Newt Gingrich was hardly a perfect speaker of the House, but he did not resign in “disgrace” as has been repeatedly claimed by Mitt Romney. I say this as a former member of Congress who was part of both the “coup attempt” against him and the subsequent successful effort to remove him as speaker after the 1998 election. There is a distinct difference between removing someone from a position because of ineffective management, as, say, Bain Capital regularly does, and resigning in “disgrace.”
The word “disgrace” implies a moral failing. I know this better than most because I failed not legally, electorally, or in doing my job: I failed at a personal moral level, so I resigned. I am thankful for God’s limitless grace. Newt was not a candidate for sainthood, but he wasn't removed because of the ethics report. Rather, his leadership had become indecisive and confused, his anger flared too often, and operationally we House Republicans could no longer function. The proof is that we first sought Bob Livingston as his replacement, and then Dennis Hastert. They were not especially known as idea men or even electoral leaders of our party, but as skilled at management.
Newt Gingrich was certainly the point man in leading us to victory in 1994, the first House Republican majority in 40 years. He is a visionary, about that there is no doubt. We freshmen were the “Newt, Newt” chanters of media fame. The first sign that it wasn’t all worship, however was the victory of Tom DeLay as whip over Bob Walker in December 1994. Bob was an outstanding conservative and wonderful man. When he learned that I was voting for DeLay, though my background and district might have dictated that I would back him, Bob basically hollered into the phone: “Don’t you understand that I am Speaker Gingrich’s choice for whip?” My answer was that yes, I and many others did understand exactly that point, which is why we were voting for DeLay (or Bill McCollum)—because we wanted some independent leadership. The election wasn’t about Bob and Tom.
The first two years our our new majority were rather tumultuous, with the government shutdown and other setbacks, but we managed to hold the majority. The Democrats, thirsting for revenge because Newt wasn’t always the nicest to them (he had led the successful effort to force out former Speaker Jim Wright), went after Gingrich with a vengeance, lodging multiple complaints with the House Ethics Committee. Newt, not exactly a perfectionist for details, certainly left them some openings. As Byron York explained last week in the Washington Examiner, "the center of the controversy was a course Gingrich taught from 1993 to 1995 at two small Georgia colleges. The wide-ranging class, called 'Renewing American Civilization,' was conceived by Gingrich and financed by a tax-exempt organization called the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Gingrich maintained that the course was a legitimate educational enterprise; his critics contended that it had little to do with learning and was in fact a political exercise in which Gingrich abused a tax-exempt foundation to spread his own partisan message."
The filed ethics charges languished in the committee, as most politically driven charges do. The committee is evenly divided between the parties and members are appointed by the leader of each party. Most charges never gain traction unless they are so egregious that they simply cannot be ignored, and even then it can take years for anything to emerge. Charges against leaders, such as Dick Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi, never have seen the light of day.
But the Democrats saw an opportunity in late 1996. Many Republicans, reading leaked portions of the documents and fearing the worst, demanded to see the confidential documents before voting to reelect Newt Gingrich as speaker. One of those members was me. I felt that I had a responsibility to the people I represented to see whether the charges were in fact true. Newt simply did not have the votes to win, and the Democrats blackmailed him. There is no nicer way to describe it.
As a condition of releasing the information, the Democrats demanded not only that the House “reprimand” Gingrich but that he pay $300,000 toward the cost of the investigation. It is important to note that even with the incredible leverage that the Democrats had, the wording is to “reimburse” and not “fine.”