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Sonny Bono got it first. Before most professional image advisers and veteran Republican pols had a clue, the freshman congressman from Palm Springs anticipated what would happen. Newt Gingrich was rocketing into a new realm, and he seemed to have no idea how different and dangerous it would be. It mattered little that he had prepared himself to be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives since his college days, or that he had spent thousands of hours with managers at Delta, Coca-Cola, Ford, and the Army studying how large institutions operated. Everything he had learned about leadership from examining the careers of FDR, Churchill, and Reagan was secondary now to one unavoidable fact that a mustachioed little guy who crooned "I Got You Babe" with Cher intuitively understood when others did not.
Bono issued his warning on the morning the world changed: January 4, 1995. Sonny's first day as congressman. Newt's first day as speaker. The revolution was already in full, dizzying swirl. Newt was marching from meeting to interview to speech with the bearing of an overstuffed field general, surrounded by the hubbub scrum of aides, photographers, and press hacks. As he and Bob Dole, majority leader of the Senate, were leaving a CBS Morning News interview in the old Agriculture Committee Room in the Longworth House Office Building, Bono approached them. The singer-cum-pol was scheduled to be the network's next guest, but before he went on the air he had a word of advice for his new boss. What Newt was feeling now, he said, was what Sonny felt the first time he cut a hit record. You dream and dream and dream and then all of a sudden it happens so fast.
"You're a celebrity now," he told Gingrich. "The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I've been there. I've been a celebrity. I used to be a bigger celebrity. But let me tell you, you're not being handled right. This is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need handlers. You need to understand what you're doing. You need to understand the attitude of the media toward celebrities."
Gingrich barely listened. This was the biggest day of his life. No time for alarms, especially not from Sonny Bono.
"Yeah," he said distractedly. "We'll get around to that."
The rest of it had been plotted for years, relentlessly, even when it seemed preposterous.
Back in 1979, during his freshman term in Congress, Gingrich had pestered the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) brass into letting him run their long-range planning committee. He had experience at this sort of thing, he told them: he had chaired a similar panel at West Georgia College during his teaching stint there. He visited the NRCC offices day and night, proposing one grand idea after another. The joke at committee headquarters was that they had a wall lined with filing cabinets loaded down with "Newt's Ideas." One lonely cabinet in the corner was labeled "Newt's Good Ideas." But his one all-consuming idea never changed. Someday there would be a Republican majority in the House with him at the top. His mission throughout the next decade was to crumble the pillars of Democratic rule while constructing a new framework for his own rise.
He alternately worked the positive and negative. Positive: Build the Conservative Opportunity Society of congressmen who shared his vision. Negative: Use the group to tear down Democratic leaders like House Speaker Jim Wright. Positive: Train state and local Republican troops for a new majority through GOPAC, a national political action committee that Gingrich developed as a conservative farm club. Negative: Pound the Democrats for abuse of power and treat misdeeds such as the House Bank check-bouncing episode like the biggest scandals in American history. The public saw only the incendiary Newt, tossing hand grenades from the House back bench, saying anything to rile the opposition. Those images captured part of his dual character. They would linger long after he tried to transform himself into a sober leader, making it doubly difficult for him whenever he regressed back to his old outrageous self. The positive Newt, the visionary party builder, operated largely out of public view. The press rarely covered internal minority party politics in those days. Interest in House Republicans was as low, as one adviser lamented, "as whaleshit on the bottom of the ocean."
Gingrich's years of tactical maneuvering took a profound turn in the spring of 1993. By then he was minority whip, ostensibly second-in-command to Minority Leader Bob Michel of Illinois, yet heir apparent and de facto general of his party in the House. Michel still ran the floor operation. He loved the floor, he thought the day-to-day action was the central function of Congress and all the rest was foolish nonsense. He left the larger strategic questions to Gingrich, a most unusual whip who seemed indifferent to what was moving on the floor. Gingrich was consumed by bigger ideas. Improbable though it still seemed, he thought the time had come to prepare for Republican rule and solidify his future leadership team.
Operating on a simple principle -- "What is the smallest group that can effect things?" -- he decided on a group of five. Dick Armey of Texas, the former college professor who had just been elected chairman of the Republican Conference, someone Gingrich regarded as his equal in intelligence and ambition. Conference secretary Tom DeLay, another Texan and an aggressive operator who was developing his own power base and, like Armey, could be a threat unless he was brought into the team. Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, Gingrich's loyal sidekick and skilled parliamentarian. And Bill Paxon of New York, chairman of the NRCC, a cheerleader sort who brought business resources to the table.
At Gingrich's call throughout the next two years, the gang of five gathered regularly late at night in the back room of the Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue to "discuss the notion of taking over the House." Gingrich was maneuvering on two strategic levels at once. He was a politician with many allies but few close friends among his colleagues. From his analysis of how large corporations handled change, he understood that to transform the House he had to build not only tactical relationships but partnerships. The explicit purpose of the Hunan Dynasty meetings was to plot the takeover of the House, but Gingrich's Private intent was to form a partnership with his four colleagues that would enhance his power when and if they seized control. When the time came that they reached a crisis, Gingrich hoped, they would "instinctively know how to move as a unit." And his team would "gain momentum by training and delegating and trusting."
There was some inevitable tension within the group. Armey, the lumbering, backwater intellectual, had been a loner most of his life. Walker, the friendly, Howdy Doodyish former teacher who seemed comfortable sporting a pen protector in his breast pocket, and DeLay, a Texas popinjay with the icy chuckle of a hit man, were opposite personality types, and both were interested in the same job as Newt's whip when and if they reached power. But over time they bonded, just as Gingrich had hoped. Their staffs joked that they all pricked their thumbs and became blood brothers. They took on a private nickname -- "Just Us Chickens." As in "We meeting tonight, Just Us Chickens."
