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Speaking of History: The Gingrich Era

November 10, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Now we look at the role of Speaker of the House of Representative with two NewsHour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. And two former Congressmen, Democrat Tony Coehlo of California served from 1979 to ’89 under two Democratic House speakers, Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright.

And Republican Robert Walker of Pennsylvania from 1977 to ’97 under Democratic Speakers O’Neill, Wright, and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, to whom he remains a close friend and adviser.

Welcome all. Michael, historically, what has been the role of the speaker, and when has it been most powerful?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, the role of the speaker has been really two things: one has been to preside over the House and run the House.

The other has been to in a way manage Congress because the presiding officer of the Senate is the vice president and usually has other things to do. But, you know, we’re so used to very strong presidents in the 20th century, we sometimes forget that for much of the 19th century the powerful figures in American politics were not American presidents but speakers of the House, especially during the period between roughly the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century.

That was because you didn’t have presidents with great legislative agendas, the force for those things really came from Capitol Hill, it meant strong speakers and weak presidents.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about in the 20th century, when have we seen the strongest speakers?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Well, just to play off what Michael said, Woodrow Wilson wrote a very great book called Congressional Government before he became the President of the United States. And that whole shift came really with people like Woodrow Wilson, a strong president, and then particularly the modern era since Franklin Roosevelt, really since that period and through television and all of these changes, the focus has been on the White House more than the Congress.

It doesn’t mean the speaker is not important. Of course, he is. He always was, but it was more until Newt Gingrich – it was more of a back side, back deal player. I remember Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, telling me what it was like when he became a member, that these two gentlemen, we remember so well, at that time Sam Rayburn of Texas was a very powerful, strong Speaker of the House, and he was the biggest whale in Washington. He – O’Neill said I wouldn’t even get on the inner sanctum unless he sort of nodded at you and when he lined this up on the rows and if he nodded at you, you voted.

He had total power of the seniority system which, in his own term, changed around. So you had a – you had a whole different context from that point on until – Gingrich’s heir is different. We’ll talk about that in a while.

MARGARET WARNER: So it used to be – in other words – a lot easier for a speaker to be powerful if he wanted to be, because he could deliver votes.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO, (D) California: Well, the reform system hadn’t hit, and TV hadn’t hit. But basically -

MARGARET WARNER: Explain what you mean, the reform system.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: The reform system – basically what happened in 1974 after Watergate Democrats came in and totally took away the power from committee chairmen, speaker, and so forth. At that point the Ways and Means Committee – one of the committees in the House – decided who got the Democratic positions in all the committees.

So it’s a very restricted group of about 15 people who controlled all the power. And if you wanted to move up in seniority, you wanted a subcommittee chair, a full committee chair, you’d better be good to these 15 people. And they controlled everything. When Sam Rayburn was speaker, he could control those 15 people, he controlled the House. Today, Newt Gingrich or Tip O’Neill, if you had 15 people on your side, you’re a loser. You couldn’t govern anything.

And the committee chairs then under O’Neill and now under Newt basically said go too and Newt tried to bring it back and did to some extent, but Tip O’Neill had a hard time controlling the House and I’m – only other one thing I would say is that when the Republicans came in, in ’81, they tried to paint Tip O’Neill on TV ads as out of shape, out of gas, so forth and so on, and Tip was reluctant to fight back. And Chris Mathews – as some of us have heard – Chris Mathews was hired basically to put his image back to where the real Tip O’Neill was.

So that was the first time we saw a speaker pay attention to TV. And understand that TV became critical for his governing. Now, Newt Gingrich had to pay attention to it, and Bob Livingston – whether he likes it or not – had better pay attention to it.

MARGARET WARNER: So Bob Walker, when Newt Gingrich came in and he did – did he not – strip a lot of power from committee chairmen by putting his own people in – was he trying to return to a day when he could exercise some sort of discipline?

FORMER REP. ROBERT WALKER, (R) Pennsylvania: Well, that was part of it, and, remember, Newt came with an agenda, and so when we sat in the rooms and decided who was going to be committee chairman, and our real focus was, were we going to be able to accomplish what the contract for a good America called for, and if we thought people were not going to be up to the job and were not going to do what was necessary, those people just got passed over, and other people were put in, and we tried to pick activist chairmen.

As a result, the speaker was able to influence an awful lot out of his office, particularly that first term. I think that actually created some bad habits for Republicans in this particular age, but it was very, very important in terms of literally pushing the entire contract, with the exception of the one, though, where we had to get a 2/3 vote, but pushing the entire contract through the House.

MARGARET WARNER: Which, of course, he had essentially crafted. Michael, was that quite new, that the Speaker of the House at least in the 20th century was suddenly the one who crafted the message and the vision for his party?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was new not only in the 20th century but for most of American history. We had Gingrich doing something that we had almost never seen before in 1994 and that was campaign to get a Republican majority and be Speaker of the House with the intention of changing the rules to give himself as speaker an awful lot of power over other members, so he’d be this very powerful legislative leader, but at the same time he wanted to be almost an alternative president.

He wanted to also appeal to Americans on TV and do that very directly almost as an alternative to Bill Clinton and that was something we’d never seen before. It was an experiment that in the end of course did not work.

HAYNES JOHNSON: In that sense it’s so true. I mean, we haven’t been here before. This is a whole new page of history, the history professor, Mr. Gingrich, wrote a whole new chapter – maybe a whole book – on what Tony was talking about, the power of television – you’re talking about the agenda that he had and the long years in the Democratic ascendancy in the Congress to assume – Tony, I’m sure, assumed that the Democrats were going to control Congress forever.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: Sure did.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But, you know – and here comes Newt Gingrich – he became equal to the President of the United States.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: Absolutely.

