Other than Ronald Reagan, no Republican elected official has had a more positive impact on actual public policy of a real conservative nature in my lifetime than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Yes, I am biased because he is a lifelong friend in whose campaigns I was once heavily involved. But it is through that unique background that I came to understand his brilliant mind and his rise to leadership.
The Clinton "legacy" would never have been so strong had it not been for the sweeping victory of Gingrich and his fellow "Contract with America" Republicans in 1994. Gingrich and his fellow Republicans pushed Clinton toward welfare reform, a cut in the capital gains tax, and a temporary promise that "the era of big government" was over.
But the story of how the GOP House came to bring impeachment proceedings against Clinton is one that should be told and reviewed as a case study in going against better political instincts.
When the first rumblings of an effort to impeach Bill Clinton in late 1997 began to take hold, Speaker Gingrich was hardly what I would call a cheerleader for the effort. While Clinton had been reelected in 1996 with a resounding vote, Gingrich and his GOP majority held control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The GOP base was still strong even with the popularity of Clinton.
But by the summer of 1998, the mood among various House Republican leaders was shifting. The explosive revelations related to Monica Lewinsky breathed new life into what had been a dying effort. Early on even Gingrich's own House Judiciary Chairman, Henry Hyde, had been ambivalent about the impeachment issue. Gingrich and Hyde realized that regardless of any House vote to impeach Clinton, the result in the Senate would have been exactly as it turned out -- a full complete acquittal on all charges.
But with the groundswell for an impeachment move, Speaker Gingrich began to listen to his troops, and as the autumn of 1998 approached Newt and Hyde were in full-swing impeachment mode as well.
Recently, in a series about the 1990s, Newt Gingrich candidly noted that Clinton played the impeachment effort shrewdly, watching as measures such as the unveiling of a somewhat lurid report by Special Prosecutor Ken Starr worked not in favor of the GOP effort, but instead horrified parents of young children over its open access in a then-newly embraced internet. Clinton turned the "Starr Report" into an appearance of overreaching on the part of Republicans.