For the past two decades, Gingrich's life has been the U.S. Congress; leading it, he often said, was his lifelong dream. But the heady days of 1994, when he led a host of angry young Republicans to capture the House, soon gave way to the slogging, brutal government shutdown the next year. The Republicans appeared arrogant and inflexible; Gingrich's stock slipped while Bill Clinton's, incredibly, rose to new heights and stayed there. Still, Gingrich survived for years despite an anemic approval rating.
He was finally undone, notes TIME Washington correspondent Karen Tumulty, because he forgot that he was a legislator. "As much as people say he's been pushed and pulled by the moderates on one side and the conservatives on another, what did him in was that he never really functioned as Speaker of the House," she says. "He failed to get things done and give the party something to run on."
Resignation is Gingrich's version of magnanimity; to return in January to sulk among the rank-and-file would be more than humiliating for him -- it would be a crippling distraction for his beloved party. His successor -- whether the nuts-and-bolts negotiator Bob Livingston or an even darker horse like Texan Bill Archer (the insider's choice right now) -- will have some new cohorts in the GOP leadership and, most importantly, a fresh chance at recapturing the imagination of a cynical body politic. For all his failings, that was something Gingrich rarely failed to do.
Text of Gingrich's Statement
Text of Clinton's Statement