HAYNES JOHNSON: In national attention and power and influence. I mean, just when four years ago he was seen as more powerful than the President of the United States. He was the preeminent political player of the country and he was the spokesman, the articulator of the heart and soul of the Republican Party. I don’t think we’ve had that before.

FORMER REP. ROBERT WALKER: And the interesting thing is that if you measure that against the way major presidents did he, in fact, accomplish the things that he set out to do when he came in, Newt’s record is going to look pretty good, because the fact is a major part of that Contract With America was a balanced budget, welfare reform, those were – those were a main ingredient in what we had there. And while the administration can certainly take their share of credit and are very happy to do so for those two items, they didn’t exist as national agenda items until this speaker came into power.

MARGARET WARNER: But let’s go to that issue about what makes the “great” speaker, is it, as Bob Walker described and Newt Gingrich believed, having her own agenda, getting it passed, what is – what makes a great speaker if the president is of another party? Is it cooperating with that president? What happened in the past?

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: I think Newt was a very good speaker, and history will judge him very well for the first two years. The second two years they will judge him as to some extent not quite as well and to some extent maybe in a failure.

He couldn’t – his revolutionary zeal was one thing, and that it worked in the first two years. He couldn’t manage, though, and as a result, he couldn’t move legislation through the House in the second two years, and at the end, what he tried to do was to lump all kinds of bills together, force it through, force the President into a position – mistake – made a big, big mistake on that. And that was because the votes were close, and he couldn’t get the discipline he needed in order to get things through.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But give us a little perspective, historical perspective. How differently did he handle that versus say Tip O’Neill? He had a popular president, Ronald Reagan, of the opposite party.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: I think the interesting thing to draw an analogy with is Tip O’Neill and Bob Livingston. You have basically six votes in the House -

MARGARET WARNER: A narrow majority.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: A narrow majority. You had Tip O’Neill had a numerical control of the House in ’81 and ’82 but lost philosophical and political control of the House in ’81 and ’82. Reagan controlled the House of Representatives, even though Tip was the speaker.

MARGARET WARNER: Because of conservative Democrats.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: Because of conservative Democrats. It’s going to be interesting to watch whether or not Bob Livingston can get moderate to conservative Democrats to join him, or whether Dick Gephardt can get moderate to liberal Republicans – those few that are there – moderate or liberal Republicans to join him.

And that’s going to be the battle, and it’s going to be an interesting battle. Now, the White House will have to work with Dick Gephardt to make that happen. Can they do what Ronald Reagan did? Interesting point.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael, you’ve been trying to get in.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I have, and you know, the interesting thing is that Bob Livingston, I think, wants to be a powerful speaker but very much in the old-fashioned mode, wants to do it within the House and not as sort of a national figure. The fascinating thing about Gingrich is the second he became Speaker, he began wanting to run for president. That was early 1995.

I think he still would like to be today. And in a way the limitations of that are shown by history because when speakers have tried to run for president, it usually has not worked out very well. Perhaps the best recent case was John Nance Garner of Texas, who ran in 1932. He ran against Franklin Roosevelt and lost dismally, but one reason was that people at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that year saw Garner as someone who was perhaps very effective on the floor but in that larger national presidential arena someone of very limited vision.

MARGARET WARNER: Can a speaker return to that older model now, Bob Walker, especially when his party doesn’t control the White House, or does the media and the party sort of require him to be more public?

FORMER REP. ROBERT WALKER: Well, I don’t think any speaker can totally, you know, retreat to the back room and then wield power from the back from anymore. I mean, that era is gone. On the other hand, I do think that Bob Livingston has shown him what he did in the Appropriations Committee, an ability to manage on a day-to-day basis. I mean, one of the things Newt as a national leader did was went out to the country and preached the agenda in the country.

Others then were left to do the “hands on” day to day kinds of work. One of the mistakes, I think, Republicans made was they changed the management style that worked for Newt in the first two years, and I think it will be seen as a huge mistake because Newt worked best in a management style that had a small team around him who went out and implemented things. When they went to a broader leadership group trying to do it, they lost their ability to be decisive, and they lost their ability to implement.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: They needed a leader.

FORMER REP. ROBERT WALKER: Yes. And that I think proved to be a tremendous mistake.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Margaret, there’s one little analogy that might be worthwhile at the moment. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but when Dwight Eisenhower was president, broke the New Deal – after 16 years of the New Deal presidents, Roosevelt, Truman – and then he had the Democratic Congress – Eisenhower – to contend with – he had Lyndon Johnson – powerful Senate Majority Leader – Sam Rayburn, they would meet with Eisenhower every week – the three of them – they would go down to the White House, and they would talk about the agenda – think about this, how different it is, the agenda of the Congress, and they would actually agree upon what would happen. And I don’t think you can probably do that today, but it is a model that maybe could be -

FORMER REP. ROBERT WALKER: I suggested to the Republican leaders that one of the things they ought to do is ask the Clinton administration on a bipartisan basis to reinstitute the weekly meetings between bipartisan leadership and the president because I think that’s one of the failings of the last couple of years is that there has not been a direct contact between -

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: I thought Bush was very effective as president because he had a bipartisan leadership and we met and I can tell you for a fact -

MARGARET WARNER: That’s when Jim Wright was speaker and you were whip.

FORMER REP. TONY COEHLO: Jim Wright was speaker and I was whip. We met and we would agree to things and we kept them confidential; we kept them away from the press; we kept them away from everybody for a day or two at a time; and it was really a great spirit of cooperation, and wanting to work together. That’s what needs to come back again. We need to have – and I think the country wants that.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And that was the election, the country doesn’t want sort of rancor in Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all very much and thank you, Michael.