Gingrich Steps Down in Face of Rebellion
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 7, 1998; Page A1
Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), the charismatic soul of the Republican Revolution whose members turned on him after unexpected losses in Tuesday's election, announced yesterday he will quit as speaker of the House.
His stunning exit came only hours after longtime friend Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) told reporters he intended to challenge Gingrich when House Republicans meet Nov. 18 to pick their leaders for the 106th Congress.
But the day's turmoil quickly produced more candidates for the speakership. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) and Small Business Committee Chairman James M. Talent (R-Mo.) pronounced their interest. Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) formally announced his candidacy on CNN's "Larry King Live."
For Gingrich, in Georgia all day, the end came early in the evening when spokeswoman Christina Martin emerged from the speaker's office with a brief statement for about 20 reporters gathered in a hallway next to the cavernous Capitol Rotunda.
"Today I have reached a difficult personal decision," the statement said. "The Republican conference needs to be unified, and it is time for me to move forward where I believe I still have a significant role to play for our country and our party."
Behind the sparse public words, however, was a party awash in recriminations. In a conference call with Republican colleagues, Gingrich talked about how "we need to purge the poisons from the system."
Faced with the narrowest House majority in 33 years, Gingrich bitterly denounced fellow Republicans who used him as a post-election whipping boy: "The ones you see on TV are hateful," he told members. "I am willing to lead, but I won't allow cannibalism."
Several members said Gingrich intended to resign from the House by year's end, and while Martin emphasized that he may serve for part of the next Congress, she said it is "unlikely he will fill out his full term."
It was a sudden and spectacular denouement for the onetime college professor and smart-mouthed backbencher who led his party in 1994 to a House majority for the first time in four decades, only to see his triumph, like his personal political fortunes, dwindle four years later.
Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.), who spent months lining up support for Livingston in the event that Gingrich would leave voluntarily, said the speaker had no choice in the end: "You can't lose the war over one general," Packard said. "Gingrich has won a lot of victories for us, but he lost one crucial battle and we can't risk losing the majority, which is the war, over one general."
Gingrich's decision topped a topsy-turvy day at the Capitol, which is usually darkened, closed and relatively silent in the immediate aftermath of elections. But the Republicans' unexpected Tuesday debacle, in which the party's already thin majority was trimmed by five seats, leaving the party with a 223 to 211 edge over the Democrats, triggered a rumble of rebellion from the GOP rank and file that grew steadily louder as the week passed.
By yesterday, it was deafening. The extraordinary day began with a news conference by Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who announced that he will try to unseat Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (Tex.). Largent likened Tuesday's elections to "hitting an iceberg." The "question," he added, "is whether we retain the crew of the Titanic or we look for some new leadership."
Then came Appropriations Committee Chairman Livingston's announcement a few hours later. And after Gingrich's exit was official, a knowledgeable Republican source said it was "highly likely" that Archer would join the race. Another likely contender was Talent, his spokeswoman said. Both will decide next week.
But Cox didn't wait. On live television, he formally announced his candidacy and pledged to work with all factions of the Congress to "produce spectacular legislation. We can find common ground on issues that are very important to the American people."
Armey issued a statement after Gingrich's announcement saying he would not seek the speakership, but was determined to keep his own post "to provide our conference with stability in managing the floor and developing legislation as we undergo this difficult transition." Earlier in the day he said, "I welcome the [party-wide] debate" that would accompany his own reelection race against Largent.
Armey, who helped spearhead the "Contract With America" that propelled Republicans to the House majority in 1994 and Gingrich to the speakership, called the Georgian "a fantastic visionary" who "transformed the House of Representatives."
And Livingston, who in announcing his own candidacy had referred to "Newt Gingrich, my dear friend," said in a statement last night that he was "terribly saddened that a man with such outstanding leadership ability and vision, a man who has cemented his place of greatness in American history, has ended this phase of a brilliant political career."
Democrats were stunned by the abrupt exit of their favorite enemy, but Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) viewed it as a vindication of sorts. "Newt Gingrich's resignation as speaker was the aftershock from last Tuesday's political earthquake," he said in a statement.
Although the GOP kept its majority, Gephardt said, "The American people sent a strong message that the Republican Congress was a failure. . . . The speaker's resignation is the reaction to that message."
President Clinton was more conciliatory: "Newt Gingrich has been a worthy adversary, leading the Republican Party to a majority in the House and joining me in a great national debate over how best to prepare America for the 21st century," Clinton said in a statement.
"Despite our profound differences, I appreciate those times we were able to work together in the national interest, especially Speaker Gingrich's strong support for America's continuing leadership for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world."
What remained unclear was the possible impact of the Gingrich resignation on the impeachment proceedings against the president. Some Clinton advisers believe it may not make much of a difference because the elections already appeared to have Republicans retreating to a more limited inquiry.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) signaled this week his interest in wrapping up the inquiry with few public hearings and little testimony, a course the Clinton camp expects him to follow regardless of who takes over as speaker. But without Gingrich involved, it may be harder for the White House to paint the hearings as a partisan witch hunt. And while White House officials appeared to greet Gingrich's resignation with muted short-term glee, there was also a measure of long-term dread that their favorite political villain was departing.
