Gingrich Brought Change And Controversy As Speaker

Robert Siegel speaks to Janet Hook of the Wall Street Journal about Newt Gingrich's time as speaker of the House. Hook covered those years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. When Gingrich became speaker, he brought a tremendous change to the House and the Republican Party. But he caused a lot of trouble for his rank and file. In 1997, there was a secret attempt to overthrow him as speaker by a group of "back benchers," who thought he was flying off the handle. They wanted a conventional leader, and he kept doing things on his own, without telling people. They felt he was not leading with a steady hand.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Newt Gingrich's career as Speaker of the House from January 1995 until November of 1998 is the subject of much dispute in the Republican primary season. Here's what's not in dispute. In the 1994 elections, Gingrich galvanized a Republican party that had spent half a century in the minority. He helped make that year a national election based on opposition to the new Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and a conservative reform agenda called the Contract with America.

NEWT GINGRICH: The new Republican majority will immediately pass the following major reforms and a restoring of faith and trust of the American people in their government.

SIEGEL: Congress would be subject to its own laws. It would be streamlined and transparent, committee chairs would be term-limited and tax increases would require super majorities. Well, that November, the GOP took the House. Four years later, in November 1998, the Republican majority was so badly reduced, Gingrich was forced to resign.

GINGRICH: Having lead the party to three consecutive victories in terms of having a majority in the House, the only time since 70 years we've done that, I could hardly stand by and allow the party to cannibalize itself in that situation and I thought it was best for all of us. Marianne and I have lots of things to do and I've already talked to a lot of people today about opportunities to do some more learning and maybe earn a little bit of money.

SIEGEL: Here's what is in dispute about Gingrich's tenure as Speaker of the House. To hear him tell it, along with Bill Clinton, he balance budgets and reformed entitlements, epitomizing both steadfast conservative principle and the art of compromise. To hear his rivals tell it, he was an erratic ideas man who couldn't manage, a Speaker who was cited for an ethics violation, challenged by some of his most conservative members and ultimately forced from office.

Reporter Janet Hook of the Wall Street Journal covered the House when Newt Gingrich was Speaker. Back then, she was congressional correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Welcome...

JANET HOOK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...to the program. And let's work our way backward on the Gingrich record, since the manner of his departure is in some dispute. He describes it as a fairly gracious exit. His critics say he was driven from a post that he would have lost in a contested election within the House Republican caucus. Who's right?

HOOK: Well, probably both sides are right. I think Newt Gingrich would've preferred to have stayed on as speaker. I think he saw the writing on the wall. Many Republicans had already stepped out and said they would vote against him if he stood for speaker. Some even said they would run against him.

SIEGEL: There's also the matter of the House Ethics Committee investigation of Newt Gingrich. He says that he was acquitted of all substantive counts against him, it was a question of just a couple of documents and that he wasn't fined, he says. He was just required to pay the equivalent of court costs. What actually happened?

HOOK: Well, the investigation concerned a lot of complicated transactions. Newt Gingrich had a college course that he taught that was sort of typical Newt Gingrich grand ideas that was supposedly financed mostly by a non-profit organization. In fact, there were found to be some connections with his political arm and that that was a violation that the ethics committee concluded that he either should have or did in fact know about. In the end, there was kind of almost like a plea bargain toward the end, where it came down to them saying he should have known it.

He was found to have violated House rules and it was the first time in history that a speaker had been formally reprimanded by the House in the way he was.

SIEGEL: He had been speaker, of course, during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. And he's always said that was about the president's lying and not about the behavior that he was lying about. But you reported in those days that behind closed doors, he could get furious about what he thought of Bill Clinton's behavior, and once called him a misogynist - one of your sources quoted him as saying.

HOOK: Yeah, and it was an era rife with some hypocrisy there. And...

SIEGEL: 'Cause he was actually engaged in an affair at that time.

HOOK: He was engaged in an affair with Callista Bisek, who came to be his wife. One thing that's interesting though about that whole chapter is that he was such a driving force behind the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

But in the end, that had a big part in his downfall because in the 1998 elections, when House Republicans lost so many seats, it was in part because Newt Gingrich and the Republican campaign committee tried to make impeachment a national issue in local elections. And it kind of backfired on them. The whole episode called into question his judgment as a political strategist.

SIEGEL: Janet Hook, I want to ask you about the moment when Gingrich was not forced to step down as speaker, that is a year earlier in July of 1997, the year before he actually stepped down. There was a rebellion within the ranks and a group of members - Republican members tried to oppose him. This is what he told reporters when he was in Georgia at that time.

GINGRICH: But there has been no serious challenge. I mean, nobody believes that there is anything like enough votes in the conference to matter, in terms of my being speaker.

SIEGEL: Well, I mean, did he actually face serious plot, a challenge to his leadership?

HOOK: Yes, there was quite a serious plot. And part of the reason why it was more serious than other ones is that it seemed that members of his own leadership team were complicit in it.

SIEGEL: Now, what about the big picture contrasts here between Speaker Gingrich - the architect of great ideas and balanced budgets - and on the other hand, Newt Gingrich the guy who would come up with a hundred ideas a week and most of them would go nowhere?

HOOK: Well, truth is that both are elements of Newt and that's why he is a character of endless fascination. He really did do big, important things with President Clinton. I mean, the Welfare Reform Bill that the passed, he's not exaggerating its significance. The balanced budget deal, that was a hard one. And maybe it's only somebody like him, risk-taker, big ideas guy, who would be able to do that.

One of the things that he had going for him, why he was able to accomplish those things, is the fact that the big class of conservative Republicans who were elected in 1994 felt like they owed their election to Newt Gingrich. And so, he could propose big, risky things, and for a long time they would follow him.

SIEGEL: Well, Janet Hook, thank you very much for talking with us.

HOOK: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Back in the day when Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House, Janet Hook was covering the House for the L.A. Times. She's now with the Wall Street Journal.

And you're headed for Florida, I gather...

HOOK: I hope so.

SIEGEL: ...to cover the race. Bye-bye.

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