PBS will air a documentary this week that really ought to carry a warning to viewers: "The following program contains words and images that may be inappropriate for some viewers. Committed Republicans in particular may find the following painful to watch." It's "The Rise and Fall of Newt Gingrich" (check local listings).
The story begins in the spring of 1998 with a secure Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House, indulging one of his hobbies -- hunting for dinosaur fossils. Who could guess that in a few short months, the second most powerful man in the United States government would be a fossil himself?
With cameras trailing, Gingrich focuses his energies on the coming budget negotiations with President Clinton. Depending upon your point of view, Gingrich either understood his inability to fight Clinton on spending, or surrendered in a cowardly fashion giving a dishonorable president nearly everything he wanted. Either way, the camera captures him disdaining what he calls the "perfectionist caucus" -- a band of conservative Republicans elected in 1994 who objected to the Clinton budget for many of the same reasons a younger Gingrich had opposed President George Bush's deal with Congress to raise taxes back in 1990.
How much that business-as-usual budget ($520 billion) hurt Republicans in the fall elections is difficult to say. And while none of the analysts who appears on film cites this as part of Gingrich's undoing, it must have played a role in demoralizing the Republican base. In an off-year election in particular, voters who are ideologically committed play a large role. The Republicans clearly erred in assuming that the Lewinsky mess by itself would be enough to turn out their people. It didn't.
One myth this documentary does lay to rest, for whatever it's worth, is the notion that the entire Republican campaign of 1998 was based upon the Clinton scandals -- and that Gingrich was guilty of rank hypocrisy in denouncing Clinton's morality when he was, as we now know, engaged in an extramarital affair himself. This film makes very clear that Gingrich studiously avoided the issue, though constantly dogged by reporters demanding comments.
During his campaign swing in the fall, Gingrich stuck to the script of saving Social Security, tax cuts and a few other items, and when questioned about Lewinsky, referred reporters to Henry Hyde. The Republican National Committee also avoided the issue until a few days before the election, when it aired a couple of Lewinsky-related ads in a few congressional districts. It's a measure of media bias that those Republican ads received massive critical attention while the Democrats' ads went virtually unnoticed. The Democrats aired radio ads aimed at black voters suggesting that a vote for the Republicans was a vote for black church burnings. Black turnout soared.
Not that this absolves Gingrich from moral opprobrium for his personal behavior (there are some conservatives in Washington who will not speak to him even now because of this). But it isn't true that he was a hypocrite. On the rare occasions when he did address the matter, he focused on the perjury and obstruction of justice issues. It is ironic that in the wake of disclosures of truly despicable conduct on the part of the president, two Republican speakers of the house resigned their posts, while the president kept on truckin'.
It is embarrassing now to watch clips of Marianne Gingrich, who was clearly clueless about her husband's infidelity. But it is equally painful to watch Gingrich, equally clueless about the political mood of the nation he claimed to know so well, sleepwalking through the 1998 election. "We'll gain between 10 and 40 seats," he confidently predicted days before an election in which Republicans would lose five seats.
This film does not answer the big questions about Gingrich: Was he a political genius responsible for the Republican success of 1994, or was he merely the beneficiary of Clinton's overreaching on health care? Did he advance or hinder the conservative cause? Was he the only Republican with strategic vision, or a crackpot theorist who talked a good game but couldn't manage a little league team? Was he a true conservative or a New Age amalgam of Alvin Toffler and Peter Drucker?
Those questions remain, but "The Rise and Fall of Newt Gingrich" is an interesting glimpse of American political history.