The Speaker of the House finds himself in deep trouble this Christmas, which is no surprise for one whose whole career has been a series of near-death experiences. Between ethics charges and budget tantrums, he has become the greatest liability to the revolution he launched. More than half of all Americans disapprove of him, not least for actually doing what he said he would do if given the chance. Gingrich is suffering not only for what he has done, but also for how he did it. Without so much as a decent burial, he has killed the old order of American politics. No U.S. President, Democrat or Republican, is likely to propose spending more than the government earns, or expanding what it tries to do, for at least a generation.
That is why so many Democrats are retiring or defecting to the other side. It's not just that government isn't fun or noble anymore. It's that their brand of politics is defeated, and won't be revived in their lifetime. President Clinton has accepted terms that would have seemed like political suicide even a year ago: a balanced budget in seven years and a brake on entitlement spending. All that's left are the ugly details.
The qualities that brought Gingrich this far are also the ones that are bringing him down: militance, arrogance and a lot of nerve. The year has shown him at his very best and his very worst. His discipline in pursuing his grand design revealed a level of political talent that few people outside his inner circle ever imagined he had. To wield that kind of power from the House required that he transform a weak, discredited institution into a humming legislative engine that could tow the Senate and White House behind it. He did it with such focus and shrewdness that even his opponents were perversely grateful. The House had been broken, and someone finally fixed it.
But sometimes he forgot who he had become. Under pressure he reverted to the pompous thug of late-night cable, the backbencher lobbing grenades on C-SPAN about sick Democrats who were enemies of normal Americans. He was new on the job. And the job, as he reshaped it, was new too. He didn't realize his every remark would now be measured for maturity, not ferocity. He didn't realize that once a battle is won, it's time to move graciously to the peace table. "I keep forgetting that all the ground rules have changed," he told Time last week. "I have consistently, all year, said things that made no sense for the Speaker of the House."
And now the voters seem to agree. In the past 12 months, his unfavorable rating has shot up from 29% to 56%. Now that they've gotten to know him better, they can see why he was called in the Washington Post "the most disliked member of Congress." They've learned how far he is willing to go to achieve his larger goals: shut the government down to make a point with the President; invite lobbyists not just to lobby, but to draft the laws themselves; and give a huge tax break to his party's allies at the expense of services for the poor, with the explanation that this is what it takes to keep his Republican coalition together.
If Gingrich and his closest disciples feel one great disappointment about the year, it's that the whole messy, historic budget fight has consumed so much of the energy he had hoped to spend renewing American civilization. The merry cybernaut wants a new moral order, not just a new political one, in which the poor will find their salvation on the Internet and private charities will succeed where government bureaucracies have failed. However great Newt's achievement in political terms, it was not enough for people who talked in terms of rearranging the moon and planets, and saw in Newt the chance for galactic change.
GINGRICH HAS SPENT HIS LIFE--not just his adult life, but his entire life since grade school--believing that destiny had saved a seat for him. To explain why an unlikable man could carry out such an unlikely ambition, it helps to understand some skills and obsessions that were planted very early. They had a long time to ripen.
According to his mother, his first taste of politics came when his father, Newt McPherson, made a deal: if he didn't have to pay child support anymore, he would waive his parental rights and let young Newt's stepfather Bob Gingrich adopt the boy. Newt's own legal parentage was thus the product of a budget deal. The adults around him were never very respectful of authority or convention. He shared a room until he was nine with a free-spirited grandmother, who had a romance late in life with a mysterious government agent and taught Newt to read and write before he even started school. With an IQ of 124 by third grade, he did well only in the subjects that interested him.
His father was a combat-hardened Army lieutenant colonel whose soldiers called him "Stoneface," who spoke three languages and served as an intelligence officer, but was passed over for full colonel twice because he didn't hide his contempt for incompetent superiors. His mother was the gentle buddy who sometimes let her kids stay home from school just to be with mom, but would hide them in the closet at lunchtime when Bob came home so he wouldn't get angry. Newt never openly challenged his father's strict rules. He just ignored them.
Newt's early proposals revealed the Gingrich paradigm: civic progress on a tight budget. One day when he was 10, he told his mother he was going to the library and instead took a bus to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to lobby city and state officials about building a zoo. He pressed his cause for the next two years, with arguments that echo eerily 40 years later. "A few minutes' conversation with Newton leaves an awed adult with a flying start toward an inferiority complex," reporter Jace Bennett wrote in the Harrisburg Evening News. "Don't you know an African lion costs only $250. And it's easily gotten!" argued the boy crusader. "We wouldn't even have to start out with the more expensive animals. And we wouldn't have to start with animals that need houses, like reptiles, birds or some mammals that can't stand heat." Newt estimated daily operating costs at $150. "Everything would be easy if we had a committee," he exhorted the town fathers. The zoo never got built, but Newt had made the newspapers and decided he was "hooked forever on public life."
From the age of 10 on, Gingrich lived the wandering life of an Army brat, learning early to form only those attachments that could travel with him. Other children, no surprise, found him rather strange, and he quickly stopped trying to prove otherwise. He found books more reliable than friends, particularly tales of men who brought old empires crashing down and built new ones in their place. Everyone from Ataturk to the Duke of Wellington, Abraham Lincoln to Father Flanagan, figures somewhere in his pantheon. If people don't like him, if they mock his aspirations or despise his principles, he doesn't much care--as long as they read about him one day.
Gingrich doesn't have much use for theories about his choice to pursue so much power in life. "You're trying to find a psychological compulsion for what in fact was simply a decision," he says. "The decision's not complicated. The world is real. Some people should do what they can to protect us. I am one of those." Whatever happens to Gingrich, it will take years to undo what he has done in months: grinding down the Congress into a precision instrument of his personal power. And he has only begun. He wants a multivolume biography.
