The news today of a Republican "Pledge To America" -- a deliberate evocation of Newt Gingrich's egregious "Contract With America" in 1994 -- sickens me. I'm reminded of Karl Marx's famous dictum, that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.
We're heading for the tragedy part! It isn't that we've forgotten the past -- and its consequences -- it's just that we seem unable to reverse the historical tide. The political philosopher Hegel had pointed out in 1837 that "a coup d'état is sanctioned as it were in the opinion of the people if it is repeated... Through repetition, what at the beginning seemed to be merely accidental and possible, becomes real and established." Marx hated that idea -- and his famous dictum was, in fact, a historian's protest against human nature.
We, too, can protest -- but can we fight the evil tide of Know-Nothingness that is sweeping the country and potentially handing congressional power over to a group of dimwits, determined to ruin the American empire?
It may be instructive, if sad, to re-read what I wrote about September 1994 in the second volume of my Clinton biography, published three years ago.
Why did Bill Clinton, possessed with such supersensitive antennae to political danger, not appreciate the WMD that Newt Gingrich was preparing throughout the summer of 1994?
Newt Gingrich was, in the summer of 1994, simply a firebrand in Clinton's eyes: a controversial, attention-seeking, "confrontational activist" congressman; a clever man who understood the sea-change that had taken place in media coverage of politics since Watergate, and with the help of moguls such as Rupert Murdoch had made his Faustian bargain with it. "You have to give them confrontations," Gingrich told a group of conservative activists. "When you give them confrontations, you get attention; when you get attention, you can educate." It was a feisty approach to self-promotion, but hardly the stirrings, in the President's eyes, of a real threat to the Democratic Party's hold on the House of Representatives.
How wrong he was, he would now discover.
Confrontation was certainly the key to Gingrich's strangely aggressive behavior. For years he'd made a name for himself as a lecturer and speaker, without ever getting significant press coverage. Then, one day, he'd deliberately crossed swords with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Congressman "Tip" O'Neill, and had won the national attention he craved. "In the minute Tip O'Neill attacked me," Gingrich later boasted, he and I got 90 seconds at the close of all three network news shows."
From there, Gingrich had gone on to achieve further television-grabbing notoriety on the Hill by charging O'Neill's successor, distinguished World War II-veteran and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jim Wright, with ethics violations in 1988 over a vanity book he'd published. (These soon rebounded, however, onto "bomb-thrower" Gingrich - indeed reduced him to a sobbing wreck when Democrats attacked him the following year as a neo-McCarthyite, and countercharged him with no less than 84 ethics violations of his own. A special prosecutor had to be appointed to investigate the charges -- a process which would eventually cost American taxpayers $1 million.)
Such had been the opening salvos in a series of bitter new, internecine, profoundly partisan uncivil civil warfare in Congress that could only bring dishonor to the House.
Gingrich had only himself to blame. Drying his eyes, the Georgian Republican congressman had merely continued his antics. If that was the only way he could get his ideas written about, mentioned on television and radio, and debated in modern, tabloid America, then so be it, he reasoned - content to be considered in his own words, "just about the most disliked member of Congress."
This was the very opposite of Bill Clinton - who wanted everybody to like him, and would go to almost any pains to elicit approval. What President Clinton failed to acknowledge, however, was Gingrich's relentless if subversive generalship, compared with his own. Newt Gingrich's private life might be a mess, and his insensitivity to real people - especially ailing people - heartless, but his political drive and dogged
organizing capacity were extraordinary. Clearly there was a messianic quality to the teachings of radical-conservative Congressman Newt Gingrich -- something skeptics dismissed as psychologically inspired by his rootless background as the son of a manic-depressive mother and tyrant military stepfather: an attempt to create order out of disorder -- disorder he himself was intent upon creating!
Trust was not a quality that Gingrich's behavior inspired in Congress, but there was certainly sincerity in his belief in a revitalization of the American economy and society by promoting a Reagan/Thatcher-like cultural shift from dependence on welfare to freedom of economic opportunity....
It was in the context of his "Renewing American Civilization" lectures that Congressman Newt Gingrich - bookworm, lecturer and proseletyzer -- had decided to go one step further in his long campaign to convert younger people to Republican opportunity-led values and wrest the House of Representatives from Democratic control. There was a chance for Gingrich not only to succeed Michel as minority leader but, if the Republicans could win enough seats in Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections, for Gingrich to become Speaker of the House.
For Republicans to win back control of the House after some 41 years, however, they would need a document, a solemn declaration, a manifesto, Gingrich reasoned: a clearly defined agenda of political goals that would distinguish them from their opponents. Traditionally, mid-term elections were fought locally, not nationally. In a step that would put Newton LeRoy Gingrich into the political history books, he decided to reverse that approach. In the 1994 gubernatorial, senate and congressional election campaigns he would wage war as a national revolutionary army, controlled from a central headquarters, not as guerrilla warriors fighting in penny packets.
As a student of military history, the stepson of a colonel, an "army brat" who'd visited the battlefields of Normandy, the Somme and Verdun, and who'd probed the battles of the Revolution and the Civil War for their lessons at home, Gingrich thus presented himself as a new kind of Republican general. A man of ideas. And an inspiring, if insensitive, trainer of troops.
Bill Clinton, though ex officio Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America's military, had perilously few forces to face insurrection at home. Indeed the problem for General Clinton in America was his Party... His brand of Democratic centrism, as a New Democrat, had appealed to many voters tired of liberal-versus-conservative ideology and gridlock, and responsive to the promise of a new, middle-of-the-way forward. But his subsequent administration hadn't cured gridlock, despite a three-way lock on the White House and the Capitol....
Amid the national lamentations [over the death of the health care reform bill] there were, inevitably, doomsday prognostications about its likely effect on the Democratic Party's performance in the November elections. But, before Dee Dee Myers could try to pin the defeat of health care reform on Republican obstructionism, the Democrats in Congress and the White House found themselves completely outflanked. On Tuesday, September 27, 1994 - one day after the final, official announcement of the death of health care reform in the 103rd Congress - Newt Gingrich launched his Scud missile. Standing on the steps of the Capitol's West Front beneath a vast banner rippling in the late summer breeze, and accompanied by a brass band, Congressman Gingrich stepped forward to face the banks of assembled cameras. He was there, he declared, to make a solemn promise to the nation, along with no fewer than 375 other congressional and would-be congressional signatories. The American welfare state was over; the era of opportunity was about to unfold. And to kick it off, the signatories were putting their names to a sort of Bill of Rights for Conservatives, based on ten bills that Republicans would present in the House of Representatives, if they defeated the Democrats in November 1994....
The legislative program was, as Gingrich later admitted, poorly received by the press, and soon trashed by the White House. But - as the House Republican Party whip knew from a prior, four-day flight around the country - it was exactly, emphatically what Republican candidates and voters had longed for: a blue-print for the neo-Reaganite future: a renewed "morning in America."
Excerpted from Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency, Public Affairs, 2007, pp. 333-348