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Newt Gingrich's rise – and fall – tied to his reign as House speaker

After leading in some polls, New Gingrich has fallen out of favor with most Republican voters – especially in the key state of Iowa. He's taken a drubbing in negative ads, and much of the response from lawmakers who served with him in the House has been more criticism or silence.

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Elected to the House on his third try in 1978, Gingrich arrived in Washington along with the first C-SPAN television cameras. He and other conservatives, such as Congressman Walker, took advantage of television coverage of “special orders” at the end of the day, typically used to communicate with voters back home, to instead launch attacks on majority Democratic leaders, especially targeting personal ethics.

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The attacks created a cloud of corruption around Democrats, who had run the House without a break since 1955. They eventually toppled Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, who resigned in 1989 following charges by Gingrich over $77,000 in bulk sales of a book to special-interest groups. When Republicans took back the House in 1995, Gingrich was elected speaker.

Democrats attribute today's toxic atmosphere in the House to Gingrich’s tactics.

“Gingrich invented the politics of venom,” says 16-term Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. “He’s a very good political strategist, without a core. He cannot be consistently identified with any issue of substance.”

“He was erratic, undisciplined, said different things on different days, even when dramatically opposed,” says Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who was first elected in 1974. “It was all about demonizing the Democrats.”

Gingrich still inspires strong views among former GOP colleagues, as well. On the one hand, most still credit his role in rousing a dispirited House GOP caucus to even consider the possibility of taking control of the House.

“When we came in 1979, we understand that something drastic had to change,” says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, who first came to the House with Gingrich’s class. “Republicans had sort of adopted the minority culture. It took 16 years to break it,” she says. “Newt understood how to use C-SPAN. He had bold ideas.”

After Republicans took control of the House, Gingrich pushed to make the speakership a comparable bully pulpit to that of the White House. He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year. But his standoff with President Bill Clinton over government spending led to two government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, which most of the public blamed on Republicans.

As a House member in 1997, Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma helped plan a (failed) coup to remove Gingrich as speaker, mainly for “surrendering” to Mr. Clinton in the government shutdown. His leadership was “erratic,” Senator Coburn wrote in his 2003 book, “Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders into Insiders.”

“His inability to discipline himself in his public comments was also a serious liability,” says Coburn. “His untimely comments came across as petty and excessively partisan.”

Coburn says he will not comment on the current Gingrich campaign. “It’s all in my book,” he says.

Other Gingrich critics say the wildcard is whether Gingrich has changed over the years.

“He had a big ego, he was impulsive,” says Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina, who served with Gingrich in the House.

“He’s also very bright,” he adds. “The big question for most of us is: Has he changed?”

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