Gingrich created tumult that brought him down A skilled strategist, the speaker of the House never learned to govern

November 07, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich's forced resignation yesterday from his treasured perch as speaker of the House shocked the political world, but for students of Gingrich's tumultuous 20-year career on Capitol Hill, it seemed almost preordained.

After all, Gingrich honed the skill of political intrigue to a fine art, and it was that indulgence that was ultimately his undoing. Despite all his years of backstage maneuvering and strategizing, the Georgia Republican never quite grasped the art of governance.

"Gingrich was a great revolutionary, a visionary if you will," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings

Institution. "Then he got elected and his role changed. And he turned out to be not very good at it."

Even so, Gingrich's four-year rocket ride to the height of national, and even international, attention only to plunge into early retirement and potential obscurity has been a spectacular journey.

Like President Clinton, who has been both his nemesis and mirror image, Gingrich has done everything writ large and with historical impact. He was the only speaker of the House ever accorded the kind of attention and cult figure status once reserved for presidents; he was the only speaker ever reprimanded by his colleagues for an ethics transgression.

Years of upheaval

The crown of leadership never rested easily during his reign. Gingrich is leaving his post with the same tumultuous drama with which he claimed it.

The upheaval that ultimately brought down the speaker was certainly of Gingrich's own making, after a tumultuous four years of GOP control. Government shutdowns, aborted coup attempts, last-minute deal-making involving hundreds of billions of dollars, and an unpopular presidential impeachment inquiry all combined turn voters against the GOP. Two consecutive elections whittled away the Republican majority that Gingrich created -- to a razor-thin six-vote margin.

The 1995 high-water mark of 231 Republican House seats will shrink to 223 in January. The election this week was supposed to have cemented GOP control of Capitol Hill. Instead, it made Republican control all the more tenuous.

This came after the torturous saga of the $4.5 million book deal in 1994, the admission that Gingrich decided to let the government shut down in 1995 after Clinton made him take the rear exit off Air Force One, the loss of House seats in 1996, and the ethics scandal over his alleged misuse of money from a tax-exempt foundation for political purposes that resulted in a $300,000 fine as well as the reprimand that opened the 1997 session of Congress.

By July of last year, Gingrich's critics within the Republican ranks had made their first abortive move to depose him.

The last straw

Tuesday's election debacle was the last straw.

After the charismatic House Appropriations Committee chairman, Robert L. Livingston, announced yesterday he would challenge Gingrich for the speakership, a Livingston ally, Rep. Joe Knollenberg of Michigan, put it succinctly: "There is a time when leadership must change, based on expectations unrealized."

Part of Gingrich's problem was that expectations had been so high.

Time magazine hailed him as Man of the Year in 1995 for his deft political tactics and visionary policy proposals. He not only crafted a legislative agenda built around a thin campaign document, the Republican "Contract with America," but he also reached for the much larger goal of balancing the federal budget within seven years. The deficit was gone within four, and taxes were cut, as well.

But critics say those same tactics laid the seeds for the upheaval that has rocked the Congress for the last four years. Rep. Jim Leach, the moderate Banking Committee chairman from Iowa, said the speaker has "always been controversial."

Ironically, a Republican source said, Gingrich told a conference call of House Republicans last night that there was simply too much hatred and acrimony in politics today. Yet if the speaker was facing the long knives, he had sharpened those same knives assiduously during his nearly 20 years in the House.

Strident speeches

Most famously, Gingrich hounded powerful Democrats from power for alleged ethical lapses. Gingrich's strident floor speeches once provoked former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. to castigate him so harshly that O'Neill's words had to be stricken from the record, the first time that had happened to a speaker since 1797.

"Gingrinch," was the only half-joking term Democrat Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland used to describe him.

In 1989, the Georgian with the bite and tenacity of a pit bull hammered the Democrats' No. 3 leader, Californian Tony Coelho, for ethical lapses until the Democrat resigned. Then Gingrich turned his attention to House Speaker Jim Wright over a suspect book-promotion deal. After a brutal campaign, Gingrich took a scalp when Wright became the first House speaker ever to quit midterm. As fate would have it, Gingrich now becomes the second speaker to claim that distinction.

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