Newt Gingrich

views updated May 29 2018

Newt Gingrich

Hailed as Time's "Man of the Year" in 1995 and touted by some historians as this century's most influential Speaker, U. S. Representative Newt Gingrich (born 1943) held on to his Speaker's post by a narrow margin of only three votes in 1997. "For better or worse, he has changed the language and substance of American politics perhaps like no other politician in recent history," said Time magazine's editor James Gaines. The man who felled the former Speaker of the House Jim Wright on ethics violations was himself charged and fined for his own violation of House ethics in 1996. His "Contract with America" fell short of its promises and his conservative stance has taken on a liberal hue. The Speaker now faces his greatest challenge from within his own party. The question many are asking is whether he can survive his current tenure as Speaker of the House.

Bomb Thrower or Visionary?

"Our view is that Newt Gingrich is a bomb thrower, " Time reported. A fire-breathing Republican Congressman from Georgia, he is more interested in right-wing grandstanding than in fostering bi-partisanship…. Another view is that Newt Gingrich is a visionary. An impassioned reformer … {who} innovative thinking and respect for deeply felt American values to the House." In any case, Congress has not been quite the same since Gingrich was first elected to represent Georgia's Sixth Congressional District in 1978.

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to 19-year-old mechanic, Newton C. McPherson, and 16-year-old, Kathleen Daugherty, Newt's life had a rough start. His parents split within days of their marriage. His mother remarried Robert B. Gingrich, a career soldier, three years later. Gingrich maintained his ties to the McPherson family. Even as a political figure, he wore a McPherson tartan tie.

As the stepson of an Army officer, Newt Gingrich moved from town to town attending five schools in eight years both here and abroad. Gingrich recalls how his experience formed his political approach to Howard Fineman in Newsweek. "Politics and war are remarkably similar systems," said Gingrich. "You grow up an Army brat named Newton, and you learn about combat."

In 1960, the Gingrich family moved from Fort Benning, Georgia. Not long after, Gingrich pursued his political career in Columbus. In fact, within a few months in Georgia, he ran a successful campaign for his friend's election to class president. At Emory University in Atlanta, Gingrich established a Young Republicans club.

Fired Up Republicans in Washington

From the time he landed in Washington in 1978, he gained a national reputation for his combative style and his leadership of a collection of young, aggressive, conservative House Republicans. "For his first five years in office," the New York Times said, "Mr. Gingrich, along with a band of young conservative Republicans turned their junior status to advantage and waged guerrilla warfare against democratic House leadership and even their own party's leaders. Under Mr. Gingrich's tutelage, about a dozen of the insurgents formed a group known as the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) Republicans. Mr. Gingrich maintains, have become so accustomed to their minority status that they need to be prodded to challenge the status quo."

The tenets of Gingrich's philosophy were echoed by the COS—the antithesis of the "liberal welfare state," a state that he regularly criticizes. In 1984, "he turned preliminary sessions of he Republican national convention into a battleground until the Conservative Opportunity Society was inserted into the platform," the Atlantic said.

Gingrich was also well-known for his special taste for colleagues roasted on the moral spit of an ethics committee investigation. In 1979, during his first term, he called for the expulsion of Representative Charles Diggs, a Democrat from Michigan, who had been convicted of embezzlement. In 1983, he called for the expulsion of two representatives who allegedly had sexual relations with teenagers working as pages in the House. And later, of course, Gingrich spear-headed the movement to oust Jim Wright.

Grabbed Public Attention

In the early 1980's, Gingrich launched a new weapon, taking advantage of a rule allowing House members to read items into the record after Congressional sessions. He gave frequent speeches criticizing Democrats for their position on a wide range of issues, from communism to school prayer to Central America—speeches given before an empty House chamber, but broadcast nationwide on the cable network C-SPAN. This tactic was also used by Gingrich's followers—a group of conservative Republicans elected mostly in the 1980s and labeled the party's "young Turks," in contrast to the GOP's less aggressive old guard.