THE GREATER GOOD
Gingrich marshals his forces in a completely new way: by offering his colleagues glory instead of goodies. It was near midnight on the night of Aug. 3 when Gingrich faced the prospect of watching the revolution he had plotted for 20 years stall before his eyes. The measure he was pushing through the House was a crucial 1996 spending bill designed to slice everything from summer-jobs programs to home-heating assistance. But in the byzantine way Congress packages its legislation, the bill had become laden with several measures involving abortion, the rare issue where principle promised to trump politics.
All year long, Gingrich had been able to hold together his Republican troops, especially the faithful freshmen, largely by arguing that their unity was their best weapon if they were out to conquer the capital. But for many members, there is no larger mission than the assault on abortion rights. Members were growing tired of going along with the Speaker; they were suffering, as majority leader Dick Armey put it, from "greater-good fatigue." They drew the line that night, after 26 hours of floor debate, as the House moved toward a vote on the spending bill. Newt's high command knew it didn't look good. By majority whip Tom DeLay's count, the Republican leadership had started the day fully 80 votes short of a majority; now, with precious time ticking away, Gingrich still needed at least 10 votes.
It was, in the words of DeLay aide John Feehery, "come-to-Jesus time." This would be the final bill before the House adjourned for its month-long August recess. A defeat, in Gingrich's eyes, meant that the budget battles scheduled for the fall would suddenly be much, much harder. At such a moment as this, a traditional Speaker might have reached into his pocket and pulled out a water project here, an Air Force base there to secure the last votes he needed. But Gingrich has little in common with his predecessors; he has never even chaired a committee in Congress, where he might have learned the brokerage business. And anyway the sticking point was abortion; neither side could be bought off. The conservatives had added three antiabortion amendments to the bill in committee; the moderates had responded by insisting on two of their own, restoring federal money for family planning programs and requiring states to provide funding for low-income women's abortions in cases of rape or incest.
Around 9 that evening, two dozen members of the antiabortion Family Caucus had taken the question to a higher authority. They retreated to the Tip O'Neill room, where they usually held their weekly Bible class, and took turns reading Scripture and praying, sometimes holding hands. They finally told their leaders they would go along with the family-planning money and vote for the bill. Now Gingrich needed the moderates to cede ground over the rape and incest question. "This is a time when the American people are looking at what we are doing," he told them. Did they want to go home losers?
What's more, he told them, several vulnerable freshmen who opposed the bill had privately offered to switch their votes if it were necessary. Did these moderates, most of whom enjoyed relatively safe seats, want to put the freshmen's survival on the line over this?
"I ended up voting for a bill that I didn't like," said New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert, "and I did so because of the Speaker." The bill passed, 219 to 208.
Gingrich called the moment "mystical, magical." More than any of his early wins, the romp through the first 100 days, the votes on tax cuts and regulatory reform, this one was hard, a truer measure of whether the new ecosystem he had created in the House would actually work the way he planned. "You can't, in a free society, postpone permanently major arguments," he says, " and the job of leadership is to manage it." That night he erased decades of habit in the House: the habits that members are more loyal to their supporters than to their Speaker, that the real work of Congress amounted to the horse trading of small favors in the committee room, that freshmen in Congress are about as powerful as the doorkeepers, that the House is where bold schemes come to die.
In the areas of his greatest success, it was Newt the professor at work, a careful student of power who recognized that if he hoped to change the world, he would need to change the Congress first. His problem was that the House was never intended to be very powerful; the Founding Fathers designed a legislative body that could boil over with parochial passions, only to be cooled by the sober Senate. Senators can filibuster; Presidents can veto. All the Speaker can do is create the appearance of momentum so that the rest of the government will get out of the way.
When Gingrich arrived in the House in 1979, he could see that the Republicans were a sorry lot, sorely in need of inspiration if they were ever to find their way out of the wilderness. The old minority leader, the sweetly irrelevant Bob Michel of Illinois, would greet freshly elected G.O.P. members with the revelation that "every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say to myself, 'Today you're going to be a loser.' And after you're here a while, you'll start to feel the same way. But don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it."
Gingrich refused to get used to it, and instead spent 10 full years methodically recruiting and training his own private army. "He was willing to go in and help these candidates that other people wouldn't touch," says conservative guru Paul Weyrich. "When they came here, who was it that they knew? Gingrich was their leader." Once he became Speaker, they supported all the House restructuring he proposed, not least because it gave them a more central role than any generation of congressional arrivistes in modern history.
Gingrich and the newcomers agreed that the gravest threat to the revolution came from the committee chairs. Even with Republicans in control, Gingrich's agenda could easily have been buried by chairmen who were damn well going to exercise the power they had finally won. So he scrapped the seniority system, to install as chairmen members who had proved their fealty, and then he packed the key committees with his acolytes, to make sure the chairmen behaved. He even required all members of the Appropriations Committee to sign an oath of loyalty to the Contract with America as a condition of serving. And he abolished three committees and 25 subcommittees and sliced staffs by a third, which made it harder for rivals to create their own mini-empires.
At first the system he installed worked wondrously. To much ridicule and skepticism, Gingrich had promised to bring to a vote the 10 items in the Contract during the first 100 days. By that deadline he had actually rammed through everything, with the single exception of term limits. On the few occasions when the freshmen rebelled--as when they pressed for campaign-finance reform--he shut them down with a promise to do it next year. Likewise they had vowed not to rest until they had killed at least three Cabinet agencies, but they are going home for Christmas without even the easiest mark, the Commerce Department, as a trophy. Those will come next year too.
