Chuck Burton, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A presidential candidate no longer, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich departs the race for the White House as likely the most consequential and certainly the most interesting Republican of his time never to sit in the Oval Office.
Ferociously partisan, he unified his party behind the 1994 Contract With America, the conservative manifesto that helped propel Republicans to control of the House for the first time in 40 years and made him speaker in the process.
Yet given to overreach, he quickly blundered into twin government shutdowns so damaging to his own party that a fellow Republican peremptorily pulled the plug. "Our message is not a government shutdown," said Sen. Bob Dole, the Senate Majority leader at the time. "Our message to the American people is a balanced budget in seven years."
Gingrich's rhetoric has long been polarizing, by design.
He called House Democrats "a leadership of thugs" in 1985 after they overturned a House election in Indiana that a Republican appeared to have won. Allies point to the event as a key turning point in Gingrich's slow rise inside a party long in the minority.
A man who rose to power in part by exploiting the ethics problems of others, Gingrich was himself formally reprimanded by the House in 1997 and ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty, the first time in history a speaker was disciplined for ethical transgression.
As speaker, he was favored by Republican rank-and-file lawmakers for his ability to anticipate political trends and turn them to advantage.
Yet Gingrich's less-inspired insights bordered on goofiness. He used his turn to speak at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego to discuss ... beach volleyball. "No bureaucrat would have invented it. And that's what freedom is all about," the then-House speaker said as an Olympic gold medalist stood nearby on stage.
Most memorably, perhaps, he pushed the Republican-controlled House to impeach President Bill Clinton over a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — at a time when Gingrich himself was conducting an extramarital affair with a congressional employee, later to become his third wife.
After four years as speaker, he was forced out by rank-and-file Republicans following the loss of seats in the 1998 midterm elections. He had survived a coup attempt more than a year earlier by members of his leadership team. "I am willing to lead, but I won't allow cannibalism," he said, echoing the very words used by one of his own political victims, former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Democrat.
And yet, for all the tumult, divided government yielded highly consequential legislation in the four years Gingrich was speaker.
He and Clinton compromised on a far-reaching overhaul of the welfare system in the summer of 1996.
The president's liberal allies were infuriated, but the deal helped Clinton with moderate voters while giving the Gingrich-led Republicans a significant accomplishment to show the voters in the fall campaign. The politics were brutal; reaching across the aisle to make a deal with Clinton meant throwing then-presidential candidate Dole overboard in hopes of saving the historic House majority for a second term.
With the president and the speaker back in office, negotiations on a balanced budget bore fruit in 1997, and the government ran surpluses for four years in a row beginning in 1998. It was, Gingrich noted repeatedly in his presidential campaign more than a decade later, the only time that's happened in the entire lifetime of some White House contenders.
Over the course of a career, Gingrich, 68, went from rabble rouser to the pinnacle of establishment power and back again.
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