Book review: Julian Zelizer on the rise of Newt Gingrich

Julian Zelizer, Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, The Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party (Penguin, 2020)

Philip Wallach, for

The Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer (for whom I once had the privilege of serving as a research assistant) has, throughout his distinguished career, focused on the Congress of the late 20th century and its transformation—or, to be more precise, its spoilage. Zelizer brilliantly illuminated the career of Wilbur Mills, who as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee embodied the old-style, decentralized, collegial Congress, and whose scandalous fall heralded a new era. Zelizer then chronicled the dizzying reforms of the 1970s, emphasizing how many of those reforms had consequences that their champions failed to foresee.

So, although Zelizer has turned his attention to presidents as much as Congress in recent years, his latest book on the rise of Newt Gingrich fits neatly into his canon. In Burning Down the House, he argues that we can pinpoint the moment when things went wrong for Congress, and it is Newt Gingrich’s frenzied, successful campaign to oust Speaker of the House Jim Wright in 1989.

Zelizer does not like Gingrich, not one little bit, and he seldom misses a chance to note Newt’s arrogance.  But he is somewhat in awe of the former Speaker’s abilities, and especially his feel for the media environment of the 1980s; he thinks Gingrich’s “contributions as a partisan tactician were far more important than anything he did in terms of policy,” and indeed were decisive in reorienting the whole culture of Congress. Zelizer accepts Wright’s retrospective judgment that Gingrich was a second coming of Senator Joseph McCarthy—but where McCarthy’s style was repudiated by his party, Gingrich’s was triumphant, coloring Republicans’ self-conception all the way down through the election of Donald Trump. Gingrich ought to bear the responsibility for his terrible triumph, in which “the dark id of democratic politics triumphed.”

There is a great deal to admire about Burning Down the House. Even after recently reading (and reviewing) a new biography of Speaker Wright, I learned a tremendous amount from Zelizer’s book, which is based on extensive archival research and interviews. Zelizer is a master storyteller, and this is now probably the best account of the growth of partisan enmity during the years of Wright’s Speakership (1987-1989), which are the central focus of the book. The book is especially effective in conveying how Wright received one gut punch after another in 1989, causing him to lose the respect and loyalty of his Democratic colleagues with startling rapidity. It gives a terrific portrait of the proceedings before the House Ethics Committee, painting special counsel Richard Phelan as a Svengali who saw how to convict Wright in the court of public opinion regardless of whether he had run afoul of the rules.

And so, for anyone interested in this period or in recent congressional developments, I unreservedly recommend Burning Down the House. That said, I find much to dispute in the book’s big picture interpretations. In a way, I think Zelizer gives Gingrich more credit than he deserves.

Why Did Wright Go Wrong?

First, while Burning Down the House makes it clear enough why Republicans, and Gingrich in particular, would want to drive Wright from his position, it makes it seem as though Democrats’ decision to abandon him was capricious, unfair, and ultimately disastrous for their party. Indeed, Zelizer concludes that Democrats “sacrificed their troubled leader for the short-term benefits his removal might provide,” stupidly attempting to quiet Gingrich by giving in to his demand. Zelizer clearly thinks they should have known that once you’ve paid the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane. 

Zelizer is convinced that it couldn’t really have been the corruption charges that led Democrats to forsake Wright, and on that front his case is quite plausible. The book works through the corruption charges leveled against Wright in great detail, and comes away rather unimpressed, sometimes by their seriousness and sometimes by their veracity. The lone exception is Wright’s employment and defense of John Mack, who by the mid-1980s was Wright’s right-hand man. Mack had come to Wright’s staff on the bottom rung and worked his way up. What became a scandal, though not part of the formal ethics charges, was that Mack had brutally assaulted a young woman in 1973 and subsequently received a quick parole thanks in part to Wright’s intervention on his behalf. Wright, in Zelizer’s telling, was the victim of bad luck and also his cold-fish demeanor, which made it hard for him to secure deep personal loyalty.

