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.”
Upon reading the released documents I was appalled. Not by what Newt had done but rather that he had been held hostage over this flimsy of a case. It is not that Newt wasn’t “sloppy.” I think that is his middle name. However, anyone involved in politics knows that the fundamental issue being debated was what could be fairly described as confusing and inconsistent distinctions between what is considered “educational” and what is considered “political,” with the former being tax-exempt.
Washington, and the nation, has long had “support” organizations that receive tax deductions advocating liberal, moderate and conservative ideologies as well as causes. Labor, business, environmental, religious, and other interests are all impacted by the huge power of the federal government so they want to influence its decisions and ultimately have allies in Congress. Newt pushed the envelope by talking more openly about the cross-purposes, but does anyone seriously believe that were data released (the committee demanded such documents in his case) on say, the funding of tax-exempt "educational" groups allied with labor and other causes dear to Members of Congress, similar suspicions would not be raised?
The ethics rebuke was not truly bipartisan. Newt had to insist that the Republicans on the committee agree in a sudden rush because he absolutely needed a released report in order to win reelection as speaker. The key argument was over the “purpose” of his classes. Was the goal to elect Republicans who shared his views or to independently educate? The report’s pivotal contention was this: if information in a course leads to more candidates coming from one party, it is deemed political by definition. Using their argument, if the Unitarian Church held a forum as to why their religion is preferable to others, won converts, then some converts later ran for office and most were Democrats, the very recruitment to Unitarianism would then be “political” and the church would lose its tax-deductible status. In other words, they argued—which was critical—that intent didn't matter. This logic meant that they didn’t have to prove that Newt actually intended to elect just Republicans with his non-profit education classes but merely that some people who took them later ran as Republicans. Under this standard many left-biased universities would obvously be in deep trouble.
This was a political hanging not impartial justice. (The IRS, by the way, eventually ruled that Gingrich's courses were in fact educational and tax-exempt.)
My reaction was to reading the report was to move from undecided to helping Speaker Gingrich gain the necessary votes. His whip team divided up the undecided members and each began trying to persuade those we knew best.
Roll Call number three, the election of the speaker for the 105th Congress, shows that five Republicans answered “present” and Newt did not vote. (Gephardt answered “present.”) Four additional Republicans voted for other Republicans. Gingrich prevailed with 215 votes. Of those “present and voting” (which includes those who answered “present”) he prevailed 215-214.
During the vote I was assigned or volunteered (I don’t remember) to sit next to my friend, Congressman Mark Sanford, who was agonizing over his vote. Votes for speaker are tallied by calling out Member’s names in alphabetical order and each Member yells out his vote. As we moved through the alphabet Mark and I continued to argue about whether he should vote for Newt. Somewhere around “H” my friend and another 1994 classmate Jack Metcalf, who was seated on the other side of me and had previously been considered a pro-Gingrich vote, said “Mark, I’ve decided not to vote for Newt.” Since “M” was coming a lot faster than “S” I turned my attention to Jack. We discussed the report, the government shutdown mess ,and more. At the end of the day, both of them voted for Newt for speaker. I believe such conversations were occurring all over the House floor.
But that is not the end of the story. Some days later, I received a call from the speaker’s office to attend a meeting that was in progress. Chris Shays of Connecticut, a friend but ideological opposite, and I were being asked to join in a high level (meaning leadership and a few powerful others) debate on the details of how Speaker Gingrich would pay his reimbursement.
I argued that he could delay it if he desired, and that future earnings from book contracts were acceptable since no date was stipulated and it was a railroad job that had only occurred because Democrats took unfair advantage of Newt’s need to have the report released (not incidentally, because Chris and I were among those demanding it). It turned out that had not been the position of others present. Afterwards Chris asked Newt why he and I had been asked to join. His answer said a lot about how inside politics works. Basically he said that Chris and I were opinionated people who neither Newt nor anyone else could really “control” so we would we be correctly viewed as providing independent opinions. And we weren’t rich, so would understand his challenge in coming up with such a huge payment.
Had Newt lost this bid to be reelected speaker at that time, perhaps his removal could have been called a “disgrace.” But he won re-election despite the ethics controversy. Even here the complete story does not end. In 1997 I was asked to become part of a group of five Members led by Bill Paxon to develop strategies and meet with the speaker for several hours each week. As we moved into 1998, things became even more disorganized, which I could see firsthand. I was also the conservative leader of a group organized by Majority Leader Dick Armey called “unity dinners,” where we argued about amendment trees for upcoming legislation. Jim Greenwood and I would select appropriate advocates from the different factions, and then we’d have structured private “fights” along with Armey. Without clear direction, it was becoming clear that we were headed for shipwreck. So I joined with other classmates, as well as some of the leaders, as part of the first coup attempt in the summer of 1997. After additional chaos, and after our 1998 election losses proved the point, Speaker Gingrich stood down.
Whatever else, and I say this as both an ally and a tormentor of Speaker Gingrich, he did not resign in disgrace. His leadership was key in getting us to the majority. His inspiration helped keep us there: twice. But after the 1998 midterm election, with a presidential campaign approaching and Governor George W. Bush emerging as our likely leader with a real chance to regain the presidency, we needed a speaker who could manage the House not an idea leader. So like a business changing direction, we changed leadership.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose Newt Gingrich. I happen to support Rick Santorum. But the speaker has been unfairly maligned by Mitt Romney, and the full story needs to be told.
Mark Souder was a Republican member of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2010.