In his debut in Washington’s power struggles, Gingrich threw a bomb

On the evening of Oct. 4, 1990, Newt Gingrich and his then-wife, Marianne, were enjoying a VIP reception at a Republican fundraiser when they were suddenly hustled over to have their picture taken with President George H.W. Bush.

“I thought it was a bad idea,” Gingrich said in a series of interviews in 1992 that have not been previously published.

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Days earlier, Gingrich had dramatically walked out of the White House and was leading a very public rebellion against a deficit reduction and tax increase deal that Bush and top congressional leaders of both parties — including, they thought, Gingrich — had signed off on after months of tedious negotiations. The House was to vote on the deal the very next day.

“We went over and I said [to Bush], ‘I’m really sorry that this is happening,’ and he said with as much pain as I’ve heard from a politician, ‘You’re killing us, you are just killing us.’ ”

The photo was snapped, Gingrich and his wife took their seats for dinner, “and both of us just felt like crying,” he said.

Gingrich’s revolt highlighted a rift that persists to this day within the Republican Party, between a pragmatic establishment open to deal­making and a more rigid conservative base that prefers purity over compromise.

That split has benefited Gingrich at times during his political career, including in his current bid for president, as he is tied at the top of the Republican field with Mitt Romney, the establishment choice.

The party divide also played out on Capitol Hill last week, when a group of conservatives in the House attempted to torpedo a deal struck between Senate Republicans and the White House over payroll taxes. In that case, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) backed down in the face of political pressure. In 1990, Gingrich did not.

Gingrich’s actions both before and after his encounter with Bush showed a man willing, if not eager, to weaken the president and, as he put it, “to dismantle the old order.”

Gingrich, then the party whip and No. 2 Republican in the House, and his followers took down the deal the next day, severely undercutting Bush and highlighting the betrayal of his famous “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. In some key respects, Gingrich’s revolt set the stage for Bush’s demise and eventual defeat — as well as the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 that catapulted Gingrich to the speakership.

Gingrich’s defiance and high-visibility debut as provocateur in 1990 was a decisive moment for him. It was the first chance he had to exercise real political power, providing an early glimpse of the complexity and the contradictions that he has displayed since.

Bush’s budget director, the late Richard G. Darman, said that the White House was not given serious notice that Gingrich would balk at the deal and that his revolt was “an act of political sabotage.” In one 1992 memo, Darman wrote in capital letters of the “1990 GINGRICH STAB IN THE BACK.”

Gingrich was unrepentant, arguing that he had a higher purpose. “It was destructive,” he acknowledged, but necessary to stop Bush and others from making deals with Democrats.

Gingrich said that he was seeking to make such an approach “so unbelievably expensive that you couldn’t sustain it.”

Warming to his rebel role, he declared, “I am the leader, insider-revolutionary in this country,” adding that “if you’re writing the history of modern conservatism, I’m at least in one of the chapters.”

He defined the budget revolt as “a major turning point for the whole society” because it “deepened people’s anger.”

R.C. Hammond, the Gingrich campaign spokesman, said Saturday that he has discussed past actions such as the 1990 budget deal with Gingrich. “Don’t think because he did it one way in the past that is the way he would do it again. He learned things, and you figure out how to do it better,” Hammond said.

This account of the 1990 budget deal is based on a series of interviews conducted in 1992 with Gingrich, Darman and Vin Weber, then a House member from Minnesota who is now a high-profile supporter of Romney.

In the early 1990s, they were three of the most visible men in Washington — Gingrich, the leader of a bold, new brand of conservatism; Darman, the savvy insider who shaped tax policy in the Reagan and Bush administrations; and Weber, a young and trusted Gingrich lieutenant who was eventually called on to try to repair the fractured relationship between Darman and Gingrich.

The 1990 budget deal has also reemerged as a point of contention in this year’s presidential campaign after one of the key players involved, former White House chief of staff John H. Sununu, said earlier this month that Gingrich’s erratic actions back then were disqualifying now.

