Coup de Newt
Republican frustration with Gingrich nearly derailed his speakership in 1997.


‘If you guys are going to do anything, you better do it now.”

Rep. Tom DeLay (R., Texas) had buttonholed Rep. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) on the floor of the House of Representatives, and he was warning his younger colleague to move quickly.

“There’s going to be a story breaking. If you’re going to act, you better act now.”

“I’ll get some guys together if you want to talk to us,” Graham replied.

Twenty members crowded into Graham’s office the night of July 10, 1997. Less than three years earlier, they had won a majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. Now, they were plotting to oust from the speakership the man who had led their victory, Newt Gingrich.

Since Gingrich had taken control in January 1995, Republicans in the House had held together. Focused on fulfilling the Contract with America, they passed a flurry of legislation, which kept them occupied — and their divisions concealed — for the first two years.

By July 1997, however, the contract was finished, and conservatives, particularly those elected in the Revolution of ’94, were growing frustrated with Gingrich’s leadership.

The speaker was disorganized. “He knew nothing about running meetings and nothing about driving an agenda,” DeLay writes in his memoir, No Retreat, No Surrender.

He was erratic. “On Monday, we would say we’re not going to give a $500 child tax credit to people who don’t have tax liabilities,” Graham tells National Review Online. “On Wednesday, he’d meet with President Clinton, and that position would change.”

“In May 1997 . . . Newt declared the GOP willing to separate tax cuts from other items in a balanced-budget deal that we were negotiating with Bill Clinton,” writes former speaker Denny Hastert (R., Ill.) in his memoir, Speaker. “That was news to us and represented a huge change in policy in less than twenty-four hours.”

He was hyperbolic. “He’d call something ‘the single most corrupt act in the history of Western civilization’ . . . always these Armageddon-type announcements,” says Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.).

The congressman still remembers that fateful trip on Air Force One in November 1995, when Clinton made Gingrich sit in the back. Miffed, the speaker later asked the press, “You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”

“I still think it’s the main reason we lost [the government-shutdown] debate,” King says.

He was not, some felt, equal to the task. When Gingrich agreed to reopen the government, conservatives felt betrayed. They had hoped Gingrich would wring at least one concession out of Clinton: a balanced budget.

“Before the government shutdown we thought Newt Gingrich was invincible,” writes Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) in his memoir, Breach of Trust. “After the shutdown, however, he was like a whipped dog who still barked, yet cowered, in Clinton’s presence.”