The Republican who engineered the Republican triumph of 1994 was neither a NeoCon nor a Christian Restorationist. He had contempt for the gentlemanly Republican leadership he encountered. Newt Gingrich more than anyone else taught his party that ruthlessness had to be their long-term strategy. His tactics yielded great success for the party, but it is becoming clear that they have done grave damage to the legislative process.
Next to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, Congressman Newt Gingrich made the greatest contribution to making the GOP the nation’s dominant party. After two unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in Congress, the young history professor was elected in 1978 to represent a suburban Atlanta district. He predicted that he would become Speaker, and with Robert Walker of Pennsylvania and Vin Weber of Minnesota, organized the Conservative Opportunity Society. They set out to organize the Young Turks in the Republican caucus and work to replace what they thought was the tired and too gentlemanly leadership of their party in the House. As Dick Armey, a Young Turk explained, the more traditional members of the caucus were “Establishment Republicans” who were too committed to civility, moderation, bipartisanship, and above all avoiding gridlock. Gingrich complained, “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” In 1988, Gingrich told a Heritage Foundation audience that “This war [between liberals and conservatives] has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars.” Gingrich and his associates realized that the televised House proceedings on C-SPAN presented them with a great opportunity and they came to monopolize television time when no one else was in the House, particularly after the end of regular business. Because the rule was that the TV cameras focus tightly on the person speaking, most viewers would not realized the chamber was almost empty. Gingrich and his collaborators also set up situations that forced the Democratic leadership to strong arm the “Confederates” or “ boll weevils,” which eventually led some of them to become Republicans.
The Democrats, then laboring with a smaller majority, were tightening procedural rules to make it easier for them to rule. All this played into the hands of Gingrich, who claimed that the Democrats were tyrants who needed to be replaced. Of course, Newt claimed that the House Democrats had long used high-handed tactics to rule. While Gingrich’s greatly exaggerated claims did not win him many supporters in the House, he did acquire a large following among C-SPAN viewers.
When COS speakers began claiming that many Democrats had been apologists for Communist regimes, Speaker O’Neill became enraged and ordered the cameras to show that they were speaking to a nearly empty chamber. A trailer on the screen indicated that the regular business of the House had been concluded. It was within the Speaker’s power to make these changes, but he should have at least notified the Republican leadership about what he was doing. Gingrich dubbed the affair “Camscam” and insisted it showed how dictatorial the Democratic leadership had become. The Republican House leaders were forced to come to his support, and Gingrich became an instant celebrity and leading Republican spokesman in May 1984. With Gingrich setting the tone for Republican rhetoric, civility deteriorated badly. O’Neill was demonized by the Far Right and the Speaker was physically attacked in a Chicago airport by an angry citizen. O’Neill also began to receive death threats.
The angry and frustrated Democratic leadership sought revenge by declaring Representative Frank McCloskey the winner in an Indiana race he had probably lost by four votes. Nineteen Democrats, including ultra-liberal Barney Frank, refused to agree to this abuse of power. Both parties had done this sort of thing in the past, but the Democrats occasionally used procedural tricks to accomplish it and gave Gingrich more ammunition. These Democratic missteps would cost their successors dearly as they would justify far worse abuses of majority power when the Democrats became a minority in 1995. Until Gingrich was within sight of taking over Congress, a substantial number of Republicans actively opposed his tactics, while sharing his desire to win control.
The Georgian had his own political action group called GOPAC and operated the American Campaign Academy to train Republican activists. Two other tax-exempt foundations funded it. Gingrich’s key allies were Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey. Senate Republican leader Robert Dole called them the “young hypocrites.” Similarly, Barry Goldwater disowned the new conservatives, telling them, “Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists, and you hurt the Republican Party much more than the Democrats have.” Newt convinced his House Republican colleagues that they would never regain the majority unless they were constantly on the attack. His first great success was the scalp of Speaker Jim Wright, who was forced to resign in 1989 because he pressured lobbyists to purchase about $40,000 worth of Wright’s book, Reflections of a Public Man. In retrospect, it was a relatively minor matter, particularly in comparison to Gingrich’s own acknowledged ethics violations. Wright was eventually fined $300,000 and found guilty of abusing tax-exempt foundations and misleading the house Ethics Committee in sworn testimony.
In 1986, Gingrich took over a conservative activist organization called GOPAC, which he thought was insufficiently nasty. He proved to be a first-rate fundraiser and used some of the money to recruit right wing candidates for Congress. Richard Mellon Scaife was a significant contributor. He told young Republicans it was acceptable to do things considered wrong if it was for the conservative cause. GOPAC materials for GOP candidates urged them to demonize Democrats and urged them to speak like Newt, calling Democrats advocates of criminal rights, traitors, “bizarre,” “sick,” “pathetic,” and “corrupt.” As late as 1995, Gingrich was supporting the proposition that Vincent Foster was murdered.
The Georgia Congressman characterizing liberals and Democrats as “the enemy of normal Americans.” He claimed, “left wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness.” He was certain that Susan Smith’s 1994 drowning of her two children in South Carolina could be traced back to the hedonism of the 1960s and the “counterculture and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.” It turned out that Smith’s stepfather was an official in the Christian Coalition and a backer of Pat Robertson for president.
Many had noted that the process had become much more partisan. Some Democrats, like the former Speaker Jim Wright, bear more than a little responsibility for this, but young Republicans under the guidance of Newt Gingrich bear most of the responsibility for the breakdown of the traditional system of governance. “The System,” valued reasonable debate, comity, and willingness to compromise. Within the Republican Party, especially in the Senate, there were still some moderates who were deeply committed to The System. The most important of them was John Chaffee of Rhode Island, who observed, “There’s a new breed of pit terrier around here. What they want to do is get a hold of the calf of somebody’s leg and hang on. There is a spirit of meanness out there.” Some of the change in attitude may be attributed to the rising dominance of the West and South in the Republican Party. Senator David Durenberger noted, “Those of us from the Midwest and Northeast are not familiar with that particular style.”
Sherman has written African American Baseball: A Brief History, which can be acquired from LuLu Publishing on line.http://www.lulu.com/browse/search.php?search_forum
"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past." Orwell-- The US is probably moving toward becoming a heavily controlled Rightist state. This blog is an effort to document how that happened.
- Sherman De Brosse
- Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping. It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!