Newt Gingrich endured the most dramatic political flame-out in recent memory. In just six months, he was demoted from speaker of the House and one of the two or three most powerful men in America to a private citizen working quietly at a Washington think tank. Only skydivers plunge more quickly from greater heights.
Producer, writer, and director Michael Pack documents the former speaker’s stunning decline in The Fall of Newt Gingrich, a new film that premieres Wednesday, August 30 on PBS. (The program airs at 8 PM on channel 13 in New York City , and channel 26 in Washington, D.C. Check local listings for PBS schedule.)
This program, narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Blair Brown, bristles with an energetic “you-are-there” style. Pack’s hand-held video camera follows Gingrich like a laboratory rat racing within the Skinner box of hallways and offices that crisscross Capitol Hill. On the campaign trail, Gingrich darts down stairwells, zooms up elevators, and traverses hotel ballrooms, airport tarmacs, and holding areas all across America. He constantly juggles legislation, the ambitions of fellow politicians, and the pleas of lobbyists perpetually currying his favor.
Pack’s narrative structure is loose. While he traces Gingrich’s descent, he avoids the bullet-pointed, blow-by-blow style of most TV news shows. Instead, he captures Gingrich as someone at the center of a swirl of activity, usually under his control. “The typical day with Newt,” recalls his former chief of staff Arne Christenson, “you’d strap on the seat belt at 8:00 o’clock in the morning, and you didn’t unbuckle it until ten at night.”
Pack’s camera, usually positioned immediately behind or beside Gingrich, gives viewers a unique glimpse of what must have been one of the most challenging aspects of Gingrich’s job or that of any other major politician: the ubiquity of the national media. Along each corridor and around every corner, TV crews lie in wait. Aside from the men’s room, Gingrich cannot escape reporters’ endless questions and the networks’ curious eyes. As Dan Rather once observed, “The camera never blinks.” Of course, Gingrich generally relishes the attention. He grows frustrated, however, when his core message in the late summer of 1998 becomes overwhelmed by events. While Gingrich wants to speak with journalists about cutting taxes and “saving Social Security,” they only ask about Sexgate. Even while accompanying Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo at an event to promote Habitat for Humanity, Gingrich is peppered with queries about Bill Clinton’s “mistake.” As Gingrich later laments: “We were wallowing in Lewinsky and impeachment.”
Gingrich, nonetheless, plugs away as a campaigner. In some 370 events in 153 cities and 48 states throughout 1998, he appears on behalf of GOP incumbents and challengers, generating local media attention, and, of course, campaign cash. The speaker moves seamlessly among minivans, private jets, and a helicopter or two. Pack presents plenty of Americana along the way. A jazz band plays Dixieland songs while a woman dances in a red-and-blue vest covered with glittery white stars. Elsewhere, an adorable chorus of little kids sings “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”
At one point, Gingrich tells Lee Terry, a Republican House nominee from Nebraska, that he started his morning in Tampa, then departed for events in Michigan and Indiana, landed in Nebraska, and plans to head for Albuquerque before calling it a day. Pack shows Gingrich stumping for Terry in Omaha. After Gingrich urges voters to support the young candidate, Terry practically walks among the clouds. “It’s going to take me a couple of hours to calm down after this,” he exclaims. Later on, when Gingrich is campaigning just before the election in his own Georgia district, Pack catches him taking a cat nap in the back of a British double-decker bus. Gingrich wakes up to a nightmare. Rather than gaining between 10 and 40 House seats, his Republican conference shrinks by five members.
“This was a night I was generally confused,” Gingrich confesses. “It was not the election I would have predicted.” House Republicans, who had earlier tried to oust him in a failed coup, now demand Gingrich’s scalp for nearly losing their majority. Uninspired by the prospect of leading a smaller, more hostile majority, Gingrich decides to step aside as speaker and eventually resigns from Congress altogether.
While Michael Pack skillfully leads his audience on a surprisingly intimate, contemporaneous view of Gingrich’s turbulent flight into the sea, his documentary should have refreshed their memories of Gingrich’s egoism, bombast, and severe foot-in-mouth disease. Absent these failings, Gingrich might have survived the GOP’s November 1998 losses. He distracted attention from the GOP’s 1994 takeover of Congress with his ill-conceived, multimillion-dollar book deal. He created further ill will when he whined about having to exit the back door of Air Force One after returning from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. He caused even more jaws to drop when he blamed “the welfare state” for the murder of a pregnant woman whose baby the accused killers stole by Cesarean section.
Americans subsequently learned that while Gingrich was defending his House majority and presiding over President Clinton’s impeachment, he also was enjoying his own lengthy affair with Callista Bisek, a then-32-year-old House Agriculture Committee staffer. This relationship was not just immoral, but staggeringly reckless politically. Had reporters uncovered Gingrich’s adultery before the midterm elections, Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) likely would be speaker today. Pack finds the tragedy within this depravity when he zooms in on Gingrich’s then wife, Marianne, on Election Day 1998. “I voted for Newt!” she beams to journalists with a huge, proud smile on her face. She looks thoroughly, blissfully unaware that her husband is running around behind her back.
Pack’s interviews with such Washington insiders as CNN correspondent Bob Franken, congressmen Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott add interesting details and perspectives along the way. Lott, for his part, is as petulant as ever. He barely contains his disdain as he dismisses Salmon and other Gingrich detractors in the House as “ingrates” and “unappreciative puritans.”
After kissing the trappings of power goodbye, Gingrich seems smaller — even physically. Gone are the herds of reporters who record his every word. Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert now occupies Gingrich’s palatial suite of offices, complete with “the beach” — a large, sun-splashed marble balcony overlooking the Mall. Starting a new position as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich humbly assesses his new digs: a small office with a bookcase, one window and an average-sized desk.
As Michael Pack vividly illustrates, the harder they come, the harder they fall.