Burning Down the House
Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party
by Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin, 356 pp., $30
Around 1960, Mad magazine began publishing Spy vs. Spy, a cartoon commentary on the Cold War. In it, each spy has the job of undermining the other, which they do with gusto. So greatly do these spies relish the prospect of damaging and outsmarting one another that they become vulnerable to getting damaged and outsmarted themselves. Both travel in their vicious circles, investing their intelligence and cunning in the intricate work of self-destruction. Beyond the delightful visual gags, the comedy derives from the nihilism of the contest or from the reduction of what could have been honorable combat to something endlessly counterproductive. Spy vs. Spy was satirical homage to the logic of illogic.
American politics has come to resemble Spy vs. Spy. It is irrationally divisive. Multiple explanations have emerged for the partisan strife that has overtaken the American body politic. One account points back to the Vietnam War, which more than any previous military conflict (other than the Civil War) pushed Americans into two rival camps. The argument over Vietnam was not just about the war. It was about the country’s soul and whether the war expressed the high ideals of democracy or was the repudiation of those ideals. Anger over the Vietnam War outlasted the war, surfacing as recently as the 2004 election, when John Kerry and George W. Bush were both shadowed by the Vietnam chapters in their biographies.
Another explanation, popularized during the 2000 and 2004 elections, is geographic and color-coded. A red America and a blue America loosely correspond to the coasts (blue) and the heartland (red). In this scheme, the two Americas have distinct histories, distinct demographics, and distinct notions of the political good. Blue America is socially liberal, upwardly mobile, and outwardly oriented. Red America is socially conservative, pegged to portions of the working class and the business elite, and is nationally oriented. Barack Obama campaigned in 2008 against the red-blue separation. He opposed the perils a house divided, tacitly acknowledging the need to slay the beast of partisan rancor, which nevertheless ended up being a stubborn reality of his two-term presidency.
A third explanation rose to greater prominence following the 2016 election. This was the urban-rural divide, an updated version of the red-blue map. The Democrats are the party of the cities, of immigrants, of white-collar professionals and minorities, and of those who see urban centers as sites of innovation and creativity. The Republicans under Trump appeal to the countryside, to communities struggling with a post-industrial economy, and to those who associate tradition and decency with rural America. These three explanations are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they trace an evolution from the 1960s and 1970s to the early 21st century, a multi-generational, multi-decade parting of the ways.
In Burning Down the House, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian and CNN contributor who writes prolifically on American political history, finds a new solution to an old problem. He explains the extreme partisanship of today’s America by chronicling a single moment in the late 1980s, a clash of personalities and political ambitions that “opened up a new period in American politics.” Burning Down the House is a brilliant microhistory of a year in the life of the U.S. Congress. It is a snapshot of overlapping transitions—in the media, in political style, in the structure of the Democratic and Republican parties—that document the story of our times. It is too slender and too circumscribed a subject to explain the rise of Trump, however, or to get to the bottom of the Spy vs. Spy acrimony of domestic American politics. It is a piece of a piece of the puzzle.
For Zelizer, the world before the fall was that of the midcentury United States. It corresponds to Washington in the “committee era” of congressional history, which ran from the 1930s to the 1960s. The decades between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War witnessed lots of political tumult, but within the halls of Congress there was a baseline consensus on how business was to be conducted. Committees could expect a degree of bipartisan compromise. The press was held at a certain distance, and seniority within Congress was a crucial commodity, keeping in check the ambition and fire of youth. Zelizer does not celebrate all of this. Congress in the committee era could be clubby and insular; it could be backwards-looking. Its value was that it could legislate, which it did on civil rights and many other issues.
In Zelizer’s irony-filled telling of the tale, key transitions took place in the 1970s. Investigative journalism brought down President Nixon, releasing a wave of reform sentiment in Congress. The “Watergate babies,” who were elected to Congress in 1974, were eager to tighten the rules on ethical conduct. This they did up to a point, without eliminating “the nexus between money and politics” that in fact grew stronger in the 1970s. Private money in politics, lobbying, and the burdensome costs of campaigning created incentives for members of Congress to bend the rules. At the same time, an emboldened news media was hungry for shocking revelations and front-page scandals. In the 1980s, they would not be disappointed: They feasted on a steady diet of information that might previously have been kept behind closed doors.
National politics was more paradoxical than polarized in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the White House as a conservative. He admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt—yet wanted to retire the New Deal, convinced that the free market needed to be unleashed. By contrast, the House of Representatives was “the last bastion for the liberalism that Democrats had championed since FDR,” Zelizer notes. Democrats had had the upper hand in Congress since 1954, the year Senator Joseph McCarthy went down in flames. Whereas Reagan promised a break with the past, the House of Representatives was the guardian of New Deal tradition, and it could do a great deal to slow Reagan down. A clash was bound to come.
Setting the stage for this clash, Zelizer identifies Jim Wright as one gladiator. Wright came from a poor background in Texas and was a Southern New Dealer as well as a foot soldier in the Great Society initiatives of his fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson. In the House of Representatives, Wright had risen slowly through the ranks and was a true believer in “the strength of Congress as an institution.” Wright was 64 years old when he became the speaker of the House in 1987. He was not especially popular, even among Democrats. He was also accustomed to having Democrats in the majority. This longstanding situation encouraged hubris, despite Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and despite talk of an ongoing Reagan Revolution in the executive branch of government.