In the spring of 1984, an angry Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, then Speaker of the House, ordered the cable TV cameras to periodically pan the chamber to show that Gingrich was speaking to an empty House. O'Neill called Gingrich's tactics "the lowest thing I have seen in my 32 years in the House." The confrontation resulted in a rare House rebuke to the Speaker and wide coverage for Gingrich— something he valued highly. Newsweek defined what it called Gingrich's Newtonian law: conflict equals exposure equals power. "If you are in the newspaper everyday and on the TV often enough then you must be important."

Gingrich wrote in the Conservative Digest: "The Democratic Party is now controlled by a coalition of liberal activists, corrupt big city machines, labor union bosses and House incumbents who use gerrymandering, rigged election rules and a million dollars from taxpayers per election cycle to buy invulnerability. When Republicans have the courage to point out just how unrepresentative, and even weird, liberal values are, we gain votes…. Fear and corruption now stalk the House of Representatives in a way we've never witnessed before in our history."

Proved Wright Wrong

Gingrich's battle against Jim Wright began in 1987; a one-man crusade which few in Washington took seriously. Before Gingrich was through, however, more than 70 House Republicans signed his letter asking the House's ethics committee to investigate Wright. The accusations were related to Wright's links to a Texas developer, to his favors to savings and loan operators, and the way in which he published and sold a book of his speeches and writings Reflections of a Public Man. Wright received unusually large royalties and sold the book to political contributors— an arrangement seemingly designed to circumvent ceilings on donations.

Gingrich was ruthless on the offensive. His dramatic contentions won him necessary Congressional allies and his rhetorical skills made him eminently quotable, thus a media darling. "I'm so deeply frightened by the nature of the corrupt left-wing machine in the House that it would have been worse to do nothing," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "Jim Wright has reached a point psychologically, in his ego, where there are no boundaries left." Following the investigation, the ethics committee said it had reason to believe Wright had violated House rules 69 times. Less than two months later, on June 6, 1989, Wright resigned as Speaker.

In March 1989, in the midst of his war with Wright, Gingrich's Republican colleagues elected him to the post of Minority Whip by a narrow 87-85 margin. The vote signaled "a wake-up call to incumbent GOP leaders from younger members who want a more aggressive, active party," said the Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report. "Gingrich's promotion from backbench bomb thrower to Minority Whip was an expression of seething impatience among House Republicans with their seemingly minority status."

Gingrich's supporters pointed to his energy, communication skills, and commitment to capturing a majority of House seats. "A year ago, no one would have predicted that this enfant terrible of the Republican Party could mount a credible bid for the leadership—let alone snag its No. 2 slot," the Weekly Review said, "But Republicans became particularly frustrated with their decade-old minority status in the House when the Reagan era came to an end: Even the eight year reign of a president as popular as Reagan couldn't deliver them from their plight. Gingrich's call for radical change fell on responsive ears."

Gingrich's high-profile role put his personal moral standards in the spotlight. His opponents resurrected the contradictions between Gingrich's ethics-and-traditional-values stand and his messy divorce from his first wife, who was cancer stricken. Democrats Newsweek said, also point out "his management of a political action committee that raised $200,000—and gave $900 to candidates." After Gingrich took on Wright, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee publicized a 1977 deal in which Gingrich received $13,000 from a group of friends to write a novel. He wasn't in Congress at the time, although he had run twice unsuccessfully for the seat which he eventually won in 1978. Democrats say the arrangement allowed Gingrich's backers to support him financially and get a tax shelter in the bargain. Gingrich said he did research in Europe and wrote three chapters, but the book was rejected by publishers.

In addition to these charges, two days before Gingrich was elected Minority Whip, the Washington Post reported that he had persuaded 21 supporters to contribute $105,000 to promote Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future, which he co-authored in 1984 with his second wife, Marianne, and science fiction writer David Drake. The book sold only 12,000 hardcover copies; the investors reaped tax benefits and Gingrich and his wife made about $30,000. Gingrich acknowledged that this book deal was "as weird as Wright's," but was on the up and up because "we wrote a real book for a real (publisher) that was sold in real bookstores." The book deal remained a question mark in Gingrich's past that did not stall his political career in the 1990s.