The same tactics worked on allies outside the House, particularly the lobbyists who had bankrolled the revolution and expected to be rewarded for it. The National Rifle Association, for instance, contributed $1,442,519 to Republicans in the last election cycle. But when they pushed last spring for an early repeal of the assault-weapons ban, Gingrich put them off, explaining that he needed to build more momentum to create the impression of power.
By carefully choosing his fields of battle, Gingrich gained enormous leverage over the Senate and the White House. And when necessary, he could still use the freshmen in a good cop--bad cop routine. Early this fall, when Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich were haggling about the budget over the phone, the President told one of his aides that the Speaker wasn't the problem in reaching a deal. "It's not Newt," the President said. "It's all those freshmen he's got to worry about."
LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP
ALONG THE WAY, GINGRICH was learning some handy lessons. One was the value of setting the bar high, in the belief that it's sometimes easier to do the impossible than the merely improbable. This was especially true about his insistence on balancing the budget in seven years, when conventional wisdom held that no politician had the stomach to balance it at all.
The idea was born last winter, when most of his troops were still digging in for the first 100 days. Gingrich was already worrying about maintaining momentum. So he invited small groups of CEOS--including Jack Welch of General Electric, Jack Smith from General Motors and the Business Roundtable chairman John Snow of CSX--to dinner in a first-floor dining room in the Capitol. The executives had all presided over major downsizing in their companies, and all drew the same lesson when the bloodbath was over: they wished they had done more.
At the time, House leaders were talking vaguely about a "glide path" toward a balanced budget in seven years. To Budget chairman John Kasich, that meant passing the normal five-year budget in a form that would simply make credible the idea of wiping out the deficit two years later. When Gingrich suddenly announced in late January that the Republicans would offer a seven-year plan to bring the deficit down to zero, Kasich was stunned. He was, after all, the guy who had to make the numbers add up.
He confronted the Speaker at a meeting of the high command: "Where is it in stone that we have to balance the budget in seven years?" The Speaker replied, "Let's put it to a vote. Who wants to put it in stone?" Everyone in the room raised his hand--except Kasich. Senate Republicans, though queasy at the idea, eventually accepted the goal as well, and the script for the rest of 1995 was written.
Gingrich also learned the value of sleeping with the enemy. The strategy worked best on what would prove to be the riskiest undertaking of all, the Republican plan to restrain the growth of Medicare. Gingrich had watched as Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care plan died its miserable death. His own proposal, which depends on shifting millions of seniors into managed-care programs, bears enough resemblance to Clinton's that he knew he had to be very careful. And, indeed, even as the Republicans were working on their plan, the lobby working on behalf of for-profit hospitals was preparing to spend millions on attack ads. They built the poster boards and met with the ad agencies. "We probably could have put ads out in a week," says hospital lobbyist Tom Scully. But they never went on the air, despite the fact that hospitals would take one of the largest hits--roughly $100 billion out of the $270 billion savings. Other health groups held their fire as well.
That's because in endless meetings, Gingrich graciously solicited their ideas, and even accepted some of them. But he also made clear that a bill was inevitable, that the numbers would be huge, and that they stood to suffer far more by opposing it and being frozen out than by playing along. The hospital executives were amazed by Gingrich's mastery of numbing issues like reimbursement formulas. And they were delighted by his willingness to buy them off. He protected doctors' fees and won the endorsement of the American Medical Association. He satisfied the American Association of Retired Persons by staving off a proposal to raise co-payments and deductibles for people who stayed in the traditional fee-for-service plan. When White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta finally convened a meeting of health lobbyists at the White House to beg them to mount a late offensive, one bluntly told him that his opportunity had passed: "We've been meeting with Gingrich every two days. They were the only game in town."
The Democrats are no slouches when it comes to keeping lobbyists happy, but in Gingrich's Congress the most powerful interests are acting as honorary members. As the head of GOPAC, the Republican political action committee he led from 1986 until last May, he studied the ways and means of campaign cash flow as assiduously as he plotted the G.O.P. victory in Congress. With his party now in power, Gingrich's new goal was to give his permanent revolution a permanent fund-raising machine, each part of which would be overseen by a lieutenant.
That machine has perfected the art of the shakedown. Whip Tom DeLay of Texas actually keeps a book in his office listing how much the 400 largest special-interest pacs gave to either party in the past two years and makes sure contributors to the Democrats are marked down in his book as "unfriendly." Representative John Boehner of Ohio is in charge of orchestrating how interest-group lobbyists can raise cash to promote the Contract. What do the lobbyists get in return? Awe-inspiring access to the legislative process, including the right to write the bills themselves, like the one passed last February that imposed a 13-month moratorium on federal regulations. During floor debate, the Gucci set stood close by, typing out on their laptop computers the talking points that Republican leaders would use on the floor. Gingrich's money operation is now purring: during the first six months of this year House Republicans received nearly 60% of the campaign contributions given by the top 400 pacs. Last year Democrats got two-thirds of such contributions.
"My strength and my weakness," gingrich says, "is that I see normally impersonal events vividly and personally." Conviction and charisma helped him transform the House and press his agenda, but ego and hubris produced the major miscalculations. If the months leading up to the August break were played on offense, the fall was full of fumbles. For the first time, Gingrich had to close a deal, to bargain with someone whose interests were at odds with his own. He learned the hard way that this stage of the game, the stage at which Bob Dole is the unchallenged master, was not his strength. Nor was he entirely suited to the housekeeping details his new job entailed. By autumn, he had fallen months behind on basic House assignments, like passing the 13 regular spending bills on time. When his Democratic foil Barney Frank is asked to assess Gingrich's performance this year, he says, "I am very pleasantly surprised. He's been much worse than I expected."
