Gingrich Shut Down the Government in a Tantrum 23 Years Ago

And American politics have never been the same.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin at the White House in December 1995 (J.Scott Applewhite / AP)

I’ve had it in my desk drawer for 23 years: a pink plastic pacifier, tucked into a piece of glossy card stock, with a cartoon of a diaper-clad Newt Gingrich brandishing a baby bottle and stomping his foot, and the caption, Now Boarding … Rows 30-35! It’s a treasured artifact of the 1995 government shutdown, when Gingrich confessed he’d forced the closing of the federal government partly because Bill Clinton had relegated him to a rear cabin aboard Air Force One on the way home from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Jerusalem.

Gingrich, then speaker of the House, triggered the shutdown that November by sending Clinton a stopgap spending bill he knew the president wouldn’t sign, because it raised Medicare premiums and cut environmental regulations. Clinton’s veto forced the closure of most of the federal government for six days—ostensibly over a point of principle.

todd s. purdum

But Gingrich soon confessed, at a press breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, that he had acted partly out of pique, because Clinton had seated him at the rear of the presidential plane and not talked to him on the long flight back from Israel. Moreover, Gingrich was forced to exit via the plane’s rear stairs—with the press and low-level aides.

“This is petty,” the speaker acknowledged. But, he added, “You’ve been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you, and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp … You just wonder, Where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?” Gingrich acknowledged that his pique at the seeming slight had prompted him to send Clinton a tougher spending bill. “It’s petty,” he said, “but I think it’s human.”

The next day, the New York Daily News ran that cartoon of Gingrich on the front page, with a giant headline: “Cry Baby.” Some Democratic group or other—just which escapes me now—promptly circulated the pacifier card in a gleeful piling on.

Clinton won the political battle over that shutdown, and a subsequent one a few weeks later. In fact, his tough stance in the standoff helped pave his way to reelection in 1996. But Gingrich had his own sort of revenge: The same day that the speaker complained of his ill treatment, Clinton asked an unpaid intern who was filling in on the skeletal White House staff to join him in his private office. Her name was Monica Lewinsky, and the rest, as they say, is history.

However Donald Trump’s standoff with Senate Democrats ends this week, it seems safe enough to say that there will be consequences no one can now foresee. There almost always are.