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Their Long and Winding Road

Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo
One-time insurgency partners, current Speaker John Boehner (left) was part of a 1997 attempted coup of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Boehner, who at the time was the Conference chairman, couldn't coordinate a message for his party with Gingrich at the mic. Gingrich famously fumed in the midst of a government shutdown over the "snub" of being ignored by then President Bill Clinton during a long trip on Air Force One to the funeral of Israel's slain prime minister. "You just wonder where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?" Gingrich asked.

Before long, the disruptive government shutdown triggered by a fight over spending had been recast as the result of a Republican Speaker who was in a snit over a plane ride. And there was more: Gingrich talked expansively about his policy ambitions, once saying that he expected the federal agency in charge of Medicare payments to "wither on the vine," providing Democrats with ready-made ad copy.

"I was supposed to be doing communications," Boehner complained to Roll Call in October 1997, "but everybody was doing communications."

Boehner confronted Gingrich about his Air Force One gaffe in a leadership meeting. Gingrich lashed back and later stripped Boehner of some of his messaging turf, handing it to an aide, Tom Blank.

It is a matter of style that still separates the two. Boehner likes to let the House "work its will" on open-rule voteathons, but he's no loose cannon.

"Newt is probably a little more willing to think outside the box," Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said. "John is a reformer, but he wants to be a little more within the lines."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, noted that Gingrich didn't delegate. With Boehner, "if you talk to the chief of staff, you've talked to the Member," Norquist said. "With Gingrich, if you didn't talk to Gingrich you didn't have him."

Looking back, Members say Gingrich's reign was chaotic, but productive.

"He brought about substantial change on his watch. Newt's energy and passion led to balancing the budget and welfare reform," Graham said.

"There's an element of chaos. Things aren't perfect, and they aren't smooth, and they aren't pretty," Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said. "I think a president who was very effective was Bill Clinton. And certainly he and Newt were very similar in that style of leadership."

Boehner has called Gingrich a "mentor." And their 1990s rifts appear dead: He's told colleagues that he and Gingrich have "agreed to look forward, not backward."

"They realize each other's strengths and each other's weaknesses," Kingston said.

It's not the only relationship Gingrich has repaired. His allies say he's matured.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who attended Gingrich's first communion when he converted to Catholicism in 2009, said he's been "very impressed by his faith."

"I sense that the Newt Gingrich, 68-year-old Newt Gingrich with two grandkids, is a different being than he was back then," Graham said. "He has a calmness about him I haven't seen."

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