Before the August recess, Gingrich drilled his troops on how to sell his yet-to-be-unveiled plan to "save Medicare," loading them down with packets full of talking points, charts and graphs. But when work resumed in the fall, the Democrats suddenly rose from the dead and struck back with a lethal message. The Medicare rescue, they charged, was actually just a way to give a tax break to the rich by robbing from the old. Gingrich had known all along that $245 billion in tax cuts over seven years would be hard to explain and easy to attack. But he didn't think he had any choice. "The tax cut is the glue that holds together the coalition that balances the budget," he explained later.
In defending the tax cuts as well as the drastic spending cuts, he had lost control of the high-road message he had so carefully crafted on Medicare. He had planned to make his case in a splashy September speech, but ended up canceling it, partly in deference to the sensibilities of the Senate, an august body that did not like anyone thinking it marched to the beat of mere House members. So instead of launching his fall campaign on high principles, he immediately found himself bickering over details--none of which was particularly pretty.
The greatest blunder, the ultimate example of Gingrich making a personal moment out of an impersonal one, came with the government shutdown. He could have stuck to his argument that the ordeal was necessary because what he was trying to do was so bold, so historic that the country should come to a halt and reflect on the choices before it. Instead, he said he was peeved about his treatment on Air Force One.
Thrown back on the defensive, the Republican leadership began to whine in public and despair in private. On the first day of the shutdown, the recriminations were flying. As Gingrich convened his regular 9:30 a.m. meeting with his leadership, he offered a proposal. It was essential that they restore some discipline and get back "on message." So he declared that henceforth anyone caught calling the budget legislation by its technical name, "reconciliation," would be fined $1. Instead, they were to refer to it in the future as "The Balanced Budget Act of 1995." Everyone caught on quickly to the rule. Everyone, that is, except the Speaker. By the end of the day, he was down $20.
It didn't help that the Speaker was running ragged. There was very little time left in his day for eating and sleeping and getting his shirts pressed. During the government shutdown, the Senate barbershop was deemed nonessential, so Gingrich had to duck into Bubbles, one of those high-volume, walk-in chains that has a shop up the street from the Capitol. He would turn up at the office with a load of dirty shirts under his arm and pay someone to take them to the cleaners. His lunch typically reflected his fortunes: on a good day he stuck with vegetables; when he needed a lift, it was cheeseburgers, Fritos and frozen yogurt. But no matter how busy things got, he called his mother-in-law Virginia Ginther in Leetonia, Ohio, at least once a week. The week of the Air Force One ruckus, she says, "I told him, 'Just don't say anything.' And he admitted that it might help to try and just keep his mouth shut."
A MILITARY CAMPAIGN
GINGRICH was always obsessed with military strategy, which means he absorbed the lesson about generals who were so burdened by past failures that they tried to re-fight the old war and lost. As a futurist, Gingrich would prefer to fight the next war and win--and the best way to do that is by constant, brazen overreaching.
Even in high school he talked about what it would take to break the Democrats' headlock on Congress. He was the guy who always wore a tie to class in the 1960s. He became a professor in order to become a politician, which is why he did none of the things successful professors are supposed to do, like publish, and instead spent his time running for Congress. When he eventually became a Representative, he did none of the things lawmakers are supposed to do, like make laws, and instead used his seat to unseat the Democrats. Rather than obey his elders as Republican minority whip, he rebelled against his party and President and denounced the tax-raising 1990 budget deal, in the belief that the mutiny would eventually pay off at the polls. Every time, he invited scorn and political-death threats; every time, he turned out to be a step ahead of everyone else.
On Dec. 5, 1994, when the whole, ruthless, breathtaking strategy finally paid off, and the Republicans nominated him to become the first Republican Speaker in more than four decades, Gingrich made a phone call. At 8:20, he dialed a number in Dauphin, a quaint Pennsylvania Dutch village just north of Harrisburg, where he reached Robert Gingrich. "I want to thank you for being an influence in my life," the new Speaker said over the phone, his voice choking. "You had a great deal to do with me being where I am today."
Bob Gingrich listened, stunned. In 48 years, Newt had never talked to him like that. "We had a very distant relationship," Newt says. "It's the first time I'd ever talked to him emotionally."
For a while Bob considered skipping his son's inauguration as Speaker; Why go, when he could watch it on TV? When he did turn up for Newt's triumphal speech, the crowd in the House chamber rose again and again to its feet--while Bob stayed clamped in his seat, chin in hand. "After the third standing ovation," Bob Gingrich said later, "it gets a little old."
As stern as he was, Bob came to embrace a wounded mother and her young son. Kit was 16 when she fell for a tall, strapping 18-year-old named Newt McPherson. They got married on Sept. 12, 1942. The day after the wedding, Kit knew she had made a mistake. She says that one morning when she tried to wake McPherson for work, after he had stayed out drinking the night before, he struck her. She left immediately; the couple broke up within days after the marriage. But Kit was already pregnant. On June 17, 1943, almost nine months to the day after they were married, her baby was born and she named him Newton after her estranged husband.
Bob Gingrich was, his children say, a hard man to talk to and a harder one to please. Bob led his military units and his family by example, not endearment. "We were all terrified of my father," Susan recalls. "It was very clear that he was the head of the household, and his word was final." When he learned by mail while in Vietnam that Susan was smoking as a teenager, he wrote back and told her to stop. From then on she never even thought of sneaking a cigarette. "Newtie," as his mother calls him to this day, was the kind of "nonreg" kid, Bob would admit later, that he would have transferred out of his unit in a heartbeat.
Bob married Kit when Newt was three and adopted him as his son. He spent the next 16 years trying to tame him; Newt spent those years trying to get his father's attention. Bob was a Democrat; Newt, from childhood, a Republican. Bob was a disciplinarian; Newt, a rebel. Once when Bob was stationed in Orleans, France, he was awakened at 5 a.m. by some MPs, who had caught young Newt hitchhiking. Newt's first love, a girl named Jeannette, had just broken up with him, and he wanted to go plead with her to take him back. Furious, Gingrich's father grabbed him by the shoulders and hung him up on a wall hook. "Don't you ever scare your mother like that again!" he raged. Gingrich got the message: It's pretty hard to be aggressive with your feet a few inches off the floor.