Bush himself raised Gingrich’s role in the budget deal when he announced his backing last week for Romney, whom he described as “mature and reasonable — not a bomb thrower.”

“I met with all the Republican leaders, all the Democratic leaders,” Bush told the Houston Chronicle about that day in 1990. “The plan was we were all going to walk out into the Rose Garden and announce this deal. Newt was right there. Got ready to go out in the Rose Garden, and I said, ‘Where’s Gingrich?’ Went up to Capitol Hill. He was here a minute ago. Went up there and started lobbying against the thing.”

“I’m not his biggest advocate,” Bush added.

Gingrich insisted in 1992 that the real problem wasn’t his revolt, but that the Bush White House was not tough enough and did not know how to negotiate.

“I believe there are a lot of things you can make work if you’re always willing to walk out of the room,” Gingrich said. “You can’t make anything work negotiating with your opponents if you have to have a deal.”

After a lengthy interview on Dec. 11, 1992, he sent a reporter a memo trying to explain the budget communications problem. It is a classic of Gingrich paradox.

“I was telling precisely the truth but by Washington standards I was lying,” he wrote. “They were lying but by Washington standards they were telling the truth. I thought I was being very precise in setting standards, they thought I was outlining a negotiating position. I knew I could and would walk. They knew I had to stay.”

In 1990, the country faced many of the same problems it faces now — a declining economy, rising deficits and a Washington at odds over what to do about it.

Then as now, Republicans wanted to make major spending cuts, particularly in entitlement programs. And, then as now, Democrats, who at the time controlled both the House and Senate, refused to do so without also raising taxes.

Darman, among others, pushed Bush to seek a compromise, even at the cost of breaking his 1988 no-new-taxes pledge, and in June the president announced that he was willing to raise taxes.

The initial deal included nearly $300 billion in Medicare and other spending cuts along with increases in gasoline, alcohol and other taxes that totaled $133 billion. Significantly, it did not include an income tax rate increase, often the red line for conservative Republicans.

Gingrich even agreed with this, saying, “I thought what the president’s pledge clearly meant in the end was [an] income tax rate increase.”

Darman believed that the impact of Gingrich’s revolt could barely be overstated, offering several reasons why it had an immense impact on Bush, the Republican Party and the broader spectrum of American politics.

First, after Gingrich’s opposition but before the House vote, Bush made a nationally televised appeal for support, citing “fears of economic chaos that would follow if we fail to reduce the deficit.” Nonetheless, the House rejected the deal, the federal government shut down briefly and a state of political turmoil ensued.

The defeat gave the Democrats significantly more leverage, and a second version was negotiated between Congress and the White House, again over Gingrich’s opposition. This time it included an income tax rate increase in the top bracket from 28 percent to 31 percent. It passed, and Bush signed it into law.

According to Darman, the whole psychology changed,with “the president not only presiding over a failure, but a revolt in his own party.” The White House strategy had been to make Bush seem like former president Ronald Reagan. Although Reagan had gone along with raising business taxes in 1982 and several other times, he was able to protest that he had been dragged kicking and screaming by Democrats. Instead, Bush was now exposed as a tax-increasing president.

Darman also said that the Gingrich revolt helped launch the primary challenge of former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan in 1992. With the economy stalled, Buchanan jumped into the race, aiming his harshest rhetoric at Bush for abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge.

Robert Teeter, Bush’s pollster, produced data showing that the 1990 deal had dramatically damaged Bush’s credibility with voters. In March 1992, while running for reelection, Bush declared publicly that the deal had been a “mistake.” Darman, as much as anyone the author of the deal, was upset and offered to resign, an offer Bush refused.

And Darman concluded that the entire debate undermined Bush, creating a public confidence problem, and a sense that the institutions of government had failed.

