Character Sketch: Newt Gingrich’s surprisingly moderate record as Speaker of the House

Newt Gingrich was the most important Republican of the 1990s. None of his current rivals for the party's 2012 presidential nomination have played an analogous role for even an hour.

After more than three decades on the national stage, Gingrich offers a public record so voluminous that it amounts to a full employment act for opposition researchers in both parties. From his early days as a self-described "Rockefeller Republican" to his emergence as the embodiment of post-Reagan conservatism, Gingrich has often spoken first and thought later, leaving behind a Bartlett's of caustic, cosmic and sometimes contradictory quotations. The result is that, using legitimate video clips, Gingrich easily can be portrayed as anyone from transformative leader to tragic loser.

Beyond its entertainment value and its promotion of exotic venues like New Year's Eve in Des Moines, a presidential campaign should reveal how a candidate might react upon moving into the Oval Office. That is why the most fruitful place to begin the search for clues to envision Newton Leroy Gingrich as the nation's 45th president is to re-examine his four years as House speaker. This period is often misunderstood by both his Republican fans and Democratic foes because Gingrich in power was rarely a one-dimensional conservative ideologue. Chris Shays, the former Connecticut representative who is one of the last Republican moderates, said admiringly in an interview with me this week, "Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich are the only people who have changed Washington in the last 50 years." Shays, who is now running for the Senate, has endorsed Mitt Romney for president.

When Gingrich took the speaker's gavel after masterminding a stunning 52-seat pickup in the House in the 1994 elections, the most important step he took was never mentioned in the Contract with America. Gingrich ended the selection of committee chairmen based on seniority and, in effect, put that power in his own hands. As New Yorker writer Connie Bruck concluded in a still insightful 1995 profile, "The old fiefdoms of autocratic committee chairmen no longer exist." Paul Weyrich, the leading right-wing activist of the 1990s, told Bruck, "Newt Gingrich is the first conservative I have ever known who knows how to use power."

After becoming the most powerful House speaker in more than 80 years, Gingrich never stifled his visionary pronouncements even when they led him down wacky byways. His 1995 book, To Renew America, which is dedicated to his soon-to-be-displaced second wife ("To Marianne, who made it all worthwhile") gleefully predicts, "Honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020. Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attraction." That same year, Gingrich co-authored with William R. Forstchen an awkwardly written what-if novel, 1945, about a Nazi-dominated Europe. Sample dialogue from the first page: "I wish I could just divorce Mrs. Little Goodie Two-Shoes."

Gingrich's tenure as speaker will always be associated with his decision to force a series of governmental shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 as part of his budget showdown with Bill Clinton. A re-energized Clinton decisively won the battle in both the public-relations and political arenas. According to Taylor Branch's book, The Clinton Tapes, an account of his private White House conversations with the president, "Clinton said he thought Gingrich and his caucus were fooled by their own propaganda about the moral force of their own crusade." In his intriguing, if little-noticed, 2008 book on the relationship between Gingrich and Clinton, The Pact, the historian Steven M. Gillon concludes, "Gingrich led the Republicans into battle with a deeply flawed plan. When the president put up more resistance that he expected, Gingrich had no alternative plan."

What lessons does the Gingrich of today derive from this 16-year-old strategic blunder? That is the kind of question that is almost never asked on the campaign trail or in the debates. Any sadder-but-wiser insights from Gingrich are more relevant to his potential presidency than another rendition of his opposition to President Barack Obama's health care law. Certainly, Clinton's theory that his adversary believed his own spin and Gillon's assessment that the speaker failed to plot out his backup chess moves suggest potential pitfalls for Gingrich as president.

What makes Gingrich, then and now, such a complex political figure is what happened after the government shutdown. The surprising thesis of The Pact is that Gingrich and Clinton were poised to negotiate a landmark compromise to reform Social Security and perhaps Medicare. While Gillon, who is on the faculty of the University of Oklahoma, may place too much weight on a secret White House meeting in late 1997 between the president and the speaker, the efforts at bipartisan cooperation between the two men are undeniable. Michael Waldman, who was Clinton's chief speechwriter, told me, "The premise of The Pact is right. After the government shutdown, Clinton and Gingrich worked together to try to solve big problems." Pointing to balanced budgets and welfare reform, Shays said, "We got Bill Clinton to work with us."

Newt Gingrich's record as an apostle of let's-make-a-deal governing, does not fit into the standard campaign-trail rhetoric any more than Ronald Reagan's record of tax increases does. During the mid-1990s, Republicans were so busy lionizing Gingrich's conservative credentials and Democrats were so adroit at demonizing him that it was hard to see the real leader amid the fog. Further complicating the portrait—then and now—are Gingrich's grandiose pronouncements and outbursts of temper.

What ended this little-known era of good feeling between the speaker's office and the White House was the Monica Lewinsky scandal that broke in mid-January 1998, just before Clinton's State of the Union Address. Surprisingly, rather than reveling in the president's misfortune, Gingrich initially tried to be helpful. Waldman, in his book POTUS Speaks, recounts that Clinton told him as they worked on the State of the Union, "Did you hear about my phone call from Newt? He strongly suggested putting some bipartisan applause lines at the top."

Whether it was because of his own tangled love life, a sense of political realism or lingering affection for Clinton, Gingrich did not bellow outrage during the early months of the Lewinsky saga. As Shays put it, "Newt was never gung-ho on impeachment." Even when the issue was before the House Judiciary Committee, Gillon writes, "Gingrich avoided making headlines as much as possible, and when he did speak about the proceedings, his words were measured and balanced." But Gingrich can also be a vicious partisan—and he eventually joined the mob. His motivation was probably a mixture of internal pressure from the firebrands in his House caucus and the messianic sense that he could bring down a president just as he once destroyed House Speaker Jim Wright. Once again Gingrich miscalculated, stepping down under pressure as speaker just a few days after the Democrats unexpectedly gained House seats in the 1998 elections.

Back in 1995, Gingrich told the New Yorker in an interview, "I'm not a natural leader ... I'm too intellectual. I'm too abstract. I think too much." Now Gingrich, who has been thinking about running for president since 1996, is closer to power than he has been since he was defrocked as speaker more than 13 years ago. If elected president (and those words seemed ludicrous just a few weeks ago), would Gingrich govern as a centrist Republican or a right-wing true believer? Judging from Gingrich's complex record as House speaker, the answer may well be both.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of articles examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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