"We are mourning the loss of having Newt to kick around anymore," said one White House adviser who did not want to be named. "Newt Gingrich literally was the best thing the Democratic Party has had going for it since 1994. . . . If anything, there's total depression on my side of the fence."
Telephone lines buzzed all week as Republican members talked with one another, taking aim at Gingrich, Armey and Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as the most visible and vulnerable reasons for their straitened circumstances.
By yesterday, at least 12 Republicans had resolved after several conference calls not to vote for Gingrich under any circumstances when the full House in January meets to elect the speaker as its first order of business, several lawmakers said, meaning that he would not have enough votes for reelection.
"We have to have new leadership or we will not be in the majority in 2000," said Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Livingston, in Washington lining up support, was the lightning rod for insurgents. When he moved, others would follow.
But Livingston was a reluctant soldier. Gingrich, he told reporters yesterday, is a man "with whom I've worked closely over the last 20 years -- that speaker, that person is a dear friend of mine. And because of that, this has been the most difficult decision I have ever made in the past and probably will ever make in the future."
It was Largent, the conservative pro football Hall of Famer from Tulsa, who may have been the catalyst, flying to Washington Thursday to confer with Livingston after two days of discussing with colleagues his own prospects against Armey.
Some members suggested that Largent had come to Washington with a message for Livingston: If Livingston didn't want to challenge Gingrich, Largent would. Also, the members said, Largent was interested in forming a "slate" with Livingston.
But a source close to Largent characterized Largent's intentions as simply "interest in hearing what Mr. Livingston's plans were." Largent was committed to taking on Armey, a target of disgruntled conservatives for months.
Largent gave his news conference at 11 a.m. yesterday, apparently assuring himself of front-page coverage as the cocksure sophomore intent on taking out one of the House's biggest targets.
But as an often incendiary conservative, he took a measured approach, reaching out straightforwardly to colleagues: "What I believe desperately needs to take place is to heal the alienation that currently exists among members" of the House and Senate, he said.
At 2 p.m., a tight-lipped Livingston emerged from his Capitol offices, and with wife Bonnie and daughter Susie, strode across the cold, blustery plaza to address reporters. Livingston, who started the day on the phone negotiating with Gingrich in Georgia, called back later to let him know that, indeed, he planned to mount a challenge.
"We're at a crossroads . . . where we must choose between inspirational speeches and perspiration-filled achievement," he said. Livingston clearly favored perspiration: "History tells us that many of the most successful speakers of the past were more narrowly focused -- focused principally, if not exclusively, on the day-to-day business of the House of Representatives."
And he had been telephoning, too: "There are lots of members with whom I have not spoken," he said. "I cannot say that I have a majority. But I do believe that when the dust settles, that you'll see that I am the next speaker of the House."
At the speaker's office, Martin was talking tough. Gingrich, she said, had made 60 calls to colleagues since Wednesday, and 50 of them committed to vote for him for speaker. "I think he very well could have won this fight," she said, adding that the staff had started readying a battle plan during the day.
But Gingrich was beginning to have doubts: "He had a sense this may turn out to be a fight that wasn't worth winning in the end, because the next two years would turn out to be a very ungovernable situation," said former representative Robert Walker (R-Pa.), one of Gingrich's closest friends.
Gingrich spoke with his wife, Marianne, and made up his mind around 3:30 p.m., then organized a conference call with Walker, chief of staff Arne Christenson and former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.). Walker, along with former Gingrich chief of staff Dan Meyer, had come to help Gingrich round up votes for his reelection. Walker soon learned that the script had changed: "He just laughed," Walker said, "and said to me he's going to join me in the private sector."
Gingrich then called Armey and drafted his public statement from his Georgia office. He organized a second conference call with local and Washington staffs, which took place at approximately 6:25 p.m. One knowledgeable source described Gingrich's tone as "fairly upbeat," thanking his staff for their work as he ticked off successes, including reforming welfare and balancing the budget."
Then he had a third conference call with lawmakers and friends, including elected members of the leadership and a few committee chairmen. And finally, he addressed the entire GOP membership in another call.
"The reception on the line was one of shock, of sadness," Martin said, noting that members and staff had the chance to offer their views during the calls. "Members were very choked up."
"Newt recognized that he had a problematic public persona, kind of a negative [persona]. And he said he was just not the person to lead at this time," said Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
Walker said Gingrich explained he realized that it would be "very difficult for the party as long as he was the issue. This was a totally selfless decision. Once again, he has proved he has the class to take responsibility."
At one point, according to one participant, a lawmaker remarked, "Newt, you led us out of the wilderness." Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson praised Gingrich as "the man singularly most responsible for us becoming the majority party."
"I love all of you," Gingrich replied. "Take care."
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall, Ceci Connolly, Peter Baker and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.
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