The Magazine


Sep 13, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 48 • By DAVID FRUM
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IT CAN SEEM SO TERRIBLY UNFAIR. Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to their first majority in the House of Representatives since 1955, and then to two successive majorities for the first time since the 1920s. He forced welfare reform and a balanced budget onto President Clinton. His reward for this record of accomplishment? Spurious ethics charges, anonymous quotes in the Washington Post from Republican congressmen about how much better things have worked since he quit the speakership, and a Republican front-runner for the presidential nomination that Gingrich coveted whose rhetoric is very largely intended to separate himself as widely as possible from the once all-conquering Newt. On the other hand, it all seemed rather less terribly unfair last week, when C-SPAN broadcast its three-segment interview with Gingrich.

By unfortunate coincidence, C-SPAN broadcast the third and final segment only four hours after it carried a major policy address by George W. Bush, a speech on education to the Latino Business Expo in Los Angeles. Bush called for enlarging the federal Department of Education, imposing stricter federal supervision on state and local school systems, and limiting the role of vouchers to an emergency treatment for the worst-functioning districts. Four years ago, and certainly eight, a Republican candidate who took such a New Democrat approach to schooling would have provoked a mutiny on the right, but Bush has already pocketed the conservative vote, and his only serious competitor for the nomination is Elizabeth Dole, who has gravitated even further leftward.

The abject disarray of the once-formidable conservative wing of the party is not entirely Gingrich's fault. But it is very largely his fault, and his interview nicely reminded viewers of how he led conservatives to their present unhappy pass.

Through most of the 1980s, Gingrich had been just one of dozens of clever young congressmen who identified themselves with the excitement of the Reagan revolution. In those long-ago days, a Vin Weber or Jim Courter would have seemed as good a bet to recapture the speakership for the GOP -- actually a better bet than Newt, since Gingrich was then widely seen as a flighty and undisciplined free-lancer. But time and chance worked in his favor. Congressmen from swing states, like Courter's New Jersey, lost their seats. Congressmen from solid Republican states, like Mississippi's Trent Lott, ascended to the Senate. Others despaired of perpetual minority status and quit politics altogether. By 1990, Gingrich had become the unquestioned leader of the conservatives in the House. The Bush budget deal promoted him to conservative national leadership. Jack Kemp's decision to seek a cabinet seat in the Bush administration -- rather than challenge Mario Cuomo for the governorship of New York in 1990 -- and Kemp's unwillingness to resign that seat silenced the supply-sider when the senior Bush broke his no-new-taxes pledge. Gingrich denounced Bush, and with that act positioned himself to lead the opposition to Bill Clinton after 1992.

Every leader remakes his movement in his own image, and between 1990 and 1998, Gingrich reshaped Republican conservatism. Unlike his deal-making elders in the House leadership, Gingrich was a fighter, and he imbued conservatism with his own fierce combativeness. Gingrich's concept of fighting was the scoring of parliamentary victories to expose the high-handedness and corruption of the Democratic majority. In the C-SPAN interviews, Gingrich discusses at some length how he used television (C-SPAN, actually) as a weapon against Tip O'Neill. Gingrich, Bob Walker, and other allies would use the quiet hours of "special orders" to give one-minute speeches in the well of the House denouncing the Democratic leadership. These stinging orations so irritated O'Neill that he ordered the House camera to pan the chamber during special orders so that viewers could see that nobody was listening -- provoking such a ruckus that more people than ever tuned in.

Gingrich's greatest parliamentary victory, of course, was his more or less single-handed bringing down of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright on corruption charges. Gingrich dutifully acknowledges that it was the errors of the Clinton administration -- the health care plan, the tax increases, and gays in the military -- that toppled the Democratic Congress in 1994, but he does not really believe it. After the perfunctory acknowledgment, he devotes most of his airtime to talking about what he imagines really did the trick: the discrediting of the Democratic leadership through scandals like Wright's.