Seeds of Speaker's Demise Planted Early
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 1998; Page A1
Summoned to Speaker Newt Gingrich's Capitol Hill office Friday afternoon to help map out a battle plan against Republican rebels determined to force Gingrich's ouster, Bob Walker was already compiling a mental list of the calls that would have to be made, the chits that could be called in.
But by the time he arrived at the speaker's office suite at 4 p.m., it was already too late. Walker, the former congressman from Pennsylvania who is Gingrich's closest friend and parliamentary mentor, found Gingrich's chief of staff, Arne L. Christenson, gripping the telephone in disbelief. There would be no battle, Gingrich had just told him. The speaker was surrendering.
"I hope maybe we can discuss this and think about this," Walker recalled saying to Gingrich, to no avail. "Newt informed us of his decision; he didn't say, 'What do you guys think,'‚" said former representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.), another close friend who had been patched into the call.
The final act in Gingrich's astonishing rise and fall had come quickly and quietly. Huddled at home in Georgia with his wife and no more than two or three close advisers, he had decided at midday Friday that even if his lieutenants could whip the Republican troops into line once more, he faced two years of brutal infighting.
"He thought he could get elected speaker, but he wasn't sure it was a prize worth winning if . . . he was whipsawed by five or six people who happened to be mad that day," said Walker.
The dismal election results, all agreed, were the precipitating event of Gingrich's downfall. Before the polls had closed Tuesday, it had been clear that the double-digit seat gains Gingrich had confidently predicted that very morning would not materialize. By midnight, some feared they would lose the House entirely. In the end, the fact that Republicans had maintained a slim majority paled beside the loss of five seats.
Yet the seeds of destruction had been planted much earlier. Less than a year after he led the GOP to its stunning 52-seat win in 1994, the new speaker found himself presiding over a miscalculation of equally stunning proportions a government shutdown that infuriated the public and all but guaranteed a second term for President Clinton and a nine-seat gain in the House for Democrats in the 1996 election.
The end of 1996 brought Gingrich an ethics reprimand and a $300,000 penalty, a controversy that infuriated Republicans anxious to hold the high road above what they saw as the ethically compromised Clinton administration. Gingrich paid a price for holding on to the speaker's chair, as rank-and-file Republicans clamored for internal changes that diluted his power and rebels staged an unsuccessful but damaging coup attempt.
But 1998 brought the Clinton sex scandal, and by fall, Republicans were again upbeat. History was on their side: opposition party gains in midterm elections since World War II have averaged 27 House seats. The GOP had the financial advantage and believed the Clinton controversy was just the issue to excite their voters.
"We got everybody talking about our ads in the last five days of the election," said Rich Galen, a Gingrich adviser who enthused about anti-Clinton commercials that the speaker helped orchestrate.
A Wayward Prediction
On Election Day, from his headquarters just outside Atlanta, Gingrich joined a telephone conference call with GOP lawmakers. Guided by Joe Gaylord, his strategist, the speaker boldly predicted the party would gain perhaps 20 House seats.
But as the night wore on, it became clear something had gone terribly wrong for the GOP.
"It was a roller-coaster of emotions," said Galen, who was with the speaker Tuesday night.
Shortly after 9:30, Gingrich spoke to a ballroom of cheering fans; he won his own reelection in Georgia's 6th District easily and made much of the fact that for the first time in 70 years Republicans would retain control of the House for a third straight term. Behind the scenes, bedlam was erupting, several high-ranking Republicans said.
After a series of phone calls around midnight, GOP leaders realized they might actually lose the House. Georgia Rep. John Linder, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, went to bed dejected, knowing he had to catch a plane to Washington to explain the results the next day. He had not spoken to his friend Gingrich all night long.
Back in Washington, at GOP headquarters, staffers huddled as the phones "rang off the hook," as one strategist put it. "People were wondering what had happened to change things in the six hours since Newt had predicted such great gains."
With West Coast polls still open, Republicans now worried the losses would dip deep into incumbents.
"Would [Rep. James E.] Rogan [Calif.] go? Would [Rep. Brian P.] Bilbray (Calif.) go?" they wondered, according to one high-level staffer.
Gingrich went to sleep at 2 a.m., Galen recalled, confident in the knowledge Republicans would hold the House. But he could not have slept easily. Before retiring, Walker called with a warning.
"I made the point to him that the thing I would be most concerned about was organization day," Walker said, referring to the first day of the new session in January 1999. "With such a small majority, there was a great chance of mischief."
The old friends talked in "shorthand," Walker recalled. But Gingrich understood the meaning behind Walker's clipped references. Even if they held the House, it would be with such a slim majority that a handful of renegades in his own party would be enough to bring him down.
On the Defensive
On the Day After, Gingrich arose at 6:15 for a full battery of morning talk show interviews. From the perspective of demoralized Republicans, it was the old, defensive, abrasive Gingrich pointing the finger and even snapping at NBC's "Today" show host Katie Couric, an American idol to many TV viewers.
