WASHINGTON — As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trumpets his leadership skills in his quest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, a different picture of his stewardship emerges from some GOP lawmakers who served with him during a failed 1997 coup attempt against the controversial speaker.
Twenty disgruntled Republicans in the House of Representatives squeezed into then-Rep. Lindsey Graham's office in July 1997 and rebelliously vented about Gingrich. They were tired of his chaotic management style, worried that he was caving in to then-President Bill Clinton, and sick of constantly having to defend him publicly on questions about his ethics or his latest bombastic statement.
"Newt Gingrich was a disaster as speaker," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.
As Gingrich seeks to gain the world's most powerful office, it's worth recalling that when he once held great power in Washington, his own conservative Republican lieutenants rebelled against his rule less than four years after he led them to House majority status for the first time in 40 years. And their disaffection evidently helped persuade him to step down as speaker the next year and leave office.
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King, for one, still believes that Gingrich's widely disparaged egotistical complaining about the poor treatment he perceived from then-President Clinton on an Air Force One flight in 1995 is why Republicans suffered blame for federal government shutdowns later that year.
"Everything was self-centered. There was a lack of intellectual discipline," King said.
In that July 1997 meeting, Gingrich's lieutenants discussed who would replace him if he stepped down or was muscled out.
"We thought he should step out of daily administrative activity, leaving the members of his inner circle ... (to) run the daily operations," former Rep. Susan Molinari of New York wrote in her book "Representative Mom: Balancing Budgets, Bill and Baby in the U.S. Congress." She served as the House Republican Conference vice chair under Gingrich.
"But even though Newt liked to talk about team-building and quality management, the theory he really subscribed to was management by chaos. He loved chaos, and even when he didn't create it knowingly and intentionally, he managed to leave it in his wake after every meeting, after every press conference, after every phone call," Molinari wrote.
Several current and former congressional Republicans say that Gingrich's shortcomings as speaker in the 1990s provide a window into what a Gingrich presidency would look like.
Graham, now a Republican senator from South Carolina, likens Gingrich's tenure as speaker to a Tale of Two Newts.
"We got things done in a bipartisan fashion that we could only dream of today: Welfare reform, balanced budget agreement with President Clinton ..." said Graham, who personally likes Gingrich. "Then there was the Newt that got us all frustrated and upset, and that's the guy who was erratic. If you could bring out the best of Newt Gingrich and encapsulate that, you could have a transformative president."
But several Republicans doubt that Gingrich is capable of becoming that figure.
"There's all types of leaders," Sen. Tom Coburn, who served four years in the House under Gingrich, told Fox News Sunday. "Leaders that instill confidence. Leaders that are somewhat abrupt and brisk. Leaders that have one standard for the people that they are leading and a different standard for themselves. I just found his leadership lacking, and I'm not going to go into greater detail than that."
If congressional endorsements are any indication, there appears to be little affection for Gingrich on Capitol Hill. He's received endorsements from just seven of the House's 240 Republicans, according to CQ-Roll Call, which tracks endorsements.
And only two of Gingrich's seven endorsements come from the 50 House Republicans who were in office during Gingrich's speakership.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by comparison, has 54 GOP congressional endorsements, including King's. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has 14 endorsements, and Rep. Ron Paul has three. Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain, who suspended his campaign, each have one endorsement.
While some Republican lawmakers cling to the adage "What's Past is Prologue," when it comes to Gingrich, those who support him respond with the phrase "The Future is Now" and say Gingrich offers the GOP the best hope of defeating President Barack Obama in November.
"I wasn't here when all that happened," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who entered the House in 2003 and endorsed Gingrich two years ago. "The country's in tough shape, crying out for leadership, and I think he can provide it."
Gingrich was the toast of Capitol Hill in 1995 after leading Republicans to the House majority in the 1994 elections, powered by his "Contract with America" platform of conservative ideas.
With Gingrich in charge, the new majority dug in, passing laws and resolutions in hopes of fulfilling promises they made in the "Contract." But after a hard-charging two years, rumblings of discontent about Gingrich began to surface.
The most common refrain from both the rank and file and Gingrich's own brain trust was that he was a great strategist but a terrible manager.
"On Monday, we would say we're not going to give a $500 child tax credit to people who don't have tax liabilities," Graham told the National Review Online this week. "On Wednesday, he'd meet with President Clinton and that position would change."
Steven Gillon, a University of Oklahoma history professor, said Gingrich "has always been plagued by poor management" from the moment he entered the House in 1979.
Gillon reviewed Gingrich's private papers for his 2008 book, "The Pact," which explores the Gingrich-Clinton relationship.
"A lot of his administrative assistants are writing memos that he jumps from one idea to the next, that he lacks consistency, he doesn't care about the district offices," Gillon said. "He was indifferent to the concerns of his district offices, Number One, and he was all over the place, Number Two. They couldn't tie him down and develop a clear agenda."
Gillon said that Gingrich would explain to his exasperated staff that there are two types of doctors: the family practitioner who heals broken bones and other common afflictions, and the researcher who finds the cure for cancer.
"He'd tell them that his job was to cure cancer," Gillon said.
Gingrich's propensity for thinking big without sweating the details carried over into his speakership, according to Gillon and several past and present Republican lawmakers.
"What you had going at the top with a leadership style like Newt's was something that was 99 percent intellectual and 1 percent organizational," said one former senior House Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to allow candor. "There was a lack of predictability. It all depended on what time of day you got him and what meetings he went to."
Gingrich was seen as remote by some GOP lawmakers, including members of his leadership team.
"Newt felt he was close to people," said one former Republican House member from the Northeast, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "I'm not sure that was reciprocated among the people around him."
Gingrich acknowledged the problem in his book "Lessons Learned the Hard Way."
"Because I allowed distance to grow between me and the leadership, they did not feel comfortable about sitting down and sharing their concerns with me," Gingrich wrote. "They felt they had to deal with this problem themselves and they were worried. What if the conference grew more dissatisfied and the militant members grew in number or acted suddenly out of desperation? What could they do then?"
In the end, Gingrich and his loyalists found out about the brewing Republican rebellion and moved to soothe ruffled feathers. But there was some collateral damage.
Gingrich blasted his inner circle: House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, Leadership Chairman Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., and Conference Chair John Boehner, R-Ohio. All denied having a hand in the aborted coup.
But Paxon relinquished his position in July 1997. His wife, Susan Molinari, resigned from the House the month before.
Gingrich gave up the speakership in 1998. He announced later that he wouldn't seek re-election saying, "I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."
Graham said he sees a more relaxed, more focused Gingrich these days. The two men talked by phone recently, and Graham felt he was talking to a man "comfortable in his own skin."
"He seems to be more settled. I talked to him for about an hour," he said. "He certainly doesn't hold grudges, because the coup was held in my office."
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