The other gladiator seemed to come out of nowhere: Newt Gingrich. Like Jim Wright, though twenty-one years younger, Gingrich had not been born to wealth. There was “the kind of blue-collar populist conservatism that Gingrich had been enthralled by ever since his childhood” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yet Gingrich started out as a Republican moderate, working on the Nixon campaign in 1960 and then for Nelson Rockefeller in the 1968 Republican primaries. In 1970, Gingrich joined the faculty of West Georgia College. Gradually, Gingrich had gotten “on board with conservative movement politics.” He was first elected to Congress in 1976, as the GOP was beginning to advance in the South and the Sunbelt.
Zelizer emphasizes the many ways in which Gingrich was sui generis. He was not deferential to authority and not willing to wait for his star to rise. More than on legislating, he focused his attention on media and on television in particular. C-SPAN, a TV station that broadcast live from Congress, was established in 1979, widening the audiences to which members had access. Gingrich took advantage of this free publicity by regularly criticizing Democrats on the floor of the House while the C-SPAN cameras were broadcasting. The viewers at home were unaware that Gingrich was often addressing an empty chamber. He referred to himself as “the first leader of the C-SPAN generation.”
Another lever of power Gingrich had at his disposal was the House Ethics Committee, set up in 1967. A do-nothing committee for much of its prior history, Gingrich pressured it into action. The investigatory reach of Congress could also be enhanced by a “special prosecutor, a hallmark of post-Watergate political reform.” It was inevitable, Zelizer writes, that these tools of government reform would become “weaponized in the partisan wars of Washington.”
Rolled together, a will to ignore etiquette, a desire to sensationalize issues for TV viewers, and the use of ethics regulations to shine a spotlight on one’s political enemies shook up Congress, as did a post-Watergate news media that disdained cozy relationships between politicians and journalists. Truth was what lay hidden in the darkness. Victory was a political career exposed to the brightest possible light.
The climax of Zelizer’s book is the collapse of Jim Wright’s tenure as speaker of the House. George Bush Sr. came to the White House in January 1989 with a conciliatory attitude toward Congress. He had a low-key patrician style and was famously open to raising taxes (once in office), something Gingrich fiercely opposed. In Zelizer’s words, Gingrich dragged America into “the mud of scandal” to win back the House of Representatives, subjecting Jim Wright’s financial dealings to intense scrutiny. Gingrich was boosted by unsolicited news reporting that revealed a man with a disturbing criminal background who was serving on Wright’s congressional staff. Wright was not convicted of wrongdoing. But the combination of an ethics investigation and a media pile-on led him to resign in May 1989. In his resignation address, he decried “vilification,” “vigilantes,” and “vendettas.” When he said that “all of us, in both political parties, must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end,” the entire House chamber rose in applause.
Wright’s demise, however, left the Democrats eager for revenge.
Gingrich went on to become speaker in 1995, but his political career terminated in scandal in 1999 amid what Zelizer describes as “an exhausting era where there were no winners, least of all the American people.” Zelizer labels Gingrich’s ascendancy emblematic of “the dark id of democratic politics.”
Burning Down the House sheds considerable light on the mechanics of partisan acrimony. These mechanics rely on a personalization of politics, on a preoccupation with scandal, on boundless ambition, and on a zero-sum mentality that stigmatizes compromise and privileges conflict. Newt Gingrich was not alone in his exploitation of these mechanics. In 1987, in an event mentioned only in passing by Zelizer, Senate Democrats roughed up Robert Bork when he was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court. This preceded the Wright-Gingrich drama. Indeed, the mechanics of partisan confrontation are now so familiar because they have been perfected on both sides of the aisle. But Gingrich’s collision with Jim Wright stands there poignantly at the beginning of the journey.
Zelizer’s book has two missing dimensions. The first is a careful analysis not of Gingrich’s tactics, to which Burning Down the House is richly devoted, but of his ideas. He was a college professor, after all. Instead of an impressionistic pattern of association—references to Rush Limbaugh achieving national syndication for his radio show in 1988, to Sean Hannity hosting a radio show in Gingrich’s home state of Georgia in the early 1990s, to Gingrich hiring Kellyanne Conway to help with his 2012 presidential run—Zelizer would have been better served by exploring the conservative populism of Gingrich and his followers. What was its aim? What made it popular? What happened to it under Bill Clinton? Under George W. Bush? Under Obama? And what is the ideological bridge from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump? This question takes one very far afield from congressional machinations.
The second dimension missing from Burning Down the House is structural. The decline of comity and civility in Congress is less a cause of partisan division than a consequence of it. The American house divided has its origins in political economy and in culture—including rising inequality and diverging cultural attitudes that are grounded in religion, race, and region. Congress in this sense is not much more than a mirror. The face reflected back in this mirror will be less ugly when American citizenship itself is renewed, creating the space necessary for the slow, steady, and anti-sensational task of governing the country.
Michael Kimmage, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America, is the author, most recently, of The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy (Basic, 2020).
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