Gingrich: Managerial Disaster?

What Newt's tenure as a House Republican leader says about his ability to lead an organization

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Reuters

Long before Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, his closest Republican allies knew he was a managerial disaster, a mercurial force of nature who bubbled with ideas but lacked discipline. Their assessment explains why many Republicans who have dealt with Gingrich over the years exhibit almost feral anxiety about what a Gingrich general-election campaign--let alone, a presidency--would be like. Gingrich spent his first 10 years in Congress as a powerful gadfly, a voice from the bleachers heckling Democrats and his own GOP leadership. In 1989, he decided he would move inside the tent by seeking the No. 2 post in the GOP leadership, minority whip.

The contest pitted Gingrich against then-Minority Leader Bob Michel's handpicked choice, Rep. Ed Madigan, who, like Michel, hailed from Illinois. Madigan was the face of the moderate old guard, Gingrich the leader of the brash conservatives who earlier had formed the Conservative Opportunity Society.

Gingrich knew he needed a capable campaign ally who could do something he couldn't--manage the race and accurately count votes. Gingrich chose Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, a charter member of the conservative group. Weber imposed one condition: If Gingrich won, Weber would have the power to appoint all of the new whip's staff. He wanted to buffer Republican members from the turmoil that Gingrich as a party leader would unleash. "I knew the whip job was not ideal for Newt," Weber recalled. "I told him, 'Newt, this is a concrete job, not a visionary job. It's not what you're good at.' "

With Weber's help, Gingrich won 87-85, a victory that crystalized the growing strength of the confrontational conservatives. Weber appointed four senior staffers--Arne Christenson, Annette Meeks, Dan Meyer, and Len Swinehart, all of whom came from Minnesota and had worked for him. "The whole office sounded like the set of the movie Fargo," joked Rich Galen, a longtime Gingrich communications adviser.

When Gingrich became speaker after the GOP landslide of 1994 that he helped to engineer, Weber wasn't the only Republican worried about the Georgian's erratic management style. "He had a new idea every 13 seconds," Galen said. "He just made everyone crazy. There was too much turmoil." Those who worked closest with Gingrich liken him to a car careening down narrow mountain roads.

Even those who remain close to Gingrich and fondly remember the hectic, agenda-driven energy of his early speakership concede that he wore his colleagues out. "We went from zero to 120 miles per hour," recalls Jack Howard, a former senior Gingrich aide. "We tried to keep him from going through the guardrails. But he went over the cliff a couple of times."

Gingrich, credited with helping to produce the first GOP House majority in four decades, initially lorded over the "Republican revolution" as something like a sun king. But just two years into his reign, by January 1997, enough discontent had developed over his leadership that it wasn't clear that the rank and file would give him a second term as speaker.

Galen remembers walking to the House from the Capitol Hill Club with fellow aides Joe Gaylord and Sam Dawson on Jan. 7, 1997, the day Gingrich was seeking reelection as speaker. "None of us were sure he had the votes," Galen said. Five Republicans voted "present," and four voted for others (including two members no longer in Congress). In the end, Gingrich beat Democrat Dick Gephardt with just three votes to spare.

Only months later, the speaker faced an abortive coup from a renegade group of about 20 conservatives. Eventually, House Republicans forced him out as speaker after a backlash over President Clinton's impeachment unexpectedly cost the party seats in the 1998 elections. Republicans lost five seats after Gingrich predicted they might win as many as 40, and he resigned from Congress. As it turned out, Gingrich was better suited at plotting the Republican revolution than at implementing it.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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