Opinion

Gingrich, Gephardt and the Day They Exchanged Power

Making sure the dance of democracy continued

Dick Gephardt, left, and Newt Gingrich sparred frequently in the 1990s, but understood the need for a peaceful exchange of power, writes Patricia Murphy. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It takes a lot for Donald Trump to shock a political audience at this point, but that’s what happened during last week’s debate when he said he’d let us all know whether he’d accept the election results once Election Day gets here. That followed weeks of claiming that the election is rigged against him and of warnings to his followers that the whole thing might be stolen at the ballot box.

The display was enough to make a person hate politics. But I have a surprising cure for you if you’re looking for a more inspiring example of American statesmanship — the moment in 1995 when House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt gave the speaker’s gavel to Newt Gingrich after the GOP won control of the chamber for the first time in 40 years.

If you haven’t watched the video of the handoff lately, you should. There in the grainy C-SPAN footage, you’ll see two adversaries rising together to a level of great leadership after a bitter campaign. Gephardt, magnanimous in defeat, told Gingrich, “with faith and with friendship and the deepest respect, you are now my speaker.”

Gingrich, who some remember only for his bareknuckled partisan brawls, was equally gracious in victory. He thanked Gephardt and outgoing Speaker Tom Foley for their hard work in the House before him and gently scolded his own caucus for cheering the Democrats’ defeat on the House floor moments earlier.

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The two men went on to spar with each other as leaders for the next four years, but they had a mutual respect for each other then and remain friends today. At an event that they headlined together in Atlanta last week, Gephardt remembered his thoughts on the morning he prepared to lead the same peaceful transition of power that had defined American democracy for more than 200 years before that day.

“I wanted to say the right things to put it in the right context,” Gephardt recalled. “To say, ‘This is a big moment, this is the end of 40 years of Democratic rule. We say it with resignation, because we lost, but we also say it with respect, because you are now our speaker and we will help you and work with you in anyway we can to make this work for all Americans.’”

Gingrich remembered walking from his apartment in the Methodist Building that morning to the Capitol, choking up as he described the moment he looked from the Speakers balcony toward the Lincoln Monument.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m a lieutenant colonel’s son, who has been awarded by the people of Georgia 16 years representing them and selected by his colleagues, and I’m not about to have this burden,’” Gingrich said. “‘And my job is to represent the country for as long as the country wants me to.’”

The years that followed for the two weren’t exactly a picnic. Republicans pushed government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. Later, they pursued the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But even with those emotional scenes playing out in the headlines, Congress continued doing the work of keeping the government running, while also passing major legislation like welfare reform and delivering balanced budgets.

How did they do it? Both men described a recipe that any legislator will recognize — the need for patience, persistence, literally years of meetings, and taking the long view. They also both spoke of a process that was agonizing and frustrating, but ultimately worthwhile.

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“The great genius of the American system is, tomorrow morning, the dance continues,” Gingrich said. “No matter what happens, the dance continues. Whoever wins in November, the dance continues.”

But what if one of the dancers isn’t dancing to the same tune? What if the political climate has become so dislodged from American tradition that a competitor like Trump refuses to accept the election results, no matter the outcome?

At a press conference after the event, both Gephardt and Gingrich said Trump had the right to wait until Election Day to decide how to handle the election. But that was where the similarities ended. Gingrich agreed with Trump that “the system” is rigged against conservatives and outsiders and asked why a Trump challenge to the election results would be any different from what Al Gore did in 2000.

But Gephardt said he is “horrified” by Trump’s rigged rhetoric, which “tears at the very foundation of our democracy.”

“As a former candidate, I can understand any candidate’s position that you do not want to preapprove the procedure by which an election is conducted,” Gephardt said in a later conversation. “But it is completely unacceptable for Candidate Trump to assert that this election is rigged against him. It is also completely unacceptable for him to assert that he will not accept the decision of the American people in this election.”

That the two men could disagree so strongly on Trump’s conduct of the election but also sit down earlier to discuss the strength of American democracy did not undercut their message of respect and unity — it reinforced it. Gingrich and Gephardt could agree on some matters, disagree on others, and the dance continued. As it always should.

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.  

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