OCTOBER 9, 2020
NEWT GINGRICH HAS a special affinity for animals. During the mid-1950s on an army base in Kansas, Newtie — as his mother called him at the time — loved his pets. Although he had dogs ranging from a Doberman pinscher to a cocker spaniel, he took particular delight in feeding hard-boiled eggs to his extensive collection of snakes.
This reptilian scene portends a similar rapport Gingrich later had with the Republican Party: in the same way that he coddled his pet snakes, he chose to nourish the most serpentine and odious tendencies of his Republican colleagues during his first years in Congress, feeding them the playbook that helped usher in a new brand of combative conservatism.
In his new book, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party, Julian E. Zelizer makes the case that Gingrich’s modus operandi of no-holds-barred politics came to its first great test in his face-off with then–Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Newt’s playbook, in Zelizer’s view, was simple: “[E]verything could be turned to his advantage. Flout institutional norms and then, when criticized for doing so, cry foul.” During his first years in the House, Gingrich went to great lengths to rattle the long-standing Democratic majority and oust its reigning leader.
Zelizer is a prolific historian and professor of public policy at Princeton University. His previous book, Fault Lines (co-authored with colleague Kevin M. Kruse), focused on the short but loaded period of modern American history from 1974 to the dawn of 2017, ending with President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Both Burning Down the House and Fault Lines pull readers into the soap opera of US political history, with Gingrich emerging as a prime antagonist. Armed with a PhD in history and a zeal for politics, he won a congressional seat in Georgia’s Atlanta suburbs. He loathed his Republican colleagues’ complacency in accepting their minority status and was determined to upend it by weakening the Democrats at every turn.
Allegations of “corruption” were his main weapon, giving him the appearance of taking the moral high ground in a post-Watergate era when Americans were already primed to distrust politicians. Gingrich capitalized on this wariness, subverting the virtue of experience into an Achilles’ heel. The days of cross-party schmoozing over hunks of porterhouse steak and stiff martinis were over. This was war, and General Gingrich was determined to win.
His primary short-term accomplishment was whipping up a whirlwind of ethical speculation around Speaker Wright by digging deep into the Texan’s past and circulating hyper-local stories from his home in Fort Worth. One story from the Texas press said that Wright had asked the Secretary of the Interior to protect an oil company’s rights to drill on federal lands. The article claimed that Wright owned stock in the company. But Wright never did own stock, and the newspaper later printed a correction. Gingrich only circulated the first story. These articles, along with the newly minted C-SPAN livestream and the intrigue from major television networks, gave the Georgian a platform. “Conflict equals exposure equals power,” was one of Gingrich’s favorite sayings.
The only other strategist in DC who understood the power of media as well as Gingrich was the notorious political consultant Lee Atwater. “The art of politics, in their minds, was as much about the theater of partisanship as about policy,” Zelizer writes, citing their mutual talent with the then-new media tools of sound bites and focus groups.
Instead of enumerating all the theatrical moments of Gingrich’s time in the House, Zelizer zeroes in on the campaign against Speaker Wright. The assault on Wright was premised on the bulk sales of his autobiography, Reflections of a Public Man, to get around the limit on congressional speaking fees. The slim, 117-page book is a compilation of the speaker’s speeches and remarks on public service. This practice may have been dubious, but it did not breach House rules and Wright was never convicted of anything. Yet the months-long investigation ended with his resignation because he wanted to save his Democratic colleagues from a catastrophic fallout in the next year’s midterm elections.
Television helped accelerate Wright’s tailspin. The newly installed C-SPAN cameras, once a novelty, soon became ammunition. Gingrich and his allies made fiery speeches when the congressional chamber was empty, making it seem to unwitting viewers as if they were addressing an audience (in actuality floor speeches are almost never used as devices of persuasion and the House never “debates” in public).
The House Ethics Committee’s formal hearing in late May was televised. When Speaker Wright’s attorney, Stephen Susman, went head-to-head with the lively lawyer Richard Phelan, it became clear that Susman was no match for Phelan’s “competence and even glamour on the screen.” These gotcha moments were presaged in 1960 by the legendary televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon — and Nixon’s devastatingly stiff appearance — that was decisive in the presidential race. But this time, nearly 30 years later, Republicans thrived while Democrats floundered.
Although the book’s title suggests that Gingrich was the sole arsonist in Burning Down the House, he is only the first of many. After showing how Gingrich set his plans in motion, Zelizer allows him to take a back seat; other Republicans assume center stage, making it clear that everyone “had some blood on their hands.” Zelizer pins special blame on the old-school Republicans who claimed to uphold civility, but who ultimately helped to legitimize Gingrich by not reprimanding him. In the process, they rewarded him with the role of Minority Whip.
Burning Down the House stops short of the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution” when Republicans overwhelmingly won the midterms, and also does not analyze how his time as speaker changed the norms of American politics. But by plunging into this early crusade against Wright, Zelizer unfurls how the congressman managed to gain enough power to claim the speakership for himself only five years later.
Zelizer writes this tragic story with authority. The historian has again proved his ability to make a dismal juncture in American politics into a lively and exceptional read. Zelizer gives Wright equal weight in the book, emphasizing just how impressive — and unnerving — it was that Gingrich successfully impugned the Democrats’ leader on thin evidence and set a precedent of governance that emphasized no-quarter blood sport over cooperation. Four decades later, the House still plays by the same rules.