It is also true that, somewhere along the way, Americans learned that, even as Gingrich gleefully presided over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, he had been catting around on his second wife with a much younger woman (a junior aide to another House Republican), who, after their six years of semi-public sneaking around, became the third Mrs. Gingrich. (To be fair, Newt might have stuck with his second wife a bit longer if she had honored his reported entreaties for an open marriage.) But Gingrich explained all that during his 2012 presidential run, chalking the whole unfortunate mess up to overwork, “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country.” Patriotism made him do it. Can’t fault a guy for that.
Also, if someone were really looking to nitpick, it is pretty remarkable that, a mere three years after Gingrich orchestrated the 1994 Republican Revolution, granting the GOP its first House majority in 40 years, his own troops nonetheless tried to depose him for being such a disastrous leader. It wasn’t until after the party got its clock cleaned in the 1998 midterms, however, that members finally managed to pry the gavel from Newt’s hands. On his way down, Gingrich sniffed that he had no interest in leading a bunch of “cannibals.”
All that and more (remember his tantrum over getting a bad seat on Air Force One?) helped make Gingrich a magnificent comic figure of the waning 20th century—and, come to think of it, a pretty good playmate for Trump, characterologically speaking. But what boggles the mind about Newt’s latest moment is not his personal foibles or his ethical slips or even his political ham-fistedness. The truly great irony is that, more than any other lawmaker of our times, Newt is the guy who screwed up Congress, turning it into the dysfunctional circus it is today. And now he is looking to slouch back into power on a wave of public rage over that very dysfunction.
How did Gingrich break the House? Let us count just some of the ways. For starters, there was his elevation of legislative obstructionism to a central political strategy. Long before there was the Ted Cruz government shutdown of 2013, there were the Gingrich shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, the latter of which lasted three weeks and still stands as the longest in U.S. history. Not that anyone should have been surprised. Such chaos was all part of Gingrich’s long-standing quest to undermine public confidence in government. As former Democratic whip Steny Hoyer noted in a 2009 interview with The Washington Post:
Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as [Republican leaders] and our party cooperate with Democrats and get 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there’s no incentive for the American people to change leadership. You have to confront, delay, and undermine and impose failure in order to move the public. To some degree, he was proven right in 1994.
In his zeal to cripple Democrats, Gingrich poisoned the public against the entire American political system. As a congressional scholar, Norm Ornstein has noted, Gingrich labored “to create a climate in which Americans would be so disgusted with Congress that they would say, collectively, ‘Anything would be better than this.’” And so, he launched “a long campaign to delegitimize Congress, politics, and politicians, and to provoke the Democratic majority to overreact, thereby alienating even moderate Republicans in Congress and uniting them against the evil Democrats.” (And make no mistake, Gingrich was very, very good at demonizing the opposition. As he’d lecture colleagues way back in 1988: “When in doubt, Democrats lie.”)