Newt Gingrich made quite a mark as House Speaker. More than anyone else, he shaped and carried out the plan that brought the Republicans back into power in the House after, as he often said, "40 years in the wilderness." He became a powerful force, leading the way to significant legislative victories and, in the process, pushing the president toward the ideological center.
For a while, the feisty Georgian was riding spectacularly high. The press was hailing his prowess and comparing him to the best leaders who ever held the House reins, Joe Cannon and Henry Clay. For a while, Mr. Gingrich was standing toe to toe with the president, carrying on a great debate on what direction this country should take. It was then - when the government shut down over an impasse on the budget - that the president clearly outmaneuvered the Speaker. He convinced the public that the Republicans in Congress were pushing a budget that would endanger Social Security and other social programs.
Soon the Republicans and Gingrich were being widely perceived as the bad guys in the budget battle. That was the beginning of President Clinton's revival, late in his first term. It was also the start of a downward slide for Gingrich from which he never recovered. I was reminded of all this as I watched C-Span's recent three-night interview with Gingrich. It was a splendid production. History will thank Brian Lamb for putting this together. His questions were incisive; Gingrich was relaxed, articulate, and forthcoming.
But it seemed to me from that interview that Gingrich's decline and departure resulted from in-House problems: the ethics charges lodged against him and his increasing difficulties in keeping his fractious troops behind him.
Maybe that's the way Gingrich sees it; maybe that's the way it was.
But my take is that Gingrich had to leave his job partly because of his in-House failings, but mainly because of his confrontation with Clinton over the budget. It was Newt who turned it into a power struggle. And when Clinton cleverly made him look bad in that debate, Gingrich lost his hold on the speakership. Also, I would like to have seen some questioning on an incident that some observers regard as the "turning point" in that Gingrich-Clinton confrontation: the moment when the Speaker really stubbed his toe.
That was during the fight over the budget standoff when, as Gingrich later admitted in his book "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," he "talked too much" at a Monitor breakfast. It was the occasion when, on Nov. 15, 1995, Gingrich told a roomful of journalists that because of what he had viewed as rude treatment from the president on a plane to and from Israel he had toughened his stand on the budget battle that had closed down government.
In his book, Gingrich writes that his complaint about that plane incident "was the single-most avoidable mistake" he made as Speaker.
The next day the New York Daily News cartoon of Gingrich in diapers under the headline "Cry Baby" was circulated all around the Washington power circle. And thus began the rapid decline of the Speaker's skyrocketing career.
As I watched the Gingrich interview on C-Span, I thought of how much many of us in the press were missing this colorful fellow.
He turned out to be a tragic figure. But for a while he was immensely effective. And the Monitor breakfasts would be packed with journalists whenever he made his frequent visits. Whatever else, he was "good copy" - always.
It seems to me that had Gingrich not talked so much and been so combative, he would still be on the job. But then he wouldn't have been Newt Gingrich, would he?
Had he been less combative, he would probably still be on the job. But then he wouldn't have been Newt Gingrich, would he?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society