Live from the Oval Office, President Donald Trump sparred with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday as Vice President Mike Pence stared into the middle distance. Although the subject at hand was the border wall, the headlines were all about aggressive body language and raised voices. It was an extraordinary event—a public tussle in a setting associated with decorum. But the conversion of the Oval Office into a soundstage was long in the making.
Decades ago, Newt Gingrich divined that chaos was more telegenic than governing. He set the pattern that led to the spectacle of the most powerful people in politics bickering in full view of cameras.
Gingrich first won election to represent Georgia’s Sixth District in 1978, right as cable news was taking form: C-SPAN went on the air on March 19, 1979, and CNN launched on June 1, 1980. The Georgian was ambitious, and he wanted to stir things up. But he had little interest in committee work or legislation, and the Republican Party—in the minority—had little interest in bomb-throwing. Cable television offered Gingrich a tremendous opportunity. He realized that even though he was junior, he could command the airwaves if he gave the cameras some sizzle.
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.
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.”
O’Neill was humiliated; he was the first speaker to be rebuked for his remarks since 1798. But Republicans didn’t stop there. They launched a full-scale attack on O’Neill, depicting him as a ruthless autocrat. His actions damaged “the House as an institution,” complained the normally low-key Republican Representative Dick Cheney.
While the entire televised fight hurt working relations among Democrats and Republican, it made for great television. Gingrich, who bragged that he was “famous” after what the press called “Camscam,” explained to reporters that the “No. 1 fact about the news media is they love fights.” He said that “when you give them confrontations, you get attention.” Even Brian Lamb, the reserved founder of C-SPAN, admitted that “we’ve never had any more visibility than this … It’s been on the front pages of every newspaper in this country.”
The Camscam episode was but one example of how Gingrich mastered the medium of cable television early on; he understood, instinctively, that chaos plays better in front of the cameras than order. The serious business of government, negotiating agreements and passing legislation, makes for boring stories. Good old-fashioned fights, verbal or otherwise, attract eyeballs.
President Trump lives—and thrives—in the world Gingrich made. But there’s a difference between getting attention and solving problems, and politicians who are good at getting attention are not necessarily good at solving problems. Gingrich certainly was not. Trump, who boasted on Wednesday that he would be “proud to shut down the government,” isn’t either.