In a conference call with GOP House members later that morning, Gingrich tried to deflect the criticism. He blamed the news media, he blamed the pollsters. He said he had little to do with the anti-Clinton spots that had provoked a last-minute Democratic burst of energy.
"That call really made members angry," said one GOP pollster who spoke with several dozen lawmakers in the past few days. "There was no sense of personal responsibility; he offered no ideas for the future, no ideas for how to prevent this from happening again. That call turned a lot of people against him."
Among many staffers and rank-and-file lawmakers, Gingrich's desperate attempts at spin prompted a mocking reference for the number to dial to tap into his conference call: 1-800-CLUELESS.
Telephone lines began buzzing with the sounds of insurgency.
For months, two overlapping groups of junior lawmakers had been plotting a leadership challenge. One group, a mix of conservatives and moderates, focused on ousting Gingrich. The other, composed almost entirely of conservatives, decided to target Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, who they believed had betrayed them during their failed coup attempt in 1997.
Before the Nov. 3 elections particularly after Gingrich acquiesced to Clinton in passing a budget they believed was filled with pork both cadres discussed how to unseat the party establishment. But after Tuesday's results, their task took on more urgency. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) who had maintained a low profile after the coup attempt, was deluged with calls from lawmakers who knew he remained a Gingrich critic. "These are people who would have tarred and feathered me a year ago," Salmon said Friday.
In a blizzard of coast-to-coast calls, Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) began sounding out colleagues. Largent was determined to trigger a shake-up of some sort; he just didn't know how high to aim.
Walker also worked the phones, "gathering intelligence," as he put it and floating a few institutional reforms aimed at quelling a rebellion.
Late Wednesday, Livingston called Gingrich in Georgia to express concern about the future of the House and suggest Gingrich consider stepping aside. "‚'Bob, we've been friends a long time. Tell me what you mean,'‚" Christenson heard Gingrich say. "At that point, Bob said, 'I may run for Speaker.'‚"
Back in Washington on Thursday morning, Christenson began girding for battle. With the help of House Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the Ging rich team began counting the yeas and nays. One count found 30 to 40 dissenters, Walker said.
Around 1 p.m., Largent boarded a plane in Tulsa to meet with Livingston. He intended, he said, "to convince [Livingston] to run for speaker," and to run for majority leader himself. If Livingston refused, the emboldened ex-football star planned to run for the top job, he said.
When they met at 7:30 that evening, Largent said, Livingston was still undecided.
As the pace of revolt quickened, Gingrich fielded a testy phone call from congressional committee head Linder, who by now realized the speaker was willing to sacrifice his old friend if necessary. In response to complaints about Election Day, Gingrich promised to make the chairmanship of the campaign committee an elected post, a clear signal to Linder that Gingrich would not be able to protect him.
But Gingrich had more serious problems. That night, Salmon's frustration exploded on CNN's "Larry King Live," when he warned he had the votes to block Gingrich's reelection as speaker on the opening day of Congress in January, and to throw the House into turmoil. It was the parliamentary nightmare Walker had envisioned election night.
At the same time, Walker phoned Livingston in his Capitol Hill office. It was a cordial conversation, as Walker remembered it, the pair discussing Livingston's motivations.
When they hung up, Walker called Gingrich at home in Georgia. "He was leaning toward making a run," Walker reported.
At 11:30 p.m., at home with his wife Marianne, Gingrich began weighing the prospects of stepping down, Christenson said.
As the sun came up Friday, Livingston faxed Gingrich a three-page ultimatum. In 16 sharply worded points, the Louisianan said he would not challenge Gingrich if the speaker gave him full control over the Appropriations Committee.
As word leaked Livingston was not ready to declare his intentions, several conservative Republicans called to strengthen his resolve. The revolt was underway.
At 11 a.m., Largent held a news conference. "On November 3rd, the Republican Party hit an iceberg," he said. "And I think the question that is before our conference today is whether we retain the crew of the Titanic or we look for some new leadership." He announced he would challenge Armey for the No. 2 job.
Even as Largent was poised at the microphones, believing he would be the top news of the day, Livingston called his own news conference to announce he would run for speaker.
That afternoon, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) told Gingrich he feared Salmon's bravado the threat to defeat Gingrich with the votes of GOP dissidents and Democrats on the House floor in January, even if he managed a majority among Republicans in their conference this month could become real. After speaking to a handful of dissenters, Archer was convinced they were determined to demolish the speaker.
"‚'Perhaps I should resign,'‚" Archer recalled Gingrich saying. "I was stunned by it. Then he asked me if I thought he should resign. I told him I had not called to tell him that, that was a personal decision. I told him that I thought the environment was very different from what it had been in the past, and I thought it was a real possibility he could lose in January."
Gingrich apparently did too. Within a couple hours, he gave the news to Walker.
Staff reporters Juliet Eilperin, Eric Pianin and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company