“Wright-Gate” and Newt’s Ruthless Playbook (Review)Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Julian Zelizer, Newt Gingrich, Contract With America
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.
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