But it was a trip they took together that Gingrich claims changed his life forever. It occurred when he was 14 and went with his father to the World War I battlefield of Verdun, France. They wandered the fields, scene of ghastly sacrifice, with its solemn tombs for soldiers from each country, and then slipped into the ossuary. But there were private stairs leading down to a basement, walled off by glass windows that had been painted black to hide what was inside. The paint had peeled, so they decided to take a peek.
What they saw was horrifying. Rib cages, skulls, long bones, all piled high in a huge mound. The two walked silently back up the steps. "That was where he really got his political aspiration," says Bob. "He vowed to do everything he could to see that this never happened again."
That revelation might have inspired him to follow in Bob's military footsteps, but Newt had flat feet and bad eyesight (nowadays he wears contact lenses). He would probably never have made it into the service, and by the time of Vietnam he was a full-time graduate student and the father of two. Besides, he had already set his heart on politics, a path requiring less self-control, a quality he lacked, but great self-confidence, which he had in abundance.
That path too was scouted during that famous field trip. After visiting the battlefield, Newt and his father went downtown, where he saw bomb damage that he assumed was from World War II. He was appalled to learn that it was from 1916, which was 42 years before. "Three times my lifetime ago, people had damaged that town," he marveled, "and they still hadn't found the energy or the resources to fix it."
When Bob Gingrich rotated back to Fort Benning, Georgia, Newt attended Baker High School in nearby Columbus. He quickly earned a reputation as brainy and eccentric. At Baker High, he emceed the school talent show, rattling off a string of corny jokes. The kids started booing. But he stayed cocky. If they didn't like a joke, throw money, he told the audience. He walked off the stage with $19. Newt was voted "Most Intellectual" in his senior class. In the high school yearbook, the quote under his picture read "Specialization may produce success, but greatness is acquired only through generalization."
His crushing break with his father came when he was a sophomore at Emory. Gingrich announced to his stunned family that he wanted to get married--to his high school math teacher, Jacqueline Battley. The unconventional relationship had stayed very quiet, but Newt's sisters knew this was no ordinary schoolboy crush. "Jackie was someone he could talk with, who could see his visions," says Newt's sister Roberta. But Bob was adamantly opposed to a wedding. Bob had never become a doctor because he had to work long hours as a bartender to support his family while going to college. He didn't want Newt stalled with such burdens.
Newt and Jackie got married anyway; Bob refused to go to the wedding and forced the rest of the family to choose: no one went. For years to come, the family followed Newt's progress at a distance as he went through undergraduate and graduate school and then a teaching post at West Georgia College. Bob later admitted that at the time he didn't know his son had run for Congress twice and lost.
GINGRICH was always clear about his academic ambitions: he had none. "The standard back then was to be interested in history and not anything else--not even your wife and kids," says Pierre-Henri Laurent, who supervised Gingrich's dissertation at Tulane. "This kid was deviant--he was talking about going into politics." When Laurent offered to help him get a good first teaching job, Gingrich told him not to bother. "He said, 'Don't worry, I'm close to getting something at West Georgia College.' 'West Georgia College,' I said. 'What is this?' He said, 'The congressional district--it's an interesting area.'"
Gingrich proceeded to offer a detailed analysis of Georgia's Sixth Congressional District, its demographics, how it divided between suburban and rural areas and why he had a shot at getting elected. True, the G.O.P. in Georgia barely existed. But Gingrich, as ever, was looking ahead, and saw an opportunity. After all, there was no powerful Republican establishment to screen out a presumptuous junior professor who was in a hurry to get to Congress and didn't want to waste time doing favors for party elders.
These were, as he might say, fluid years for Gingrich. As a student and, later, professor, Gingrich was no conservative firebrand; at Tulane, he admits, he smoked pot; protested the Administration's decision to censor a photo of a nude sculpture in the school newspaper, the Hullabaloo; and generally maintained a high profile as a Rockefeller Republican, serving as the Louisiana coordinator of that campaign in 1968. At West Georgia he started the environmental-studies program, an outpost on the lefty fringes of academia.
His fellow professors had nicknamed him Mr. Truth. Any time Gingrich finished reading a new book, recalls his mentor and friend, history professor Floyd Hoskins, he would come flying into the history department, brandishing the volume and declaring, "This book is THE TRUTH! It's the BEST BOOK I EVER READ!"
He was by all accounts the kind of popular, high-energy teacher who could get kids to come to a 7 a.m. class. He took his class canoeing in the Okefenokee Swamp or on field trips to Copper Hill, which he called "a famous industrial-pollution site in Chattanooga." Gingrich's effort to build such a large student following had a pragmatic side to it--a number of his students eventually became the ground troops in his campaigns for Congress.
Gingrich saw his big opening in 1974, when he challenged Sixth District Congressman Jack Flynt, a silver-haired, small-town patrician, very much part of the Democratic establishment. Flynt was no raving segregationist, but unlike Gingrich, he declined to talk racial justice, the environment and other populist themes. In this situation, Gingrich, with his bushy black hair, sideburns and citrus-colored double knits, came off to most people as the more liberal of the pair. He charged that Flynt was in cahoots with the lobbyists. One Gingrich campaign piece proclaimed, "Newt Gingrich ... his special interest is you!" In 1974 the Atlanta Constitution endorsed Gingrich because he seemed more progressive.
