Newton Leroy Gingrich
With his election as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 1995, Newton Leroy Gingrich (R-Ga.) became a powerful politician. Assuming control of the first Republican majority in the House since 1952, Gingrich ruled that body during his first year with an authority not seen since the nineteenth century. The veteran congressman from Georgia used his new position to proclaim the arrival of an era in which his conservative agenda—including lower taxes, decentralized government, and deep cuts in social programs—would fundamentally alter the fabric of U.S. society.
Since his arrival on the Washington, D.C., scene in 1979 as a brash and combative new member of Congress, Gingrich has shaped and guided Republican efforts on Capitol Hill. With an affinity for both intellectual debate and back-room deal making, this white-haired former professor provided the vision, verve, and ideas that built a Republican majority. His opponents, however, accuse him of a lack of concern for poor and disadvantaged persons as well as an overly optimistic view of technology and the free market. Observers have described his actions in Congress as alternately brilliant and petty, leaving many to wonder whether he will be a passing footnote or a pivotal chapter in U.S. political history.
Gingrich was born June 17, 1943, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His parents, Newton C. McPherson and Kathleen Daugherty McPherson, were separated after only three days of marriage. Gingrich's mother remarried three years after his birth, and her new husband, Robert Bruce Gingrich, adopted Gingrich. Gingrich's adoptive father was a career army officer, and the family moved frequently, living in Kansas, France, Germany, and Fort Benning, Georgia.
In 1958, the 15-year-old Gingrich accompanied his family on a trip to Verdun, France, site of the bloodiest battle of WORLD WAR I. Deeply moved by the story and scene of the battle, along with a visit to rooms filled with bones of the dead, Gingrich experienced an epiphany that he later described as "the driving force which pushed me into history and politics, and molded my life." The day after this visit, he told his family that he would run for Congress because politicians could prevent such senseless bloodshed. Later, as both a student and a young professor, he would tell others of his desire to become Speaker of the House.
At age 19, Gingrich, who was then an undergraduate at Emory University, married his former high school math teacher, Jackie Battley. The couple had two daughters, Linda Kathleen and Jacqueline Sue. Gingrich completed his bachelor of arts degree at Emory in 1965 and a doctor of philosophy degree in modern history at Tulane University in 1971. A liberal, reformminded Republican in these years, Gingrich worked for Nelson A. Rockefeller's 1968 presidential campaign in Louisiana.
Gingrich took his first college teaching job at West Georgia College, in Carrollton, Georgia, with one eye toward an eventual seat in Congress. He nevertheless became a popular teacher at West Georgia, and founded environmental studies and future studies programs.
In 1974 and 1976, Gingrich ran for a seat in the U.S. House from Georgia's Sixth District, a rural and suburban region on the northern outskirts of Atlanta. Still voicing moderate and even liberal positions, he was endorsed in 1974 by the liberal newspaper the Atlanta Constitution. He narrowly lost both elections. In a move that some have called a calculated ploy to gain political office, Gingrich cast himself as a conservative for the 1978 election. In his platform, he called for lower taxes and opposed the Panama Canal Treaty. He beat the Democratic contender by 7,600 votes, earning a seat in the 96th Congress.
Shortly after his election, Gingrich and his wife separated. He married Marianne Ginther in 1981.
In Washington, D.C., Gingrich joined a number of Republican first-year Congress members eager to leave their mark on the political landscape. Unafraid of making enemies, he vigorously attacked Democrats and sometimes his own party, criticizing it for a complacent acceptance of its minority status in Congress. He called instead for an aggressive effort to build a Republican majority, a feat he would orchestrate 16 years later.
In February 1983, Gingrich began meeting regularly with other young conservatives in an organization they called the Conservative Opportunity Society—a name designed to contrast with "liberal WELFARE state," the favorite target for their ideological barbs. Gingrich and other young Republicans also gained notoriety for their creative use of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), which broadcast live proceedings of the House. This group used the "special orders" period of the House, during which members of Congress may read items into the record, as a platform to denounce Democrats and advance their own views. Although they were actually reading their material before an empty House chamber, Gingrich and his colleagues attempted to create the impression that they were making unchallenged arguments to specific Democrats. House Speaker THOMAS P. ("TIP") O'NEILL JR. (D-Mass.) responded by ordering the C-SPAN cameras to periodically pan the empty chamber.
By 1984 Gingrich had developed the basic outlines of his conservative philosophy. He published his views in a book, Window of Opportunity, cowritten with his wife, Marianne, and David Drake. It remains an excellent guide to Gingrich's thought. In it, he exhibited, in addition to a strong belief in the efficacy of the free market, a strong devotion to technology as an answer to social ills. He wrote of a "window of opportunity" represented by "breakthroughs in computers, biology, and space." Among his futuristic proposals was an ambitious space program, including a lunar research base by 2000.
He contrasted this vision of a bright future with a "window of vulnerability" that opened onto an alternative future of Soviet expansionism and U.S. decline. This dystopia was to be prevented by large-scale weapons programs such as Star Wars, also known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the dismantling of welfare programs and excessive taxation. The seventh chapter of the book, "Why Balancing the Budget Is Vital," foreshadowed a 1995–96 showdown with President BILL CLINTON over the FEDERAL BUDGET.
At the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Gingrich gained national attention as he led a move to make the party platform more conservative, successfully inserting planks against tax increases and ABORTION. He won still more influence in 1986, when he became chairman of GOPAC, a Republican POLITICAL ACTION COMMITTEE which is a principal source of funding for Republican candidates across the United States. The organization, which Gingrich once called "the Bell Labs of politics," also provided the means for him to spread his conservative gospel. GOPAC has distributed printed and audiovisual works by Gingrich to hundreds of Republican candidates. In the early and mid-1990s, it came under investigation by the FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION for alleged improprieties, including illegal assistance to Gingrich during his 1990 election campaign. Gingrich stepped down as the head of GOPAC in 1995.
