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At the time—and to this day—lawmakers would deliver “special order” speeches after the House had completed its legislative business, often for the purpose of entering items into the official record. C-SPAN filmed these generally dull, non-newsmaking events. Gingrich figured they didn’t have to be dull and non-newsmaking.
On the evening of May 8, 1984, when most legislators had already left Capitol Hill, Gingrich and his colleagues in the caucus he’d formed, the Conservative Opportunity Society, went to work. They co-opted the special-order system to read, one by one, from a lengthy report on foreign policy that criticized Democrats for having pulled back from military spending since Vietnam. The report characterized Democrats as left-wing radicals and naive peaceniks who were putting the nation in danger.
The speeches were pure theater. Other than the handful of people speaking, the House chamber was pretty much empty—but that wasn’t obvious on television. Rules adopted in 1977 stipulated that cameras could focus only on the upper body of the person delivering a speech (to avoid embarrassing members who might be caught picking their nose or schmoozing). Viewers on C-SPAN believed that Democrats had no response to the charges.
Initially, Democrats dismissed the stunt as amateurish and ineffective. Indeed, Speaker Tip O’Neill, the old-school Democrat from Massachusetts, believed that Gingrich and his followers would only help Democrats by exposing the lowness of the GOP. The entire operation was a “sham,” he said.
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But Gingrich kept it up, night after night, focusing on the hot-button issue of Nicaragua and the Democrats’ move to limit the Reagan administration’s assistance to the anti-leftist Contras. When Gingrich and his comrade Robert Walker went after Representative Eddie Boland, the author of the Nicaragua amendments, O’Neill lost his cool. “The camera focused on Gingrich, and anybody watching at home would have thought that Eddie was sitting there, listening to all of this,” O’Neill recalled. The speaker was so mad that he violated the rules of the House by instructing the cameraman to pan to the empty chamber so that viewers could see that this was all a ruse.
On May 15, regular order totally broke down when O’Neill dropped his gavel, handed control of the chamber to Representative Joe Moakley, and walked down to the podium. With his face blistering red, O’Neill asked: “Will the gentleman yield?” Gingrich finally stopped speaking. O’Neill then reprimanded him: “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”
Gingrich was absolutely thrilled. O’Neill had taken the bait. That was the point: to create conflict. The Republican Trent Lott demanded that O’Neill’s comments be struck from the Congressional Record since rules prohibited personal attacks. The parliamentarian William Brown agreed with Lott, and Moakley was forced to order that his leader’s words be removed from the record and issued a rebuke. O’Neill “looked back at me and just shook his head,” Moakley later said. “Boy, he could have killed me.”