You may well have missed it while steeped in eggnog and wrapping paper this past weekend, but Bob Woodward returned to the pages of the Washington Post with a big double-truck piece on Newt Gingrich's revolt against President Bush Senior's deficit-reduction deal in the fall of 1990. The move by Gingrich, then the number-two Republican in the House, enhanced his reputation as a trouble-making revolutionary and earned him the lasting enmity of many in the GOP establishment -- it was this move that John Sununu, then Bush's chief of staff, cited recently in making the case on Mitt Romney's behalf that Gingrich was motivated above all by his own"self-aggrandizement."
Woodward's piece included never-published interviews in 1992 with Gingrich and other key players in the deficit negotiations, which led to a final deal that included tax increases in violation of Bush's 1988 "read my lips" pledge, a cause for outrage among conservatives. In Woodward's telling, Gingrich's sense of self-importance was already at Olympian heights:
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. 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.”
Woodward also has some juicy details on the signals that Gingrich received from the more conservative members of Bush's administration, who gave Gingrich more of a wink-wink than a slap on the wrist.
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.”
But there's an odd omission in Woodward's lengthy retelling. Nowhere does he mention that even as Gingrich was making his grand stand in Washington, he was on the verge of losing his own House seat back in Georgia. Woodward is hardly alone in this: we have so accepted Gingrich's tale of his ascent to world-historical status that we often forget that in the two elections prior to the 1994 revolution, he avoided defeat by less than 1,000 votes. As I describe in the current issue of the magazine, Gingrich's 1990 scare came against a 32-year-old lawyer, David Worley, who had lost to him by 17 points in 1988 but mounted a stronger challenge in 1990, capitalizing on Gingrich's failure to support the thousands of Eastern Airlines employees in their battle with CEO Frank Lorenzo, as well as his support for a congressional pay hike and his enjoyment of House priveleges such as a car and driver.
Gingrich's big revolt against Bush cannot be understood without the context of his fight to keep his own seat. His unexpected rejection of the Bush deal -- just over a month before Election Day -- was seen at the time as a gambit to curry favor with voters who had come to see him as out of touch. Look, he could say, he was breaking ranks with the president and his party's leaders to protect constituents against the deal's Medicare cuts and tax increases (on cigarettes and alcohol, but not not income -- that came in the final version of the deal.) Whether it worked is an open question -- plenty in the district saw the move as the transparent, disloyal ploy it was (the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called him a "Benedict Arnold"). There's no way of knowing whether the revolt saved Gingrich's skin or made the race closer than it would have been.
But leaving out the full context of Gingrich's 1990 revolutionary pose means missing a larger lesson that has been very much on display in the current campaign. For all of Gingrich's grandiose ambitions then and now, for all of his notions of himself as a big-picture political thinker, he has often struggled with the more mundane demands of campaigning. Back then, he was undermined by his lack of self-control (refusing to shake Worley's hand after a debate, a moment caught on camera) and his own campaign mailings, which played into Worley's depiction of him as a vain Washington insider. Today, it has been manifest in, among many other organizational shortcomings, his inability to get on the ballot in his adopted home state of Virginia. As Worley told me several weeks ago, while Newt was still riding high in the polls: “One thing I think will become clear in the next month or two, is that Newt Gingrich is just not a very good candidate.”
Not to say that I am completely counting him out. After all, how can you count out someone who is now operating on "Animal House" spirits? Check out his campaign's response to the Virginia ballot fiasco, which evokes Bluto Blutarsky more than it does Gingrich the historian:
“Newt and I agreed that the analogy is December 1941,” campaign director Michael Krull wrote on the Gingrich Facebook page. “We have experienced an unexpected set-back, but we will re-group and re-focus with increased determination, commitment and positive action. Throughout the next months there will be ups and downs; there will be successes and failures; there will be easy victories and difficult days - but in the end we will stand victorious.”
To-ga! To-ga! To-ga!