Newt Gingrich’s singular place in politics could be seen over the weekend in this: He got hundreds of sincere tributes from people who were sincerely delighted he was leaving.
He was right to go, right to take the election’s blame on his back and bear it away. His leadership had failed, his party had lost focus, and, as happens in politics, his friends had come and gone while his enemies had accumulated. His revolution had faltered, and by own standards. In 1995, near the end of the first hundred days of the 104th Congress, I asked him at what point he would know if this was an interesting moment in history, or the true beginning of something. “I’ll know two years, four years, six years from now,” he said. Meaning: when the Republican majority in the House and Senate either grows and settles in or doesn’t and dwindles.
But before he goes we should give him his due, and not only because he deserves it. In giving it we can see how far Republicans have come the past 20 years. We can probably see some lessons for the future too.
[Header] ‘Frisky Puppy’
Mr. Gingrich moved history. He both was shaped by his times and shaped them, and with genuine vision. “He knows where he wants to go,” Margaret Thatcher said of him in the summer of 1995. “And he has tons of guts.” Then she paused. “Bit of a frisky puppy, though.”
To say the least. Tons of guts is part of what got him to the speakership, along with an almost deranged optimism and imagination.
Maybe the last he needed most. Mr. Gingrich walked into Congress for the first time in 1978, in almost the exact middle of the 40-year reign of the Democratic majority. He looked around, saw their complete domination of the agenda, their complete control of the committees, their refusal to let minority views on taxes and spending and foreign affairs be debated or even heard. He saw their wild frustration of the Republicans, saw their leaders’ attempts to be players by “living with reality” and “accepting the hand you’re dealt,” saw that they had become low-budget liberals who’d grown comfortable with the status quo. He watched the only poll that matters in Congress, the one that comes every two years when the voters vote, and saw that even though they always told exit pollsters they didn’t like or respect Congress, 90% of the time they re-elected their own congressmen.
He saw the disrespect he got in the press when his ideas got any attention at all, saw the unreturned phone calls pile up, saw it all and said with the sunny optimism of the idiot or the visionary: We can change this.
We can change it. For 16 years that was his chant. I first him heard say it in 1984, when he dropped by to visit some of Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters. We were known as optimists and we were on his side, but I didn’t think he could do it. I told him that in 1995, and he was surprised. He said, “Ten years ago I assumed I’d be here. I assumed I’d be helping to reshape the country.”
Why? I asked.
“Robert the Bruce. Robert the Bruce and the spider.” In the old story the great Scottish warrior, exhausted after a series of lost battles, sits on a rock in the forest and weeps. And he sees a little spider trying over and over to weave a strand to carry him upward. And a strand breaks and he falls and a strand breaks and he falls. And finally a strand holds, and he climbs, and builds.
“If you think about the spider, why wouldn’t you assume I’d eventually make it?”
This makes him sound charming. Would that he had been.
At the beginning of the hundred days I saw—anyone could see—what his problem with the public might become. He was speaking to members of the Republican National Committee in a Washington hotel. His famous book deal had just become public and he was under heavy criticism. He was furious at the attacks. Haley Barbour, then the Republican national chairman, spoke to him before he went on. Don’t talk about the book contract, he said; talk about the Contract With America.
Mr. Gingrich got up and quoted Mr. Barbour. Then he tore into his critics, saying their hatred of him was personal but not only personal. “I am a genuine revolutionary,” he said, “and they are genuine reactionaries.” He said they would do everything they could to stop him, but he would not be stopped.
The audience was rapt, almost frightened by the ferocity of his words and his delivery, which was one long blast of anger.
I thought at the time: It is good to see a political figure so uncontrolled by spin and its doctors, good to see one explain what he thinks is driving the political situation in which he is embroiled. But doesn’t his fury detract from the revolution? He makes the story himself, and not the merits of legislation.
His great virtue was his great vice: For 20 years he fought what seemed a losing fight with courage and aggression. Now he was where he wanted to be. And his spectacular aggression, which had lifted him up, also brought him down, and made the country turn away.
Mr. Gingrich in those days compared himself often to Eisenhower and Grant. But it was another general he put you in mind of. Patton couldn’t stop punching forward; thus was Sicily liberated. Then he slapped a soldier.
Mr. Gingrich was like Bill Clinton in that he didn’t really understand why you might not want him in your face all the time, on the tube, in the news conference, at the speech. He didn’t see why people in 1995 who’d experienced two years of Clintonmania might not see Newtomania as a relief.
He did not sense that an unshared thought can have power, that the face you have when you have an observation that you’re too circumspect to share is an interesting face, and an interesting face has a certain mystery—What’s he thinking?—and mystery has certain power.
His friends said it wasn’t Newt, it was the media. The media in Sam Rayburn’s day was Scotty Reston with a notebook. Now it’s 50 TV shows and 500 radio shows, a huge sucking maw that demands statements and sound, a thousand technicians with boom mike chasing him as if they were Ahab and he was the whale.
He should have dived deep, disappeared and now and then sent up a riveting, powerful spray. Instead he held news conferences every day, bickering with a hostile press. It was like the daily acting out of a bad marriage in which neither party likes or understands the other and both see no way out.
He rose of course not as a conciliator but as an aggressor. He wouldn’t dodge an argument, he’d start one; he wouldn’t shade a truth, he’d assert it, colorfully and memorably, often to the empty House, on C-Span. He felt he was reaching the American political class, the activists, the sophisticated couch potatoes surfing in the night.
