One of my favorite columns written in the heat of a presidential campaign came in the midst of George H.W. Bush’s first run for the presidency in 1988.
Bush, then a two term vice president whose very existence screamed “patrician,” was widely derided in that long ago campaign as a lapdog to Reagan and a man too weak to lead America. One writer compared “Poppy” Bush to every woman’s first husband and Newsweek even examined the “Wimp Factor” that seemed to follow Bush around like a cloud.
While that media narrative was in full bloom, an old friend of of the sitting VP wrote an opinion piece about the George H.W. Bush that he knew–a brave patriot, a decorated war hero, and a political leader who showed courage throughout his career.
That single column did little to swing the election Bush’s way–Dukakis’ campaign took care of that task. But it did put a dent in the media-driven theme of the day and perhaps gave 41 an opening to bury his wimpy image forever.
It would be a wonderful treat for me to be able to write a similar story about the Newt Gingrich that I knew, and write on and on about his courage, consistency and character. But as anyone who has known or covered Newt for more than 15 minutes, the reality of his public life is far messier than our 41st President.
That is not to say that Gingrich did not accomplish much as Speaker of the House. He was responsible for a political movement that put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years. Under his strong speakership, the GOP Congress balanced the budget for the first time in a generation. It balanced the budget 4 years in a row for the first time since the 1920s. And the Gingrich Congress passed landmark legislation like Welfare Reform. And he accomplished all of these things while fighting an embittered Democratic minority, a Democratic president and a hostile press.
He was deservedly named TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1995 and helped Republicans retain control of Congress for the first time in modern political history. 1995 and 1996 were part of a remarkable political run for Newt Gingrich. Were his story to end there, most conservatives would surely have considered him a hero along the lines of Barry Goldwater. But Newt Gingrich did not have the luck, or good sense, to slowly fade away.
And things got messy.
Gingrich began facing growing criticism among conservative critics who echoed the GOP caucus’s concerns that Bill Clinton consistently got the better of Gingrich in budget negotiations. The House Speaker once admitted to a stunned GOP conference that he had no idea how to keep up with the president in negotiations.
By the spring of 1997, a group of conservatives including myself, Tom Coburn, Matt Salmon, Steve Largent, Mark Sanford and Lindsey Graham began demanding that Gingrich stand firm on promises made during the Contract with America or step down as speaker. During this time period, the battered speaker began moderating his image by being more giving in White House negotiations with the president. Congressional Republicans took note that he was caving on one appropriations bill after another.
In the days leading up to the Easter break, Gingrich began negotiation away what he had once called the “crown jewels” of the Contract with America–the tax cuts. At that point, conservative members rebelled against the speaker and attempted to replace him. The coup failed but Gingrich would be forced out for good a year later after delivering a petulant speech that attacked conservatives as “the perfectionist caucus.” Gingrich turned his backs on the conservatives who made him speaker and instead fought with Democratic liberal David Obey to pass what was then the biggest omnibus spending bill in U.S. history.
The conservative revolution brought in by Newt Gingrich was officially over and a month later a group of conservatives would call Gingrich and let him know that his days as speaker were over.
TO BE CONTINUED