Politics & Policy

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.

#ad#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.”

#page#Soon, the insurgents showed their displeasure. Occasionally, they would defeat the rule for a bill, a parliamentary maneuver that allowed them to voice their discontent with the leadership — without the press knowing exactly what was happening.

“We brought down three to five rules over Newt’s entire speakership,” remembers a former Republican congressman.

Republican leadership detected the mutiny, spearheaded by Reps. Steve Largent (R., Okla.), Coburn, and Graham. And, depending on whom you ask, leadership — namely, majority leader Dick Armey (R., Texas), leadership chairman Bill Paxon (R., N.Y.), conference chairman John Boehner (R., Ohio), and whip DeLay — either encouraged the effort to depose Gingrich or merely observed the situation.

#ad#Whether encouraging or observing, they didn’t fully understand what was going on. At the meeting in Graham’s office, DeLay asked the rebels whom they would pick as Gingrich’s replacement. When he mentioned Armey, Coburn balked.

“We want Paxon to be speaker,” he told DeLay. “Not Armey.”

After the meeting, DeLay reported his findings to other Republican leaders, and the next morning, Armey alerted Gingrich to the upheaval. “When Armey realized he wasn’t going to be Speaker, he backed out,” an anonymous source told Time magazine in 1997. Armey called the allegation that he was involved in the coup “ludicrous.”

Nonetheless, leadership patched things up the morning of July 11, and the coup was thwarted. Armey pled innocence, DeLay came clean, and Paxon offered his resignation. Gingrich survived this attempt on his speakership, but former congressman Mark Souder (R., Ind.) tells NRO that the coup was, in fact, successful. After Republicans lost seats in the House in the 1998 elections, Gingrich resigned his seat. The coup of 1997 set the stage for his exit.

In his memoir, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Gingrich notes that the rebels constituted only a fraction of the Republican caucus. “It would have taken 115 votes out of 228, and they could never, under any plausible circumstance, count on more than 25 to 40.”

Former congressman Bob Walker (R., Penn.) defends Gingrich. “Social conservatives thought there was not enough of their agenda being advanced,” Walker says. “But Newt was concentrating on holding together a majority that was pretty tight and that included some moderates who were not prepared to go along with the whole agenda of the social conservatives.”

Even his critics acknowledge his strengths. “We would not have won back the House without Newt Gingrich,” King says.

“He can be a historic president,” Graham adds. “If he has matured as a person and is, for lack of a better word, calmed down, I think he could really motivate the country to do big things.”

“He’s a true entrepreneur in the classic sense,” says former congressman Chris Shays (R., Conn.), who also warned Gingrich of the coup. “You can launch the business, but you can’t necessarily run it.”

Yet Souder argues that if more members of the caucus had known the chaos of Gingrich’s leadership, they would have supported the coup. And asked whether Gingrich has grown out of his proclivity for the grandiose, King replies, “I think it’s in his DNA.”

— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate of National Review

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