The fact that he lost that race did not stop him from thinking about what he would do once he won. In December 1975 Gingrich sat in the front row of a conference room at the Marc Plaza hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for Paul Weyrich's class on how to run a winning campaign. Weyrich would become Gingrich's political godfather; he was the founder of net-Political NewsTalk Television and the guru of the New Right. Weyrich quickly saw in Newt a useful if somewhat comic instrument to achieve his ends. Though Weyrich was in charge, Newt quickly took over the meeting. Voice chiming, arms waving, Gingrich "began to lecture me about how we should run as a team," Weyrich recalls, "and how all of the people that were there, if they all ran with the same theme, they would be far better off than if they ran singly, and that it was my responsibility to put together a theme for all of these candidates." Almost 20 years later, that strategy produced the Contract with America. At the time, all Weyrich remembers thinking was, "Where did you come from?"
Gingrich lost again to Flynt in 1976, but then Gentleman Jack retired, and in 1978 Gingrich faced state senator Virginia Shapard. It was that race, local observers say, that first marked the hard shift to the right and the acid attacks that would distinguish Gingrich for years to come. Having run as the moderate against Flynt, he tacked right to condemn Shapard for planning to split up her family by commuting to Washington, leaving her husband and children behind with a nanny. Gingrich's slogan: "When elected, Newt will keep his family together."
It was a campaign promise quickly broken. A year and a half into his first term, he demanded a divorce from Jackie. By now the story has become a part of the Gingrich legend that he would just as soon erase. She was in the hospital, the day after surgery for uterine cancer, when he appeared and proceeded to discuss the terms of separation. "I don't think he saw anything wrong with it," says Jim Wood, who challenged Gingrich in 1982. "I guess that's just what infuriated people." Six months after the divorce, Gingrich married Marianne, whom he met at a political fund raiser in Ohio. She would become his confidant, sounding board and reality check.
THE BOMB THROWER
NEWT GINGRICH ARRIVED IN WASHINGTON without a hint of backbencher's humility. His nickname in Congress was Newtron; he made it plain that he wanted to clear out the Congress and leave only the building standing. The fact that few took him seriously actually gave him some room to maneuver. Gingrich quickly joined forces with fellow apostates like Bob Walker of Pennsylvania and Vin Weber of Minnesota to form the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of Republican lawmakers who sought an antidote to the Liberal Welfare State. They claimed the mantle of Ronald Reagan, but in the view of colleagues from both parties, the Conservative Opportunity Society was a noisy, buffoonish fraternity of outcasts and troublemakers.
After so many years in exile the Republicans were at the mercy of a system rigged by their enemies. They calculated that even when G.O.P. candidates captured 47% of the total U.S. vote, they won only 40% of the seats because of gerrymandered districts; Democrats then grudgingly offered them only 35% of the committee seats and 17% of the committee staff. The best a Republican Representative could hope was that if he went along most of the time without making too big a fuss, some Democratic committee chairman might occasionally feel generous and throw a few dollars to his district.
What the newcomers saw was the Stockholm syndrome at work, as the Republicans began to identify with their long-time captors. By its sheer existence, the obnoxious COS was threatening that cozy arrangement. Senior Republicans took newly elected ones aside and counseled that if they wanted to have any future in the House, they would do well to avoid the cos crowd. Time and again, Newt was told by his elders to sit down, shut up, quit making a fool of himself and the institution. But on he went.
Gingrich did not chair the Conservative Opportunity meetings, but he was the idea man, never showing up without a memo to distribute. The society wanted to finish the unfinished Reagan Revolution. Reagan had succeeded in taming the Soviet threat but had left the hated welfare state intact because the G.O.P. was unwilling to mud-wrestle the Democrats. In a 1986 interview with National Journal, Gingrich spoke of Reagan as a sort of John the Baptist figure, "the brilliant articulator of a vision that will take a generation to sort out."
While they had few sympathizers in the House, Gingrich and the COS were developing an audience outside it. The happiest coincidence of Gingrich's political career is the fact that he and the TV cameras arrived in that chamber the same year. In those days, the brightest and most ambitious in Congress made their reputations in the hearing rooms, by developing an expertise on one important issue. But exiled to such legislative backwaters as House Administration and the Joint Library Committee, Gingrich was never going to leave much of a mark that way. While most members avoided the House floor for all but votes, Gingrich and the COS seemed to live there. At night, for interminable hours after official business was done, they would rail on with only the weary doorkeepers there to hear them. Thanks to rules that kept the cameras fixed on the person who was doing the talking, millions of viewers had no idea that the orators were addressing a huge chamber full of empty leather seats.
Finally, an exasperated Speaker Tip O'Neill decided to call their bluff and order the cameras to pan the chamber. It amounted to a declaration of war, ultimately leading to an infamous 1984 showdown. O'Neill referred to one of Gingrich's antics as "the lowest thing I've seen in my 32 years in Congress." Whereupon Gingrich succeeded in having O'Neill formally disciplined for having made a personal criticism of a House member, Gingrich, on the floor. It was the first time a Speaker had been rebuked that way since the 1790s, and gleeful Republicans had television ads on the air within days. With that smirk that still drives the Democrats crazy, Gingrich announced: "I am now a famous person."
But that was just a momentary victory. It would take a little noticed defeat in the battle for a single congressional seat before most Republicans would begin to accept the unlikely and unliked Gingrich as their gladiator. The showdown came after the 1984 election, which left the result in Indiana's Eighth District too close to call. Incumbent Democrat Frank McCloskey had come out ahead in the initial balloting, but Republican challenger Richard McIntyre edged him out in two recounts. The House Democratic leadership ordered yet another count and put then Congressman Leon Panetta in charge of a three-member panel overseeing it. With two Democrats against a lone Republican, the minority party said they could predict the outcome, and they turned out to be right.