In 1987, Gingrich took on a major Washington, D.C., figure when he accused House Speaker JIM WRIGHT (D-Tex.)—occupant of the very office Gingrich coveted—of ethics violations. Gingrich claimed that Wright had violated House rules in his dealings with a Texas developer and in the manner by which he had profited from sales of a book. Gingrich's foes immediately attacked him as an irresponsible upstart, but he remained unwavering in his attacks. As he later told a newspaper, "I didn't come here to pleasantly rise on an escalator of self-serving compromises." Gingrich won a major coup in 1989 when the House Ethics Committee formally charged Wright with 69 ethics violations and Wright resigned from the House.
That same year Gingrich lobbied for and won (by two votes) the position of House minority whip, making him the second highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. This victory represented an important step in his transformation from party pugilist to party leader. However, Gingrich himself soon became the object of a House Ethics Committee probe of alleged violations of House rules on outside gifts and income. The allegations focused on his earnings from two books, including Window of Opportunity. Later that year, Gingrich was investigated again by the same committee for improperly transferring congressional staff to work on his reelection campaigns. In both cases, the committee did not find sufficient grounds to reprimand Gingrich.
Gingrich nearly suffered defeat in the elections of 1990 and 1992, winning the former contest by fewer than 1,000 of the 156,000 votes cast. But these narrow victories were followed by a much wider reaching victory for both the man and his party in 1994.
Gingrich had done much to lay the groundwork for this win, particularly through his organization of the CONTRACT WITH AMERICA, a ten-point plan of action that was intended to give Republicans a unified front against their Democratic opponents. The contract called for such measures as tax breaks, a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, a presidential line-item VETO, term limits for members of Congress, get-tough proposals on crime, reduction of government regulations, welfare reform, military budget increases, and more. In September 1994, Gingrich gathered over three hundred Republican candidates for Congress to sign the contract on Capitol grounds.
The big GOP win in 1994 gave the party a gain of 54 seats and majority status in the House. In January 1995, Gingrich finally achieved his lifelong dream when he was voted Speaker of the House. His leadership soon led to a dramatic change in House protocol. Wresting control from committee chairs by placing loyal associates—many of them first-year Republican Congress members—on key committees, Gingrich became one of the most powerful speakers since the nineteenth century, at times virtually dictating the content of legislation.
Riding the crest of publicity attached to his new position, Gingrich published two books, To Renew America (1995) and 1945 (1995). To Renew America was a best-selling work communicating Gingrich's vision for the country. It presents a thesis that cultural elites have torn down the traditional culture of U.S. society. It also contains his already familiar calls to balance the federal budget and decentralize the federal bureaucracy by returning power to states and localities. The book 1945 is a "what if" novel that explores what the consequences would have been if Nazi Germany had been triumphant in WORLD WAR II.
Gingrich, eager to make his mark as Speaker, initiated a one hundred-day plan to enact the Contract with America into law. He passed nine of the ten items of the contract through the House, but only three—the Congressional Accountability Act (Pub. L. No. 104-1, 109 Stat. 3), the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (Pub. L. No. 104-4, 109 Stat. 48), and the Paperwork Reduction Act (Pub. L. No. 104-13, 109 Stat. 163)—were signed into law by the president.
Gingrich fought especially hard for one element of the contract: a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. After its defeat in the Senate, he organized a Republican plan to balance the federal budget in seven years. This plan included tax reductions and deep cuts in federal social programs. Most controversial were provisions requiring large cuts to such programs as MEDICARE and MEDICAID, which provide HEALTH CARE to elderly, disabled, and poor people. Over the course of 1995, President Clinton gradually adopted the goal of a seven-year balanced budget plan—a change of mind that symbolized the pervasive power of the Republican agenda.
When President Clinton vetoed the House budget plan late in 1995, Gingrich and his Republican colleagues refused to compromise their budget priorities. As a result, the federal government was forced to shut down nonessential services for lack of funding. The budget showdown forced national parks, agencies, and other elements of the federal government to close their doors. Gingrich came under fire as people complained of undelivered paychecks and other problems. The impasse ended in January 1996, when Gingrich and Clinton reached a compromise that allowed provisional funding of the federal government and abandoned the seven-year goal of balancing the budget.
In 1995, Time magazine named Gingrich its Man of the Year, a fitting recognition of the Speaker's large role in shaping the national political agenda. Such power had not translated into universal public approval for Gingrich, however, particularly given the unpopularity of the federal government shutdown.
President Clinton and Congress, despite their collective ideological differences, managed to achieve a budget surplus in 1998, years ahead of expectations. The surpluses grew from $69 billion in 1998 to $122.7 billion in 1999. Nevertheless, Gingrich's popularity dwindled during the late 1990s, due in large part to his policies and brash personality.
Republicans maintained control over Congress in the 1996 and 1998 elections, but the margin of the majority following the 1998 elections was the narrowest in more than 30 years. Fellow Republican members of Congress largely blamed Gingrich for the difficulties during the elections. Amid increasing dissension, Gingrich resigned both as the Speaker of the House and as a representative in 1999.
After he left politics, Gingrich founded the Gingrich Group, a communications and management consulting firm based in Atlanta. He serves as a senior fellow for both the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 2001, he was named a distinguished visiting scholar at the National Defense University. He has served as a political analyst in the media and is generally recognized for his expertise in such areas as world history, military issues, and international affairs.
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