He thought he was doing what the left said to do: Speak truth to power. And what he did in those days was part of the reason the Democrats hated him, and would hate him forever. And part of why the Republican establishment didn’t know what to do with him.
And they didn’t.
Lord Darby, born to royalty, once tried to explain to Queen Victoria the problem with her new prime minister. “Mr. Disraeli has had to make his position, and men who make their position will say and do things which are not necessary to be said and done by those for whom positions are provided.”
Many members of Mr. Gingrich’s party—the Danforths, the Heinzes, the Bakers—had come from comfort and were calmer.
Mr. Gingrich was an outsider, from the Army-brat middle class, his family was always moving, and he was always the new kid .He was an outsider as a college professor who was a conservative, as a House member who was a right-wing back-bencher. At the Reagan White House they saw him as a big mouth with no class. The Bush White House hated him for breaking with the president over taxes. He was the kind of outsider whose vision of himself was so shaped by his differentness, his outsiderness, that he couldn’t get it through his head that he was now an insider. He couldn’t feel comfortable about it because for at least 30 years, in the geography of his mind, insiders occupied a territory called Corruption, or Sold Out. Outsiders lived in a land called Decency. To be an insider was to move to a neighborhood with better houses and worse people.
But the leaders of his own party looked down on him in the 1970s and ‘80s, and it wasn’t lost on him. Talking about it once, he said, “Do I know that despite my best efforts to help Ronald Reagan, do I know that Jim Baker and Dick Darman thought I was a jerk? Sure.”
He looked at me challengingly. And continued: “Did I know that all during the Bush years, while I was trying to save Bush, that Darman was trying to destroy me? Sure. But that only tells me who I think I am. I’m a historic figure. What I was 11 or 12 years old a friend gave me an old clipping of Lincoln’s defeats. I carried it around for years. Lincoln lost five times between being a congressmen and winning the presidency. Five straight losses, all in the 1850s.
“So my attitude is, a lot of people who will go down in history as dumb, or interesting secondary figures like Baker, undervalued me when I was doing what I had to do to be me. It didn’t offend me. I didn’t really like it but it was not—it would have cost too much . . . to have noticed it.”
Michael Barone wrote an essay on Mr. Gingrich, saying, “Like Charles DeGaulle, he has believed from childhood that he has a great destiny, that he will reshape the nation. Like DeGaulle he has overcome setbacks, mistakes, ridicule and opposition, and has persevered in his stands until his confidence no longer seemed ridiculous. Like DeGaulle he believes that his nation has a special mission. And like DeGaulle he has heaped scorn on his opponents and cold bloodedly ended the careers of those who have stood in his way. Gingrich cannot be unaware of the parallels — in one of his [college] lectures he talks about DeGaulle and himself in the same breath.”
But as DeGaulle himself once said: The graveyards are full of indispensable men. And you cannot lose as badly as Mr. Gingrich did in the past few years and survive.
The lessons? Some obvious ones, I suppose. It would be good for Republican leaders to take a deep breath and remember how far we’ve come since the day Newt Gingrich walked into Congress. Good to remember that fierceness doesn’t always work, that the media is a steamroller that shatters and crushes big sharp rocks but leaves sturdy pebbles undisturbed. Good to remember to calm down, lead, act not as if you’re a minority member giddily thrust to the top but a majority member soberly leading. Stick to first principles, don’t distract with personal drama, be serious and not clever.
And probably good to see this: We’re at the end of a 20-year arc and the beginning of a new era.
In 1978, when Mr. Gingrich entered the House, the tax-cutting Proposition 13 swept California and Ronald Reagan lay in wait. The modern conservative movement, reflecting the will and wants of the people on taxes and spending and cultural issues and foreign affairs, began to fully emerge. The movement became a coalition, which yielded a realignment, and Mr. Reagan was twice swept into the White House. And, in 1994, Republicans won Congress for the first time in 40 years.
And now we’re in another time. Newt’s uncalm visage, the failed government shutdown, Oklahoma City and the releasing of the president’s grand jury testimony left the men and women who had long stood for middle America looking extreme, radical, strange.
And middle America itself has changed in 20 years, inevitably, perhaps profoundly. And we are all of us still catching up with the changes, which have been cultural, attitudinal, and can be seen most dramatically in the fact that a president whose behavior would a generation ago have resulted in immediate dismissal is today secure, unremoved and popular.
[Header] New Terrain
The new era brings its own new terrain. The former Bush domestic policy adviser Jim Pinkerton says the lesson to start with is this: “There’s the realm of politics and there’s the realm of morality, and sometimes they intersect and sometimes they don’t. Clinton will get whatever he deserves in the hereafter, but in the here and now he’s won. And those who wish to contend with him in 1998 must take that into account.”
And here’s another idea. It is the guidance and inspiration to be found in looking again at the life of Abraham Lincoln, a great moral and political leader who spent the years before he took the presidency being against slavery and speaking against slavery and inching the country along to see it his way. He sometimes frustrated his friends and delighted his foes, but he inched each day closer to the prize, through calm leadership and with a human, humorous, appealing face. Great personal qualities deployed politically: He made it hard to hate him.
That’s what Republicans must do. That’s what Newt Gingrich didn’t do, couldn’t do.