The fight was virtually ignored by the national press, but it would become the Republicans' Ruby Ridge--the kind of radicalizing event that would help elevate the party's most combative member to its leadership. Gingrich wrapped 30 years' worth of G.O.P. humiliation into this one dispute, comparing it at one point to the Holocaust. When the House voted along party lines to give the seat to McCloskey, Republicans walked out of the Chamber. Moments later they froze in disbelief as their leader, the affable Michel, returned and shook McCloskey's hand. "It validated Newt's thesis," Weber recalls. "The Democrats are corrupt, they are making us look like fools, and we are idiots to cooperate with them."
Gingrich is a man with a long memory; when he sits down these days to wrestle over the budget with Panetta, now White House chief of staff, that earlier showdown is never out of the Speaker's mind. "When Panetta stole the seat, we crossed a watershed," Gingrich says, "and we never returned." He ultimately got his revenge: McCloskey was a casualty of the 1994 Republican landslide.
Gingrich is now in a position to make himself the most powerful Speaker in modern history, largely because he succeeded in destroying another Speaker who had pursued the same ambition. In 1988 he took on Democrat Jim Wright, launching a yearlong ethics probe that ultimately brought Wright down. Gingrich's weapon of choice was always charges of corruption: by showing that the people who ran the system were venal, he could undermine the entire Democratic edifice. His favorite term for the House leadership: thugs. Wright, he flatly stated, was "the most corrupt Speaker in the 20th century," a man "so consumed by his own power that he is like Mussolini."
Gingrich needed to destroy Wright because they were after the same thing. Wright had begun to take the very steps Gingrich would take when he became Speaker: centralizing authority, reining in his committee chairmen, forcing discipline on unruly, self-interested Democrats. Even before Gingrich filed his initial ethics complaint, he told author John M. Barry that "if Wright survives this ethics thing, he may become the greatest Speaker since Henry Clay."
Against the advice of his Republican elders, Gingrich took on the fight. And by the time Wright resigned, House Republicans had elected Gingrich to their No. 2 post by a two-vote margin, carried by the faction that was tired of being beaten on every question and saw an opportunity to set a new, more activist agenda.
But there were many lawmakers who thought Gingrich was too flighty and volatile to be treated like a grownup. Paul Weyrich still sounds exasperated when he recalls Gingrich's early days: "The man had no organization; he was helter-skelter. Undisciplined. Unfocused, interesting, but not destined to accomplish much." Even as he was learning to be statesmanlike, to buckle down and count votes and hold his tongue when the circumstances required, he was working hard to recruit and train the G.O.P. troops who would eventually become his Republican Guard.
AS HE RAILED AT WRIGHT, PEOPLE OUTSIDE Washington were watching--especially aspiring G.O.P. politicians who shared Gingrich's view that the national party wasn't bothering to help its farm team. Gingrich was taking note of the aspirants too--often when no one else would. "When you are a candidate and you are out there struggling along in a difficult district, generally speaking, the party apparatus will not pay much attention to you," Weyrich says. "They only pay attention to the favored candidates who have a good chance to win."
All that changed in 1986, when Gingrich took over as general chairman of GOPAC, the machinery created in 1979 to help get Republicans into state and local office. He made himself available to G.O.P. candidates in weekly conference calls, mailing them his audiotapes and appearing in person in their districts. His coaching didn't just help them get elected; it also helped hone their message, so that Republican candidates all across the country would be hitting the same themes, with the same language, and creating an impression of a growing consensus in the party.
"We are on the way to becoming the Bell Labs of politics," he once declared. "The first thing you need at Bell Labs is a Thomas Edison, and the second thing you need is a real understanding of how you go from scientific theory to a marketable product." Divisive issues such as abortion were explicitly avoided; the focus was on strategy, not philosophy. Gingrich taught his acolytes "our rhythm and style," how to use his serrated language to cut their opponents; Democrats were to be described as traitors and with such adjectives as sick, corrupt and bizarre. Gingrich eventually became such a cult figure among young Republicans that supporters considered publishing a comic book with him as the hero fighting bureaucratic bloat.
In the long, happy sessions spent dreaming about what he would do when he was king, Gingrich put everything on the table. At one "ideas meeting" of GOPAC charter members, he suggested that the government should offer an $8 billion reward, tax-free, to the first private enterprise that could put people into lunar orbit. And he even tried selling it as a deficit-reduction strategy. "If they do it, they just pre-empted nasa's $140 billion program. We saved $132 billion," he said.
Within a year of becoming minority whip, Gingrich was already obsessed with the next job, which became clear when President Bush and congressional leaders met to hash out a deal to reduce the deficit by $500 billion over five years. This was the first time Gingrich was invited to sit with the grownups. If his goal had been to perform as a successful whip who rounds up the troops and keeps them in the party line, he would have used all his energy to support the deal Bush, Dole and minority leader Bob Michel worked out. But Gingrich had a different success in mind; faced with the devil's bargain of raising taxes to reduce the deficit, Gingrich declared war on his own party's President. In a stunning vote, 105 House Republicans sided with Gingrich to defeat the plan; only 71 voted with Bush. "I was astonished that they didn't understand we were the party of no taxes," Gingrich says. "I do think the actual fight was one of the saddest things I've ever been involved in."
The decision was certainly a gamble; he burned the President, the minority leader and many fellow lawmakers who took Gingrich's disloyalty as a sign that he was unfit for leadership. But by refusing to perform his role as whip he laid the foundation for a bigger prize. In one skirmish he had cast himself as a populist, antitax revolutionary and vanquished both the Democrats and the moderate Republicans who stood in his way.