The aforementioned biography of Wright, by J. Brooks Flippen, makes Democrats’ abandonment of Wright much less mystifying. Flippen agrees with Zelizer that it wasn’t really the corruption charges in their own right that did Wright in. Rather, he explains that it was the Speaker’s imperiousness and arrogance in dealing with his own caucus that doomed him, rather than just bad luck or lack of cuddliness. Wright “dictated more than he consulted,” and generally never let his colleagues forget who was boss, imposing arbitrary deadlines and limits on debate. He justified this behavior by saying that he delivered on policy results, but apparently his colleagues believed they could achieve similar results under a less high-handed Tom Foley Speakership. Democrats may have underestimated the costs of ousting Wright, but Zelizer doesn’t make it clear enough that many of them felt they had something to gain.

Why Did Gingrich Triumph?

The flip-side of Wright’s fall is Gingrich’s rise. Why did the Georgian ex-professor become the focal figure for the new breed of conservatism, and why was he ultimately able to put his stamp on the House of Representatives? A question often asked about Trump can also usefully asked about Gingrich: was he a symptom, a cause, or both?

In Zelizer’s early chapters, it seems clear that Gingrich is a symptom of the woeful state of public trust in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. From his very first forays into national politics, Gingrich’s main target was establishment corruption. As Gingrich saw it, having felled Agnew and Nixon, liberals were overdue to pay for their own corruption. Zelizer charges Gingrich with being opportunistic and hypocritical in his enmity toward corruption, which he no doubt was. But the bigger question is really whether he was right in saying the Democratic establishment was corrupted by its decades-long hold on power. Here I think Zelizer tries to have it both ways.

On the one hand, Zelizer wants to say that Gingrich basically made something out of nothing: “Gingrich had a keen sense of how to take elements of legislative life that most politicians saw as benign and to speak about them in ways that created a media frenzy and tainted the reputation of the person he targeted” (207). One of the ways that Gingrich mastered in this pursuit was to use good-government reformers as tools, the better to convert partisan hit-jobs into legitimate, bipartisan-seeming crusades for clean government. Zelizer portrays Gingrich’s skillful baiting of Common Cause into joining the calls for an ethics inquiry into Wright as especially consequential. More generally, one of his book’s recurring themes is that post-Watergate congressional reforms left the institution vulnerable to exploitation by someone like Gingrich, who would use the language of transparency and openness for partisan ends.

On the other hand, Zelizer does sometimes concede that there was enough corruption present in the 1980s Congress to make Gingrich’s attacks effective. Among other episodes, Zelizer lays out the sordid facts of Koreagate, Rep. Charles Diggs’ kickback scheme, Abscam, and House Majority Whip Tony Coelho’s shady loans from a savings and loan executive, clearly showing how much Gingrich had to work with. “Congress remained awash in campaign contributions, lobbyists, and shady revolving doors,” he writes, blaming the Democrats for failing to make more of the reform moment in the 1970s, when they might have done more to purify their institution. Money in politics is thus treated as a kind of original sin that makes punishment by the out-party inevitable at some point.

I don’t entirely blame Zelizer for having this tension; it is hard to say how corrupt an institution must be to be judged damnably corrupt, and it is clear that the things that become the biggest scandals are rarely those where the public commonweal has been worst abused. Still, in understanding Gingrich’s rise, and more generally the success of populist politicians who charge establishment systems with self-dealing, it seems only just to concede that there is a great deal about our political economy (and especially our political leaders’ entanglement with lucrative industries) that invites these attacks, right down to the present.

The Connection Between Wright’s Fall and the GOP’s 1994 Triumph

Another big piece of Zelizer’s argument is that there was a straight, short line from Wright’s ouster to the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994. If that is right, then by mid-1989 Democrats were just waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Republicans were already fully in line behind Gingrich.

This is entirely unconvincing. After meticulously delving into the period of 1985-1989, Zelizer whirls us ahead to 1994 in the course of about five pages. Zelizer notes Gingrich’s disavowal of his own party’s president in 1990 over taxation, but he doesn’t make it clear that, on the whole, 1990 was a good election for Democrats, and 1992 was pretty good, too. There is no mention at all of the growing bipartisan push for reform of Congress in the 103rd Congress, which showed that the push for reform had much broader support than just movement conservatives.

Then Zelizer buys into Gingrich’s account of 1994 without reservation. Basically, Gingrich’s vision of a coherent conservative plan led to the Contract With America, and that in turn led to Republicans’ historic wave. Contemporaneous accounts make it clear, though, that the Contract was only one of several elements working in Republicans’ favor in 1994. By far the most important was the unpopularity of President Clinton, who had sputtered through his first two years in office and signally failed in his major policy push for universal healthcare. Gingrich was good at exploiting that failure, but in that he was hardly alone and should hardly take all the credit, especially for the GOP’s success on the Senate side.

