrontation," Leach says, "but on many occasions, Newt's preference is more accommodating than many in the Republican Party."

And inside the caucus, this is seen as weakness. "There is serious talk about finding a candidate to run against Gingrich next year [if House Republicans retain their majority]," Weyrich says. "Whether they will actually do it when push comes to shove, I don't know, but it's not just the freshmen who feel this way. Many others regard Newt as unreliable. He says these grandiose things and leads them charging up the hill, and when they do that, he goes off in some other direction."

The focal point for this internal conflict was the central stratagem in Gingrich's "Contract With America," the commitment to a balanced budget as a way of unifying the Republicans' various anti-government objectives. When Clinton managed to both embrace and to stymie the GOP vision, it became obvious that Gingrich had no Plan B. The smart response would have been to settle for whatever compromise Clinton swallowed and then declare victory, but Gingrich had fired up his troops to believe that compromise was dirty, that a revolution requires total triumph.

"It was like a kick in the stomach," Weyrich says, "and they haven't been able to recover from it."

"We predicated so much of our fight on the balanced budget," Klug says, "that when the budget crashed, it's like the wheels came off the wagon."

As a result, the congressional action this summer has been a watered-down hodgepodge of activity, dubbed "Revolution Lite" by some amused Democrats. As Clinton's lead widened over Dole, Republicans feared an election wipeout and hastily began enacting a series of measures they had previously blocked –– even a modest increase in the minimum wage –– to avoid being tagged with the label of "do-nothing Congress." The ideological inconstancy angered some right-wing constituencies like small business that had believed Gingrich's zealous talk. The GOP was still cutting education and other programs, but much less drastically. It still wants to shrink government, but so far the only people it has liberated from Washington are poor people dependent on food stamps.

In fact, the revised balanced-budget program that Republicans adopted in June has an odd twist to it: It actually increases the federal deficit. The GOP budget plan still purports to produce a balanced budget by 2002, but, meanwhile, it adds $40 billion to the deficit during the next two years. This anomaly constitutes politics as usual: Promise to balance the budget and enact spending cuts in the odd-numbered years, but in the even-numbered years when voters elect and re-elect their representatives, pump out more money for the folks.

The odor of pork has hung over the stalled revolution this summer, and even some embattled freshmen took home a little bacon. Republicans have always railed against Democrats who play this game, but this year, Gingrich issued his own memorandum to the appropriations committee with instructions to take care of Republican projects. More harbor dredging and beach sand for California, an urban housing project for Indiana, a swine-waste study for North Carolina. The big boodle, of course, went to the Pentagon –– $10.9 billion more than it had asked for –– which it will dispense to defense contractors.

A handful of irate Republican freshmen –– 16 of them –– choked on this spectacle of betrayal and rebelled, vowing to defeat the new budget resolution. Republican Rep. Mark Neumann of Wisconsin spoke plainly about what was occurring: "Is there anyone outside of Washington who honestly believes that we are going to balance the budget in the last four years after allowing the deficit to increase in the first two years? [This] is much like going on a six-month diet with the goal of gaining 10 pounds in each of the first two months and promising to lose 20 pounds in each of the last four months. It is an exercise in futility."

The rebels were hammered down by Gingrich and other leaders. In the end, the budget resolution passed the House by only five votes. On a series of other issues, the solid GOP ranks were broken when moderates like Klug and Leach asserted themselves. The House has a cluster of 50 to 70 moderate Republicans who never bought into Gingrich's apocalyptic rhetoric but kept their silence last year lest they be accused of spoiling party unity. Once Gingrich's spell was broken, they finally began to use their leverage to tone down the harsh edges of budget cuts or anti-environmental measures. Gingrich has gone back and forth between the two ideological wings, patching deals together, but with every successful compromise, the boldness of his banner fades a bit more.

The Republican commitment to balanced budgets has become even more dubious since candidate Dole announced his grand economic strategy –– a program of $500 billion in tax cuts that sounds like Reaganomics Lite. This is the same approach to governing that quadrupled the federal debt in the 1980s and more evidence that the Gingrich strategy was a large political mistake. If Dole should somehow manage to get elected, Gingrich can continue as speaker but with greatly deflated status. His survival strategy is to embrace Dole like a long-lost father and shush the pesky right-wingers.

When he was a lean and hungry outsider, Gingrich was ruthlessly brilliant in the role of attack dog, willing to say anything to bring down the Democrats. When he succeeded, grateful Republicans naturally rewarded him. But governing was never his strength. He is consigned now to a precarious twilight position –– protected and sustained by the party's minority of moderates because they know that if Gingrich falls, his right-wing replacement may be even worse.

When Republicans reflect on what might have been, many of them wish their leader could have been someone like Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, the 44-year-old chairman of the House budget committee. Though Kasich is a near twin of Gingrich on ideological matters, Kasich's loping, shaggy style and relaxed manner make his visions sound much more palatable. If he had been fronting the revolution, it might have felt a lot different to people. Indeed, it wouldn't have been called a revolution at all. "A revolution ruins my whole day," he says. "It was heady, it was adrenalin-filled. But people don't want revolution. They want changes.

"What we want is to shrink the federal government, to get power back to the local level and let the 21st century of the individual develop –– without standing in line for a bunch of bureaucrats to approve it."

The last year of GOP setbacks and diversions has not sent Kasich reeling. "Everyone's playing on our side of the field now, aren't they?" he asks. And he is not reluctant to talk about weaknesses in the Republican approach –– the need to challenge the arms merchants and defense spending, to close corporate tax loopholes and to "get Republicans to think about things they have hated," like environmental values.

"Where I think we aren't winning is that we thought this could be done in one Congress," he says. "It can't. It's going to take 10 years. This is a long and winding road. It took 40 years to bring the power to Washington. This is going to take time, but I just know we're going to win."

With Gingrich or without Gingrich? Kasich smiles and defends his leader against the usual slings and arrows. "Newt's taking on the Washington elite, and he was the natural target," Kasich says. "Then the media got into the hype, and it just pushed him farther and farther out front. What do they say? It's your turn in the barrel? Now Newt's in the barrel."