In October of 1990, Gingrich gained headlines again when he opposed—and led 105 fellow Republicans in voting down—a proposed budget package. His defiance and disregard for the presidential endorsement angered Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, who was quoted in Newsweek: "You pay a price for leadership. If you don't want to pay the penalty, may be you ought to find another line of work." Dole felt Gingrich, fearful of his personal popularity, fought the budget in ignorance of the bi-partisan agreements that had been the fruit of hard work.

Reached Career-Long Dream

In November 1990, despite his growing reputation on the national level, Gingrich had a scare in his home district at the election. He won by a narrow margin of 983 votes of the nearly 156,000 cast in Georgia's Sixth District. The root of Gingrich's trouble at home was his blockage of federal mediation in the 1989 strike at Eastern Airlines. The Atlanta airport is of great importance to the surrounding communities, and 6,000 employees of Eastern lived in his district. Obviously shaken, Gingrich told his constituents that he had received their warning in the close re-election, and would more closely carry out their mandate in his coming term in office.

Gingrich spent the next four years pursuing his goal of achieving a Republican Majority in Congress. He reached his dream in 1994. On September 27, 1994, Gingrich and his associates presented his brainchild—the "Contract with America," a 100-day House Republican plan to revolutionize Congress, spending, and federal government operations. With Gingrich's consistent campaign support for Republican candidates all over the country, they received the partisan majority in the November elections.

As a result, Newt Gingrich took over as Speaker of the House in January of 1995. During his first year, he faced the challenge of living up to the promises detailed in the "Contract" and also once again confronted ethics charges but did not receive any convictions. He published two books in 1995—the nonfiction To Renew America and the fiction novel 1945.

A Tenuous Second Term

Unlike his first election to the House as Speaker in 1995, Newt Gingrich won his second term by a narrow margin of three votes. Not only was the Speaker under investigation by the ethics committee for allegedly violating House standards by knowingly abusing the tax code in raising tax-deductible funds for a college course he taught, he was also criticized for his book deal with Harper Collins. Gingrich was originally offered a $4.5 million advance for two books, due to very strong criticism, he declined the offer and settled for royalties instead.

While exonerated from 74 of the 75 ethics charges levied against him, the one that he was charged with, admitted to, and levied a $300,000 fine for was enough to tarnish the rising star enough to put his second term as Speaker on shaky ground. Gingrich's greatest challenge was now coming from within his own Party.

Gingrich has come under intense fire from within the Republican Party. Many claim that he has damaged the Party beyond repair and the best thing for him to do is step down. The problem with that scenario is that the Republican Party has no successor that they feel strongly enough about to force a "coup" although there has been much talk of it. Unlike 1995 and 1996 when the Republican majority was united, they are currently a House divided. "The way some Republicans tell it," according to an account in the Economist "their troubles are wrought by Newt Gingrich. Two years ago Mr. Gingrich was celebrated {among those with short memories} as the most powerful Speaker of this century; now a fellow House Republican describes him as 'road kill on the highway of American politics."' Mr. Gingrich is said to be a man with no agenda, who cannot decide if he is conservative or liberal. The lackluster start of the 105th Congress, when compared to the 104th, clearly defines the state of affairs within the Republican Majority-held House and the Party itself. Mr. Gingrich, who has a resilience that few politicians have, has lost his political power base. The question on everyone mind is can he get it back?

Further Reading

Anderson, Alfred F., Challenging Newt Gingrich Chapter by Chapter (1996).

Wilson, John K., Newt Gingrich: Captial Crimes and Misdemeanors (1996).

Warner, Judith, Newt Gingrich: Speaker to America (1995).

Gingrich, Newt, Newt Gingrich's Renewing American Civilization (audio cassette, 1997). □

Gingrich, Newt

views updated Jun 27 2018

Gingrich, Newt ( Newton Leroy) (1943– ) US Republican politician. In the 1994 Congressional elections, he persuaded Republicans to subscribe to his ‘Contract with America’, a commitment to cut wasteful government spending. As Speaker in the House of Representatives (1995–98), he led the Republican-dominated Congress into conflict with President Clinton. Financial scandals reduced his power within Congress, and he eventually resigned from the House in 1998.