So why was it the Republicans in 1998 decided that Newt Gingrich had to go as U.S. speaker of the house?
The continuing crisis over former Florida U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s inappropriate contact with teenage pages and the handling of the situation by current House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois jogs my memory back to November 1998.
That’s the day Newt Gingrich, the man whose political campaigns I had chaired for years, suddenly resigned from Congress altogether.
I fumed when he had to step down. I fume still. Now I get to unload on the GOP ingrates who turned on the only Republican in my lifetime, other than Ronald Reagan, to have original political ideas.
The day Gingrich resigned, I left early in the morning to take my family to our mountain house. Everyone in his office said Gingrich had the votes to remain as speaker.
What many don’t know is that Gingrich, when he first moved into my North Atlanta district in 1992, was not popular even with Republicans. A group of us, who had established constituencies in the area, pulled every string and made every connection possible to help barely lift Gingrich past a virtually unknown opponent in the congressional Republican primary. It proved well worth the effort.
I then witnessed the effort of Gingrich and a devoted cadre of progressive conservatives to reinvent public policy programs, culminating with the Contract with America.
I wanted to strangle Newt when he resigned. But his explanation to me made sense — it wasn’t worth continuing the fight for true reforms if he had to also fight Republicans lacking the intestinal fortitude to see them through.
Now, with the GOP House polling lower all the time over everything from Mark Foley to ethics to the federal budget, I ask again: Why did Newt Gingrich have to resign?
He didn’t have to and shouldn’t have. I’m not judging Gingrich, but I’m about to judge some accepted history.
Current research of that time mostly assures us that Gingrich’s plunge in popularity was largely a result of his showdown with President Bill Clinton, which forced a “government shutdown,” and, subsequently, Gingrich’s alleged irritation at having to exit Air Force One from the rear of the plane when it returned from Israel.
Sure, the media transformed the shutdown into a caricature of Gingrich as being coldhearted. But it was Clinton’s unwillingness to negotiate on tough budget constraints pushed by the Republicans that led to the short shutdown of government operations. And Gingrich’s alleged complaint about the airplane landing was taken out of context. He pointed out that Clinton had avoided the GOP leadership on board for the 20-plus hours of the flight. Budget negotiations could have been taking place. Then the president simply lacked manners in shunting the Republicans out the back of the plane.
In reality, the shutdown was a concerted action by Congress to do what most Americans wanted them to do, rein in big government.
Further, it was Gingrich’s capital gains tax cut that helped to spur the economy for which President Clinton is now so widely credited. And it was Gingrich who forced issues of balanced budgets and welfare reform. It may have made him a poster boy for the left, but it ended up helping make the Democratic president’s legacy appear grand.
As for the impeachment issue, which is also noted in many articles as having hurt Gingrich, well, that too is a stretch. Gingrich was savvy enough to know that the effort to remove Clinton would be unpopular. But his members demanded action, and he followed what he felt was a constitutional duty, if clearly an ill-conceived political action.
For all he did, his reward from an ungrateful bunch of spoiled Republicans was a demand that he walk the plank for having lost a few House seats in the 1998 elections.
To his credit now, he has publicly stood by embattled House Speaker Dennis Hastert, despite the fact that he would be well justified to hang him out to dry.
Just remember, Republicans: What goes around comes around. This brilliant leader has had eight years to reinvent himself. With a party begging for brains and action in place of cocky half-wits and slick-looking talking heads, Newt Gingrich is looking more and more like the hero he truly was.
He’s still the GOP’s true Mr. Speaker.