Their Long and Winding Road
Spanning Almost 20 Years, Current and Former Speaker Share a Somewhat Tumultuous History
Days after Nancy Pelosi took the Speaker’s gavel in 2007, former Speaker Newt Gingrich told Republicans at a closed-door retreat in Cambridge, Md., “John Boehner will be Speaker, and it will happen more quickly than you can imagine.”
It was not Gingrich at his boldest. “I want to shift the entire planet,” he told the Washington Post in 1985.
But with his remarks coming immediately after steep losses for Republicans, Gingrich showed surprising confidence in and support for the Ohio Republican.
Things have not always been so rosy between the two, whose shared history — and ideology — spans nearly 20 years in public life. They have sharply different personalities and have run the House with distinct styles. But as Gingrich rises in his presidential bid, these one-time partners in insurgency are near the height of their political power at the same time. Again.
The worst days in the Gingrich-Boehner relationship came in 1997, when a band of frustrated conservatives eager for more rapid changes launched a coup to depose Gingrich, who had been weakened by a House reprimand over ethical issues. Boehner’s role in the failed uprising remains hotly disputed, but in the tumult that followed, Boehner lost his leadership position.
Boehner has not yet faced an overthrow, but he has also seen plenty of unhappiness to his right — and much more quickly. Unlike Gingrich, who was widely credited with leading the GOP from 40 years in the wilderness to a House majority in 1994, Boehner is dealing with tea party conservatives who cite allegiance to a movement, not a person.
It’s interesting, then, that Gingrich and Boehner began as fiery right-wing insurgents themselves.
Gingrich forced Democratic Speaker Jim Wright (Texas) to retire over questions about a book deal (Gingrich later faced controversy over a book deal, too). Boehner rose to prominence as a member of the “gang of seven,” which attacked Democrats over the House banking scandal. “John Boehner from the 8th district of Ohio,” he said, introducing himself at a press conference in May 1992, standing next to Gingrich. “We’re literally unable, this Congress is unable to deal with the real issues in our society today until we reform.”
After a surge of legislative action following the GOP takeover in which Republicans passed most of their “Contract With America” agenda in a 100-day flurry, Gingrich settled in as a Speaker who didn’t really strive for order.
“We’d go from crisis to crisis,” said Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), an ally of Boehner’s. “Whereas Boehner sort of has this steady-as-she-goes approach.”
“Sometimes we’d take a position on Monday and it’d change by Wednesday,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was in the House during the mid-1990s and was a leader of the attempted coup.
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.”