The rebellion very nearly brought him down. In 1990 Gingrich held on to his seat by fewer than 1,000 votes out of 156,000 cast, after his opponent charged that he was more interested in playing God than in seeing to the care and feeding of his constituents. That brush with political death, it turns out, has produced an even more harrowing one. Some of the charges that are now ruining his holiday stem from that tight race. GOPAC was permitted by law to help only candidates for state and local offices, but documents filed by the Federal Election Commission charge that the lobby spent more than $250,000 in "Newt support" to help Gingrich hang onto his seat. Democrats have long claimed that Gingrich used GOPAC as his political piggy bank; the fec charges that GOPAC paid his American Express fees, lent him consultants for his campaign "to help Newt think" and urged its big donors to direct their money to the re-election effort.
Once he became Speaker, his adversaries began holding him to the same ethical standards he so righteously enforced as the House proctor. During his first months in the job, the Democrats hounded him for his lavish $4.5 million book deal with Rupert Murdoch, to the point that he settled for a $1 advance, plus royalties. By last spring there were no fewer than five ethics charges pending against him, and now the ethics committee has recommended bringing in outside counsel.
DREAMS OF GLORY
COMING ON THE HEELS OF GINGRICH'S BUDGET woes, the GOPAC fight has kept him on the defensive, a place he'd rather not linger. The next few weeks of budget summitry will require a tight focus and a strong stomach. The most immediate danger for Gingrich is that this extraordinary year will yield little concrete policy change--an outcome that Dole or Clinton could exploit in their presidential campaigns but one that could consign the Speaker to political limbo.
It was Gingrich himself who set the bar so high for everyone. Failing to clear it can only breed more of the cynicism that put Washington, and more particularly Congress, in such foul repute in the first place. As things stand now, mistrust is growing both among those who have yearned for Gingrich's revolution and among those it terrifies. "Everybody who thinks change will be bad for them is scared," says Gingrich loyalist Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. "Everybody who thinks change will be good for them doesn't believe it is going to happen."
One comfort may lie in the knowledge that for all the changes Gingrich has wrought and the controversy he has generated, neither Clinton nor Dole can afford to let him expire. A top Dole operative admitted last week that the Senate majority leader needs Newt around to play bad cop, to attack Clinton next year, while Dole poses as presidential, safely above the undisciplined, baby-boom fray. A critically wounded Newt can't perform that mission well. Once just a GOPAC mission, "Newt support" is now a G.O.P. imperative.
Gingrich needs Dole for his own reasons. He may not always trust the majority leader to bear the banner of the revolution. (He has called him "effective," though maybe not "comfortable" with it.) But that may not matter. What Gingrich needs is a Republican President, even a squishy one, to sign bills into law. He's already sketched the backdrop for the campaign. "When Bob Dole and Phil Gramm give a speech in New Hampshire, it's to a crowd of people who have Newt Gingrich's world view," says Norquist. If Dole wins, and Gingrich is still Speaker, it is hard to imagine the Republican President vetoing any major initiative that Congress sends to the White House.
As for Clinton, he needs Gingrich too. The Speaker has given the long embattled Commander in Chief his first effective foil since George Bush left the stage three years ago. Compared to Newt, Clinton can appear measured, careful with his words, disciplined in his behavior. Compared to Newt, Clinton looks like a wise elder, a steady commander of the armed forces. In that sense, Newt is Clinton's redemption, the man who made the President "relevant" again--and just when it started to count.
That dynamic is all the more surprising given the similarities between the two men. Born three years apart, each was the eldest child of a lively and worshipful mother; each tangled with a gruff stepfather. They both can produce elementary school teachers willing to testify that they each landed exactly where he always intended. Both are natural teachers, verbally promiscuous and deeply pragmatic. Both sacrificed everything for their public lives, but indulged themselves in their private lives: both are overeaters who tried pot and chased women. Neither served in Vietnam. And both own '67 Mustangs.
In the coming year, the two men will play out in full view their sibling rivalry. Even as the whole Medicare fight was unfolding and the government shutdown looming, Gingrich was already laying out a spring offensive. Among the next items on the agenda: privatization, immigration, crime, tax reform, affirmative action. But retrieving the excitement of the first 100 days may be beyond even his powers as ringleader. That's because Gingrich and company started with the part they all could agree on. There is a broad, consensual loathing among conservatives for the welfare state and its nurturing bureaucracy. So Gingrich had allies in the destruction of the old model: from the Christian right, the libertarians, the fiscal conservatives and the family-values groups. But when it comes time to build something in its place, the models are wildly different.
For his part, Gingrich dreams of steering America back to its idyllic past by way of the future, when every poor child will have an intact family, a safe neighborhood and a laptop. His faith rests in market forces and technology and private enterprise, which may soon put him at odds with his allies whose faith rests in God.
But while Gingrich may be on a collision course with his own coalition, he may yet rise to the occasion. He has a genius for seeing the wave coming and knowing just when to catch it. As the ultraconservative Weyrich notes with more than a little approval: "He has grown so much in the past few years. What he has learned, which is absolutely essential, is how to keep a diverse coalition together."
This raises the question, for a man always moving on to the next job, of which job he is moving toward now. Gingrich announced last month that he would not seek the presidency in 1996, which will give him more time to behave as though he has already won it. This is, after all, the first speaker to have his own bully pulpit, and bodyguards. "Would he be a good President?" muses conservative editor William Kristol. "I wouldn't have said so a year ago. I wasn't sure he had the right character or temperament to be President." But this year's performance, particularly as an executive of sorts, surprised Kristol. "On the bully-pulpit side of things, he's awfully good. He should be a little more disciplined and all, but he can sketch out the conservative vision more compellingly than probably anyone around."
His folks back home in Hummelstown are more skeptical. They're proud of their favorite son. But Mayor Alexander isn't sure about a statue, or even a street name, just yet. "Before we go blowing our horn, we want to see what his record is like after a couple of years," he says. "Not that I think anything would happen, but we want to be sure we don't regret what we do."