King of the Hill tumbles Gingrich's power drains away during four days in November

'They turned on him'

November 08, 1998|By Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman | Susan Baer and Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Paul West and Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Last Tuesday night, a beaming Newt Gingrich went before cheering supporters in suburban Atlanta and insisted that what looked like a disaster was in fact a victory. Not only had he kept his own congressional seat by a landslide, but for "the first time in 70 years," Republicans had retained control of the House for a third straight election.

Less than three days later, Gingrich would announce that he was quitting his job as House speaker and leaving Congress for good.

Power had slipped through his hands in a fashion that was, if anything, even more spectacular than the way in which it had been gained.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Gingrich's stunning fall was, at least in part, spurred by the Republicans' handling of the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky -- with Bill Clinton emerging from the year of scandal and sordid, humiliating revelations on the up side of the polls and his Republican nemesis headed for retirement.

The story behind Gingrich's demise as a congressional leader reflects a theme that repeated itself over and over in his career.

Perhaps caught up with his own victories and seeming #i invincibility, he would often make terrible miscalculations at the height of his good fortune that would burst the bubble.

In 1998, it happened again.

WEDNESDAY

By Wednesday morning, as he made the rounds of the network morning shows, Gingrich was still putting a positive spin on the election -- even though the Republicans had just lost House seats to the president's party in a midterm election for only the second time since the Civil War.

"I do think it's an historic achievement to still be the majority," he insisted. "Unless one member wants to argue it's better to be in the minority."

The exit polls indicated what Gingrich knew too well -- that he was the most unpopular major political figure in the nation. His sporadic efforts to recast his image -- earlier this year he wrote a book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," and road-tested a new, trimmer, friendlier mien -- generally came undone with some razor-edged remark or deed.

It wasn't that long ago that Gingrich was king of Capitol Hill. He made a presidential-style TV address to the nation in 1995, heralding the end of the first 100 days of the brash new Republican Congress.

So powerful was the bearish, white-haired Georgian who anointed himself a "definer of civilization," that Clinton was forced to defend his "relevance" at a news conference.

And so it had been ever since Gingrich catapulted to power, winning control of Congress for the GOP in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. The lives and fortunes of the two men, whose drives and personas have often been compared, have been inextricably linked.

"They are equal and opposite numbers of each other," said Rich Galen, a Gingrich confidant who runs the conservative political action committee Gingrich started. "It is almost uncanny how when one is up, the other is down."

For instance, underestimating Clinton's political savvy in the fall of 1995, Gingrich and his lieutenants held firm in their negotiations over the budget, and the government was forced to shut down around Christmastime.

Coincidentally, it was during the government shutdown that Clinton and Lewinsky's paths first crossed, setting in motion the sexual relationship that would later dominate the public's attention for months.

Gingrich made the government shutdown worse for the GOP by complaining that, in the course of their budget dealings, he and other Republicans had been snubbed when Clinton forced them to sit at the back of Air Force One.

The sense that Gingrich's intransigence and pettiness caused the government shutdown, coupled with the Democrats' portrait him as the embodiment of heartless budget cuts, ended his honeymoon in Washington, made him the Democrats' chief target and helped Clinton win re-election in 1996.

This year, as the Lewinsky matter threatened to derail Clinton's presidency, Gingrich at first kept quiet. But then he announced in the spring that he would never again make a speech without mentioning the scandal.

Even as polls showed the public tiring of an independent counsel's pursuit of the president's private behavior, Gingrich made a fateful decision to allow the GOP to unleash a $10 million TV ad blitz, including commercials that accused Clinton of lying.

That, and Gingrich's role in the House GOP's aggressive pursuit of impeachment, were among the factors that, analysts said, led to the five-seat Republican loss on Election Day, not the "40-plus" gain that Gingrich had talked up only two weeks earlier.

Not that his entanglements with Clinton alone caused Gingrich's undoing. In fact, it has been often argued by Gingrich friends and foes alike that the strident and tart-tongued speaker has generally needed no one's help in causing his own problems.

Galen keeps a signed note from Gingrich, dated March 1997 and related to an ill-advised comment Gingrich made during a budget battle, on his roll-top desk.

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