By the spring of 1994, Gingrich had the team where he wanted it. Each chicken had a specific mission. Gingrich would travel the country campaigning for the new troops he would need to seize power. Paxon would take the message to corporate America. Armey would prepare the policy platform for the revolution -- the ten-point plan that became known as the Contract with America. Walker and DeLay would run the floor operation together, sublimating their ambition even as they ran against each other for the job of whip. The chickens would hold a competition to see who could raise the most money for Republican challengers. Their assistants had melded as well into what was called a unified staff. Ed Gillespie, Armey's communications director, worked in tandem with Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary. Kerry Knott, Armey's chief of staff, was teamed with Dan Meyer, who ran Gingrich's operation. While this teamwork approach seemed to spread the responsibility around, it also accomplished exactly what Gingrich wanted, allowing him to maintain complete control.
As early as April of that year, seven months before the off-year congressional elections, Knott, acting at the direction of Armey and Gingrich, quietly began compiling a black book on the mechanics of taking over the House. How do you hire a clerk? Who do you get to fire? Who literally turns on the lights? How do you choose committee chairmen? Can you change the number and structure of committees? How do you make sure sensitive legislative documents are preserved and not shredded by departing Democrats? Who gets what offices'? Out of power for forty years, the Republicans had no precedents to fall back on. Thousands of things that the House Democratic leadership did as a matter of habit remained a complete mystery to the Republicans.
The planning grew more intense month by month. The day after Mike Synar, a popular Oklahoma Democrat, was defeated in a September primary by a little-known challenger who had successfully linked Synar to President Clinton, Gingrich turned to Dan Meyer and said, "I always believed we had a shot. Now it's getting more serious. We've got to make sure we have our act together in case anything happens." A few days later, Joe Gaylord, Gingrich's longtime nuts-and-bolts political adviser, turned to him as they were jetting across country and said, "You better start preparing for the speakership." The conventional wisdom still held that the Democrats would lose fifteen to twenty-five seats in the House, not enough to lose control. Gaylord projected a more dramatic result. He said the Republicans would gain fifty-two. The chickens spent the rest of the fall expecting to come home to roost. They took over precisely as Gaylord predicted. Fifty-two seats.
Gingrich prided himself as a manager. He loved the jargon. He had all these little sayings. He broke any mission into VSTP: Vision, Strategy, Tactics, Projects. He called himself the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board and Dick Armey his Chief Operating Officer. He sent his staff down to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine centers at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to study management techniques. They learned how to lay out branches and sequences TRADOC-style: If we get to this point, what do we do here? How do we sequence it out? They adopted the Army's use of After Action Reviews to study what had gone wrong or right on legislative initiatives. Gingrich brought in Fortune 500 executives from the Business Roundtable to share dinner with him in the Speaker's Dining Room and tutor him in the intricacies of downsizing a large institution. Take it further than you think you can go, executives from General Electric, General Motors, Eastman Kodak, and du Pont told him. The problems never ease up, they said.
But one issue was left untouched in all his planning: Himself. There was no discussion of the transformation of Newt Gingrich into a celebrity, a symbol, and a big juicy target for the revolution's adversaries.
Early on, there was some disquiet among the troops when Gingrich signed a contract to receive a $4.5 million advance to write a book published by HarperCollins, which was owned by Rupert Murdoch, the media baron who was one of the speaker's political benefactors and who had sensitive legislation pending before the House. But it took some time for the complaints to reach Gingrich. When he called around town, his informal advisers told him it was no problem. Bill Bennett, the former education secretary who had made a bundle on his own book, a compendium of value-laden children's stories, said Gingrich should take the contract. So did Vin Weber, the former Minnesota congressman who had been Gingrich's longtime ally. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee, offered the first words of caution, saying the hefty book deal might confuse the troops. Then during the Thanksgiving holiday, Gingrich started to hear from members of his leadership team. Paxon, Walker, and Susan Molinari of New York all urged him to drop the deal. "You can't do this, it looks like you're cashing in!" said Molinari.
Nicks and dents in General Gingrich's armor came one after another. On the very day he took office, he had to deal with the quote that his mother had whispered to Connie Chung -- Between you and me, Newt once said Hillary Rodham Clinton was a bitch. The old flamethrower image reappeared twice more in the first days of his regime. Once he declared that the Clinton White House was rife with drug abusers. Another time he offered the notion that more orphanages might help slow the disintegration of America's social order. House GOP Conference Chairman John Boehner of Ohio was stunned by the orphanage comment. "Orphanages?" he thought to himself. "I haven't heard that word in fifteen years." God, can't you get him to stop this stuff?, members started asking Boehner and others in the leadership team.
Still Gingrich kept talking. His speakership was built on talk. It was not coincidental that the favored guests in the Capitol during his first week in office were radio talk show hosts. They were stationed everywhere, in Statuary Hall, in the basement -- one radio gabmeister was even housed in a small room across the hall from Dan Meyer's office in the speaker's suite.
Gingrich talked. Every day from January through March, he held a daily briefing in the Capitol. He would not shut up. He believed that if he "poured enough energy into substance," meaning that if he concentrated his attention on the Contract with America and a balanced budget, the focus on him would seem insignificant in contrast. But he had made himself inseparable from policy. He was a celebrity, as Sonny Bono understood. There were other Republicans in the House who would try to shape events and burst into the news. But in the end they were all subordinate to Newt. It seemed that he was the revolution and the revolution was him.
Copyright © 1996 by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf