How Newt Gingrich Shaped The Republican Party

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Newt Gingrich, former US Speaker of the House. (Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP via Getty Images)
Newt Gingrich, former US Speaker of the House. (Zakaria Abdelkafi/AFP via Getty Images)

The hyperbolic descriptions President Trump has used to describe his political opponents — “the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists” — come straight out of the playbook of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Historian Julian Zelizer makes that case in his new book, "Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall Of A Speaker, And The Rise Of The New Republican Party,” which chronicles Gingrich's rise as a young and unknown congressman who utilized cable television to shape the Republican Party in ways still seen today.

When Gingrich was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978, he became a part of the new generation of Republicans staunchly committed to the party, Zelizer says. He was determined to regain power from the Democrats in both the House and the Senate.

To do so, the Georgia congressman “used all the language that he could imagine for his partisan arsenal” in order to bring down the Democratic establishment, Zelizer says.

Democrats were caught off guard by Gingrich’s attacks, he says. “They didn't really see how far Gingrich was willing to go,” he explains.

Gringrich was able to use rhetorical words to make his point, capture the attention of the media and make it stick with the American people.

“He thought a lot about confrontation and saying things that were explosive,” Zelizer says, “because he believed that the more confrontational, the more outlandish you were, the more the media would cover you and the more the media would replicate what you said about your opponent — whether it was true or not true.”

Zelizer says a lot of today’s partisan politics can be directly drawn from what Gingrich did back in the ‘80s. At the height of his political career, Republicans embraced Gingrich’s “fierce, institution-destroying, partisanship” tactics — a legacy that has evolved to encompass the Tea Party generation in 2010 and now Trump’s presidency.

Newly elected Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich waves from the speakers chair after the 104th US Congress was sworn in. (J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)
Newly elected Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich waves from the speaker's chair after the 104th US Congress was sworn in. (J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)

Interview Highlights

On Gingrich coming to Washington in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate

“There was a lot of distrust of government. And rather than focusing all the time on right versus left, conservative versus liberal, he went after the Democrats. He called them a corrupt Democratic establishment that maintained its power unfairly, unconstitutionally.”

“They didn't totally see it coming. Democrats had passed many reforms during the 1970s to make Washington a better place. They had instituted ethics reforms, for example, that tried to hold leaders more accountable. They had changed the campaign finance laws and a new generation of Democrats had entered and they thought that would be sufficient.

“[Democrats] thought politics — many of them, like Jim Wright — thought politics was still going to be played by the old rules. And they didn't understand that Gingrich had a whole other kind of political game in mind.”

On how he used cable television, specifically C-SPAN, to make a point

“Throughout his career, Gingrich said the worst things about Democrats. In 1984, he would go on C-SPAN all the time, speaking from the floor of the House, basically accusing Democrats of being unpatriotic and not supporting Ronald Reagan's efforts to fight communism. When he goes after Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, he essentially criminalizes the speaker arguing he's trying to fill his pockets at the expense of taxpayers. And he even distributes this memo through GOPAC, a Republican organization, in 1990, to teach Republicans how to speak like Newt. And he tells them, use words like corruption, traitors, sick [and] radical as a way to describe your opponent. So language was essential to him in large part because the right language would get you the attention that he needed.”

On when Gingrich delivered a speech to an empty House chamber knowing that on C-SPAN, they only had the camera on the person who was speaking so the audience couldn’t see the empty room

“That was called cam scam. This was one of his first big moments in Washington. And he and a group of Republicans had gone on every night and made these blistering speeches about specific Democrats. And viewers didn't know the chamber was empty. So when Democrats didn't respond to the charges, it looked like they were guilty. And then when Speaker Tip O'Neill turns the cameras on the chamber and shows it's empty and when he makes that speech about Gingrich — Gingrich doesn't stop. He says, ‘Look, this is my point. They're corrupt.’

“And then the kind of icing on the cake was that all of the national news networks covered this story. And for the first time, because of the confrontation, Gingrich was on national television and he really arrived as a figure. So he understood how to play the whole news cycle and that story of cam scam incredibly well.”

On how and why Gingrich took down Speaker Jim Wright

“Jim Wright replaces or succeeds Tip O'Neill as speaker in 1987. He's an old school Texas Democrat, believed in the social safety net. He was not a dove, but he also believed in restraint overseas, especially after Vietnam. Gingrich picks up on stories that had emerged in the national and Texas press about Wright. And there were lots of different stories, too. He really hones in on one. Wright sold these books that he published in bulk to groups before he spoke to them, which was not an ethical violation. It didn't break the law, but it didn't look so good. And two, there are these stories that Wright had been in business with a real estate developer back in his district. Again, not unethical, not illegal, but Gingrich took these stories and he blows them up. He says this is proof that Wright is the most corrupt speaker in American history, and he whips Washington up into a frenzy. And Wright is caught off guard. He calls Gingrich a gadfly, says you just have to swat him away. But Wright is wrong.

“The Ethics Committee launches an investigation and before they're finished, Wright is under pressure to resign from his position, which he does. And it's because of this that Republicans decide to elect Gingrich, who is seen as this bomb-thrower who you stayed away from, into a leadership position to become House Minority Whip, which was his path to becoming speaker.”

Book Excerpt: 'Burning Down The House'

By Julian Zelizer

"Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall Of A Speaker, And The Rise Of The New Republican Party" by Julian Zelizer. (Courtesy of Penguin Press)
"Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall Of A Speaker, And The Rise Of The New Republican Party" by Julian Zelizer. (Courtesy of Penguin Press)

On the evening of July 13, 2016, the former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich marched through the hallways of an Indianapo- lis television studio as he prepared to appear live on Fox News.

The past twenty-four hours had been a whirlwind. The Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, was seriously considering naming Gingrich his vice presidential running mate. Gingrich loved being back in the spotlight; to him, the thrill of politics was like a narcotic.

Suddenly Gingrich had a chance to return to the heights of power he had missed since his Republican colleagues had pressured him to step down as Speaker of the House, one of the most influential positions in Washing- ton, back in November 1998. His downfall had been sudden, amid the climactic days of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, only four years after Gingrich had led the Republicans to take control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1954. Following his dramatic departure from Congress, Gingrich experienced many professional ups and downs. The best of times came when he offered commentary on Fox News or filled the role of resident policy wonk at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He also enjoyed earning money as a consultant. But his disappointment was palpable when his 2012 bid for the Republican presidential nomination fell flat, bested by the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the smooth patrician to Gingrich’s feisty populist.

But now Donald Trump might be offering Gingrich, who turned seventy-three that June, one last chance to step back into the center of power. Many experts argued that Gingrich had a pretty good shot at winning the vice presidential sweepstakes. His sexual past paled in comparison to the exploits of “The Donald” during his adventurous years in New York City. Gingrich was also one of the few senior figures in the Republican Party whom Trump had not knocked to his knees. The former Speaker exuded the kind of gravitas that the reality TV star lacked, displaying an easy fluency in public policy and foreign affairs. He also had an instinct for partisan warfare unequaled by almost any Republican besides Trump.

Moreover, Gingrich’s competitors were flawed. The New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, had been damaged by a scandal about a manufactured traffic jam back in the Garden State. The Alabama senator Jeff Sessions seemed so much like a hard-line southern reactionary that he would instantly kill any hope that Trump could win over northern and midwestern independents. And the Indiana governor, Mike Pence, with his choirboy demeanor, felt much too boring a pick for the former star of The Apprentice, with his appetite for sensation and sizzle.

Gingrich was to be interviewed that night by Sean Hannity, the pugnacious Fox host whose tough-guy persona attracted a passionate right-wing audience. The day of the Fox interview, Trump had met with Gingrich in a two-thousand-square-foot penthouse suite at the Conrad hotel, a posh five-star high-rise in downtown Indianapolis. Trump had intended to fly back to New York the previous evening after attending a rally with Governor Pence, but a flat tire on the airplane had grounded him overnight. Hannity, a close friend and ally of both Trump and Gingrich, had secretly allowed the former Speaker to fly on his private jet to Indianapolis to make sure that their scheduled meeting took place.

Author, historian and professor Julian Zelizer. (Courtesy of Julian Zelizer)
Author, historian and professor Julian Zelizer. (Courtesy of Julian Zelizer)

For about two and a half hours, Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and children Eric, Donald Jr., and Ivanka sat in as the presumptive Republican nominee and the former Speaker held a free-flowing conversation about the role of the vice president, relations with Capitol Hill, and the many issues facing America after Barack Obama’s presidency. Gingrich found Trump exhilarating, a fresh voice who would not be muted by the ostensible experts. The last great Republican firebrand saw the new one as a kindred spirit, one who shared Gingrich’s ruthless and defiant attitude toward political convention and his mastery of the media.

That night Gingrich strode through the usually sleepy local studio; all the campaign activity had amped up the station’s energy level, but having Gingrich on-site created a pronounced buzz. He was one of the rare former members of Congress who was recognized on the streets. Walking through the studios, Gingrich looked to some on the newsroom staff more like the overweight college professor he had been in his early years, lost in his own thoughts, than someone who might soon be next in line for the presidency. Although he was wearing the classic outfit of the Washington male politician—a dark suit with a royal blue shirt and a red power tie—Gingrich didn’t have the normal polish. His suit was a little too boxy; its occupant was slightly rumpled.

Gingrich didn’t care: this was the look that he had nurtured since entering politics thirty-seven years earlier as a young congressman from Georgia. He liked that his colleagues thought of him as the man with the big ideas, the intellectual turned politician. He had used that image to intimidate his opponents into submission, whatever the issue being debated. It was rare that Gingrich, with his trademark smirk, didn’t seem to think that he was 100 percent correct about the topic being discussed. While he looked as if he might fit naturally in a seminar room, deep down Gingrich had the take-no-prisoners mentality of the toughest partisan figures who had ever served on Capitol Hill. He had practically written the handbook on cutthroat congressional tactics and spinning the media for partisan advantage; indeed, during his speakership, conservatives had literally circulated a memo on how to “speak like Newt.”

As the makeup artist finished powdering his face and the production crew attached a small microphone to his lapel, Gingrich had good reason to feel that Trump would never have become the nominee without him. It wasn’t just that Gingrich had been a loyal supporter throughout the primaries but also that the unlikely, unorthodox, nativist populist campaign Trump had mounted, which aimed to tear down the political leaders of both parties and to destabilize the entire U.S. political system, was Gingrich’s creation. Trump’s media-centered strategy and his determination to capitalize on public distrust of Washington were the same weapons that Gingrich had deployed upon his arrival on Capitol Hill, when he went after the Democratic majority in the 1980s.

Like Trump, Gingrich believed that anything was possible in politics. He hated it when colleagues told him that things were always going to be the way they were—especially when they said that Republicans would always be the country’s minority party. When Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989, Gingrich had worked diligently as a backbencher to remake the Republican Party’s then-staid, country-club, business-oriented brand into something far more hard hitting and confrontational. He committed himself to being a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution. His goal: shove the national policy agenda to the right and wrest power away from the Democrats who had controlled the House for three decades. To almost everyone, it was a pipe dream.

Excerpted from "Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall Of A Speaker, And The Rise Of The New Republican Party" by  Julian Zelizer. Copyright © 2020 by Julian Zelizer. Republished with permission of Penguin Random House.

Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 7, 2020.


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Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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