From there, Zelizer speeds up even more, connecting 1994 to Clinton’s impeachment, the Tea Party, and ultimately the rise of Trump. By connecting these dots, Zelizer tries to lay the blame for many of our modern dysfunctions at Gingrich’s feet. But this is just too impressionistic, and it gets important things wrong. First, the Republican Party never became Gingrich’s party; his own Speakership was beset with internal dissension almost from the outset.  Indeed, his wrong-headed insistence on seeing his party’s victory as a mandate for a revolution was one of the things that made it hardest for him to win actual policy victories in the crucial 104th Congress (as the late, great Dick Fenno convincingly argued). Nor were the 1990s really so similar to the 2010s in terms of legislating. For all of their bitter enmity, Clinton and Gingrich proved capable of making big deals, whereas neither Barack Obama nor the current president have managed to do so except in dire emergencies. When we look for what went wrong in Congress, then, it makes sense to take our time in pondering the institution’s evolution through the fiery 1990s, the corruption-riddled 2000s, and the futile 2010s.

Gingrich’s Legacy

When we reflect on what Gingrich ultimately accomplished, then, we should stop well short of what Zelizer credits to his antihero. The whole George W. Bush era can be read as a reaction against Gingrich’s brand of smashmouth politics; Dennis Hastert, Trent Lott, and Jack Abramoff were guilty of many sins, but anticorruption zeal was not among them. Gingrich’s pugnacity certainly changed political rhetoric, but his larger political vision did not come off in the 1990s or later. That should be no surprise, since Americans never shared his anti-government zeal; they enjoyed his sallies against Washington fat-cats, but that didn’t actually mean they wanted Great Society programs to disappear.

Zelizer regards Gingrich’s central political theme, anti-corruption, with deep skepticism, especially considering how rich Gingrich himself got in his post-political life. But when we think of his political career, it is important to realize that Gingrich was not merely a Machiavellian opportunist (as Lee Atwater, to whom Zelizer sometimes compares him, surely was). Instead, he was remarkably consistent from the moment he arrived on the political scene—a true hedgehog, with one big idea.

If Gingrich was truly an opportunist, he would have simply dropped his attacks on Congress’s institutional corruption once he found himself in charge of the place. But that is not what he did. Instead, he and his Republican majority went through with a great many reforms of the House in 1995, including the professionalization of many services that had previously been controlled by the majority party. By relinquishing control of these sources of petty power, Republicans gave up many chances to take advantage of their former tormentors.

Ironically, it might have been much better for Congress if Gingrich had simply been waiting to turn the institution to his own party’s advantage. Instead, what Gingrich lacked most of all was any positive vision of what Congress could be, other than a venue for floor spectacles. His suspicion of connections between specialized staff and bureaucrats made him anti-committee from the start of his career, and so he chopped down committee staff by a third on the first day of the 104th Congress. The only committee he did build up, as Zelizer notes, was the House Oversight Committee, the better to hound the Clintons. But when it comes to using the power of government to enact a wide-ranging agenda, that really doesn’t amount to much. As Speaker, Gingrich never really unlocked the possibilities of coalition-building. His control of the agenda was, in the end, the opposite of strategic, and played heavily to Clinton’s advantage. As I argued elsewhere, he left Congress rebuked, but not reimagined.

Zelizer makes a good catch when he briefly reflects on Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign. Gingrich had hired none other than Kellyanne Conway to guide his effort, and she sought to brand him as “an outsider with ‘inside knowledge’.” That is a nice bit of foreshadowing, and a fair connection between the trail that Gingrich had blazed and Trump would follow. But just as Trump’s boasts of knowing how to work the system proved quite unavailing when he took office, Gingrich’s unbending commitment to making himself an opponent of the establishment made him far less effective as Speaker. He genuinely lacked the ability to separate his own marketing from his own governing possibilities, and it cost him dearly, such that his own Speakership only barely outlasted Wright’s. To be an outsider may appeal to large swathes of the electorate, understandably. But enacting a true revolution, as Gingrich was unable to do, would require going beyond contempt for government to a deep sense of its constructive possibilities.

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