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On The Hill, Gingrich Made Friends And Enemies

Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a 1998 Capitol Hill news conference, flanked by Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner, left (the current House speaker), and California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox.
Leslie Kossoff
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich at a 1998 Capitol Hill news conference, flanked by Ohio Republican Rep. John Boehner, left (the current House speaker), and California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is new to his front-runner status, but he's hardly new to Washington.

He has spent decades weaving relationships in and around government — starting with his successful campaign to win the House majority back in the early 1990s. Some of his most ardent supporters now worked with him back then — but some of his angriest opponents did, too.

'He's A Quality Guy'

By the 1980s, Democrats had controlled Congress for decades, and Republicans were thought of as a sort of permanent minority. That is, until a zealous group of true believers set out to build a real GOP majority. Gingrich was at the center of those so-called young lions — because, says Rep. Joe Barton, of the power of his ideas.

"You really never hear Newt talk about what can't be done — he's always talking about what could be done," says Barton, a Republican from Texas.

The two men are very close. When Gingrich was Republican whip, Barton was his chief deputy. Decades later, Barton was among the first to endorse Gingrich's campaign — even back when it looked dead.

Why? Barton says Gingrich is that perfect political combination of whip-smart and soul-inspiring.

"People that don't know him get to know him [and] they're inspired by him," Barton says. "Quality counts, even in politics, and he's a quality guy — and it's showing in the polls."

'Not As Adept' As He Could Have Been

Not all Republicans who worked under Gingrich when he was House speaker are starry-eyed. Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette says Gingrich ticked off a lot of people back then.

"There were a lot of moments where he was not as adept as he could or should have been as the speaker," LaTourette says. "He'd probably acknowledge that."

LaTourette remembers meetings in the basement of the Capitol, with Gingrich pushing his agenda until 2 or 3 a.m. and not doing a whole lot of listening.

"He would have an idea that wasn't fully grown, and then ... he'd sort of shout it out anyway," LaTourette remembers.

And then came the coup: A group of Republicans unhappy with Gingrich started a whisper campaign calling for new leadership. Gingrich got ahead of that, quashed it, and ended up securing his speakership. That is, until it crumbled under the intensely partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton — and the revelation that throughout that, Gingrich had been having an extramarital affair with a member of his staff. The speaker resigned in disgrace.

'The Dumbest Single Thing I've Done'

One of Washington's great ironies is that there was really only one man pushed out of Gingrich's leadership team after that attempted coup: a young guy from Ohio named John Boehner — the current speaker of the House.

Another weird thing? A commercial, taped and aired just three years ago, for an environmental campaign run by Al Gore, Clinton's vice president. It features Gingrich sitting on a loveseat with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat, and talking about how "our country must take action to address climate change."

"If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation we need," Gingrich says in the ad.

Could this be a glimmer of bipartisanship for a would-be Gingrich presidency?

He was asked about it on a Fox News show just last month by conservative columnist Stephen Hayes — and Gingrich called the ad "probably the dumbest single thing I've done."

The Memo

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat, was also in Congress with Gingrich. And what she remembers is a memo his staff circulated. It was called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control."

"They had a lexicon of words that they could use when they talked about Democrats," she recalls.

The memo listed positive words Republicans should use to describe their ideas — like "opportunity," "common sense" and "reform." It also listed negative words and phrases the GOP should use to describe Democrats' ideas — like "welfare," "pathetic" and "criminal rights."

Today, Slaughter says, "I really do believe that he was responsible for a lot of the absolute vitriol that we have in the House."

There may be no one in Congress, in either party, who thinks Gingrich isn't smart. But there are a lot of people in both parties who have had tough relationships with him.

He's a fighter, most people say. And don't expect that to change if the country chooses a President Gingrich.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Seabrook covers Capitol Hill as NPR's Congressional Correspondent.