“I don’t know if [Bush] thought I’d betrayed him or not . . . others have said he does not trust me,” Gingrich said in 1992, while Bush was still president. “But I think that’s reasonable. I think in their world it was so inconceivable (a) that I would walk, and (b) that I would fight actively and (c) that I would fight publicly. . . . they [the Bush White House] just go, ‘That son of a bitch.’ ”

In a long interview on May 4, 1992, devoted almost exclusively to the topic of Gingrich, Darman concluded that Gingrich was “an unstable personality” who talks about four or five great people in history, including Pericles and himself. “Psychologically, he has got to go against the reigning establishment . . . . The establishment has to fail visibly.

“No matter what you’re going to do, he’s going to bomb it,” Darman said. “He will find his way to the most inflammatory part of anything.”

In 1992, Darman said that Gingrich’s ambition was limitless. “Newt is on a path for himself to be president of the United States, not just speaker of the House.”

Just 21 / 2 years later, after the Gingrich-planned and led Republican takeover of the House succeeded, he was elected speaker. And now, nearly two decades later, he is trying to become the Republican nominee for president.

Gingrich was elected minority whip just a year before he took on Bush, winning an 87 to 85 vote on his promise to undertake a more confrontational brand of conservatism.

“I’d been whip for about a year,” he said, “and it was a heady experience and this was my first chance to see how it worked.”

In hindsight, he acknowledged, “I may have been too passive all the way through, again because I was still learning.” He said that when Bush first agreed publicly to renege on the no-new-taxes pledge, “at that point I should have blown up. I should have walked.”

Instead he sent memos indicating he would go along. Three months before he bolted, in a July 20, 1990, memo to his Republican colleagues, he said, “I believe House Republicans will consider appropriate revenue increases.” He also went further, telling budget negotiators that he was “prepared to sponsor and support” modest tax increases, according to news accounts at the time. (“Rep. Gingrich ‘Prepared’ to Back Increase in Taxes” was the headline in The Washington Post on July 20, 1990.)

Gingrich said he made one thing clear, telling the White House that he would go along only with a deal that included a cut in the capital gains tax.

On Sept. 28, just two days before the initial version of a budget deal had been worked out, Gingrich wrote the White House asking for a commitment that House Republicans would get “a detailed summary of the agreement at least 12 hours before you expect a public commitment from the Republican leadership to support a package.”

He added, “With a good agreement, and full partnership in the decision process on the other items, the Republican leadership and membership will work hard.”

On the eve of a deal, the clear implication was that Gingrich was going to support it.

Gingrich had been warned about this moment. He said that a group of senior Republicans who had served in previous administrations told him he would have to cave in when a deal was struck.

“They all said, ‘Well [the White House and the congressional Democrats] will in the end cut a deal and they will in the end call you in a room and they will tell you, you have to agree.’ And I said, ‘Boys, there’s not a chance in hell I’m going to agree . . .’ And they all said, ‘Yes, you will, you just don’t understand, yes, you will.’ ”

But Gingrich was moving in another direction — his own. He said he checked out a copy of “Advise and Consent,” the novel by Allen Drury about a Senate confirmation battle with a president. “I thought the odds were better than even money I was going to end up fighting the president, and I wanted to go through the drill of thinking about what it’s like to fight a president who you like a lot and who’s very powerful.”

Gingrich said that on Sept. 29, he was told that an agreement had been reached. “They told me the deal they’d cut. I called my daughter, and my wife talked to her mother. Both my daughter and mother-in-law thought it was nuts.”

The next day he went to the White House, where the deal was laid out to Republican leaders. Everyone went along except Gingrich. “They walked into the Rose Garden, I walked the other way” — a public act of defiance that was captured live on CNN.

Weber said that Bush later said that it was Gingrich’s revolt, and not the deal itself, that cost him. Without the high-profile rebellion, Bush concluded, “he would have paid no political price for it.”

Gingrich said that immediately after he walked out, key anti-tax conservative Republicans who had served in the House and were then holding some of the highest positions in the Bush administration called him with private words of encouragement, secretly cheering him on.

According to Gingrich, the first call was from Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense. “ ‘Richard,’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you how much it helped me to go back and look at the courage you showed in 1982 when you opposed [Reagan’s business tax increase]. And that one of the things that strengthened me in this decision was knowing that I’d have your firm moral leadership.’ ”

Cheney chuckled and said he had promised Bush he would make a pro forma call to criticize Gingrich, but he indicated that his heart was not in it. “I’ve made the phone call,” Gingrich quoted Cheney as saying, “how are you doing?”

Jack Kemp, Bush’s housing secretary, also called. According to Gingrich, Kemp said, he was “calling to say that you really shouldn’t be doing the heroic and exactly correct thing you’re doing, which I’m very proud of you for doing, but as a member of the Cabinet I do want to check in with you and say I hope you’ll do it in a positive way and not be too hostile.”

Then it was Vice President Dan Quayle’s turn: “Newter, just sort of thought I’d check in here. . . . I want to keep the bridges open, when this thing’s over, we’re all on the same side.”

Quayle later said that he also told Gingrich he didn’t have to vote with Bush, “but I do think it’s an act of irresponsibility to openly criticize and lead the revolt against the president on something this fundamental.”

Gingrich and Darman, two of the most cerebral, outspoken and ego-driven figures in Washington at the time, had a deeply complicated relationship, particularly after the Gingrich revolt.

In November 1990, after Bush signed the second budget deal, Gingrich called for Darman’s resignation if he didn’t recant an attack on some new conservative thinking.

The next morning, Darman called Gingrich. Darman made notes of the conversation, in which Gingrich told Darman “you’ve got to go” and said that he wanted Bush to be defeated.

Gingrich did not dispute Darman’s version of the conversation, but he said he later told him that he had changed his position and did not want to knock off Bush. “I am a loyalist,” Gingrich said, adding that he worked hard for Bush’s reelection in 1992.

Darman was not impressed. He called Gingrich a “neo-media-pop-opportunist” who is “interested in personal power, media attention, aggrandizement.”

The split between the two was so great that Darman asked Weber to mediate. At about 3 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 3, 1990, Gingrich and Darman were sitting on separate couches in Weber’s office in the Cannon House Office Building.

“It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life,” Weber said, “because I never intended to be either a psychiatrist or marriage counselor. And the sessions were very much of that magnitude. They both should have been laying down!

“I had this very strong sense that I was dealing with a couple of people that had grown up without any friends . . . a couple of kids that were the smartest kids in their school class but nobody liked them.”

Weber said the two did not have real discussions or disagreements about policy. Instead, Gingrich and Darman spent the whole session, along with other meetings, talking about their personal relationship. “I got pretty bored with it all, to be candid, sitting there listening to these guys talk about, you know, ‘Well I thought you liked me, if you liked me, why did you say that about me?’ ” Weber said.

The meeting ended just as he knew it would, Weber said, with the two agreeing to more meetings and a closer relationship.

“I know Newt didn’t want Dick Darman to resign,” Weber said. “Newt wanted Dick Darman to sit down and spend hours and hours talking with him. And set up a process of communication that would make sure that everybody knew that, you know, Newt had Darman on the phone any time he wanted him and had his ear on anything he wanted to.”

Weber portrayed Gingrich in various ways throughout the 1992 interview, at one point calling him “a high-maintenance friend and ally, needy” and at another saying that “Newt, as you know, views himself as the leader of a vast, national interplanetary movement.”

But, in the end, Weber concluded that Gingrich was not as he often appeared.

“Gingrich is viewed as this hard, tough ideologue, and he’s not an ideologue, but beyond that he’s the easiest guy in the world, if you understand him, for people to buy off.”

Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.

 
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