To hear President Trump use the term, “corruption” can do double duty as a hand grenade and a safe word — a ready-made epithet to yell out whenever he’s feeling the squeeze.
It’s a tried-and-true strategy in the frantic trajectory of American politics since the 1970s. As Julian Zelizer shows in his briskly entertaining (if politically dispiriting) new book, “Burning Down the House,” an ambitious and impatient Republican from Georgia by the name of Newton Leroy Gingrich long ago figured out that corruption was a useful charge for a young upstart to deploy against establishment politicians — a way of turning their vaunted experience against them. More political experience meant more connections with powerful constituents, which meant more of a chance that some of those connections smelled bad, or could be made to seem that way.
Gingrich’s lasting innovation, Zelizer says, was to turn a rhetorical gambit into an actionable weapon. “Burning Down the House” looks at Gingrich before his lofty Contract With America and his down-and-dirty government shutdown, before he became President Bill Clinton’s archnemesis as a gleefully obstructionist speaker of the House.
So much that’s associated with the Republican Party under Trump — the rowdiness, the bare-knuckle name-calling, the white-knuckle clinging to power at all cost — dates back to Gingrich’s ascent in the late ’80s. Gingrich went from being a junior member of Congress on the fringes of the minority party to the center of Republican leadership by destroying the long legislative career of Jim Wright, the Democratic speaker of the House. “We can date precisely the moment when our toxic political environment was born,” Zelizer declares. “Speaker Wright’s downfall in 1989.”
It’s a statement that sounds a little pat (“precisely”?), but Zelizer has immersed himself in the political life of Gingrich, who realized early on the boons of spinning a tidy narrative and amping up the drama. Having tried and failed at an academic career as a historian, Gingrich liked to depict his entry into politics as the fulfillment of a higher calling that beckoned to him when he visited the World War I battlefield at Verdun as a teenager. “This will absorb my life,” he told a biographer, solemnly reflecting on his fateful decision to devote himself to public policy. “It was the most effective thing I could do to ensure that the U.S. would remain free.”
But the demands of actual policymaking were too slow and painstaking to hold a restless Gingrich’s attention for very long. He preferred the thrill of the fight, and fashioned himself into an egghead brawler, reminding everyone that he was a trained historian at one moment and railing against the infernal intellectual elites the next. During one of his tirades, he likened Wright to Mussolini. Gingrich later compared himself to Martin Luther confronting the Diet of Worms.
But as any politician knows, even the most grandiose words are just words. What Gingrich figured out was how to turn his animus into actual power by leveraging the institutions at hand. That might sound abstract and technical, but the results turned out to be brutal. Zelizer’s last book, “Fault Lines,” which he co-authored with Kevin Kruse, a fellow historian at Princeton, traced the origins of our current political divisions to Watergate and President Nixon’s resignation in 1974; in “Burning Down the House,” Zelizer shows how Gingrich was able to exploit the profound developments since Watergate — a mistrustful electorate, a generation of reporters hungry for stories that carried a whiff of political malfeasance, a set of well-meaning but manipulable good-government reforms — to his lasting advantage.
Gingrich turned C-SPAN, the relentlessly bland public network that was supposed to make Americans better informed about the nuts and bolts of policymaking, into an unlikely broadcaster of hammy theater. He and his allies would deliver a coordinated set of speeches attacking Democrats before a mostly empty chamber, knowing that C-SPAN’s cameras were rolling, and that anything outrageous would get picked up and amplified by mainstream outlets. Wright, who was House majority leader at the time, was irritated enough by the antics of “silly little Newt Gingrich” that he complained about the “shrill and shameless little demagogue” in his diary.
Wright’s dismissiveness was a harbinger of how blindsided he would be when “little” Gingrich eventually came for him. Wright had entered Congress in the Eisenhower era, long before Watergate, when legislating revolved more around chummy relationships than hard-and-fast rules. The Democrats had also controlled the House since 1954, which was more than enough time for a self-satisfied complacency to set in. After Wright became speaker in 1987, Gingrich dug up clippings about his connections to businessmen in his home state of Texas, including figures in the savings-and-loans industry, and paraded them around to reporters. A fishy book deal for a slender volume of Wright’s speeches and notes became a centerpiece of Gingrich’s charges when he filed a formal ethics complaint against Wright.
Never mind that Gingrich had his own fishy book-selling arrangement from a few years before, raising money from Republican donors in an attempt to “force a best seller,” as Gingrich himself put it. Or that Wright’s behavior was decidedly gray, not the stark black and white that a fulminating Gingrich made it out to be.
Gingrich, Zelizer writes, contorted the rules and mechanisms of reform to serve his own ends. After the public learned that Wright’s top adviser was a convicted felon whose brother happened to be married to Wright’s daughter, voters were horrified, and House Democrats began to fear for their own political futures. Wright, a tough and effective arm-twisting legislator who saw the House as a counterweight to President Reagan and his “cruelly deranged” policies, decided to step down, saying that he expected his resignation to serve as a “total payment for the anger and hostility we feel toward each other.”
Zelizer writes about all of this with aplomb, teasing out the ironies and the themes, showing that what made Gingrich exceptional wasn’t so much his talent as his timing. He happened to seize power at a moment when a post-Watergate ecosystem paradoxically selected for politicians like him — legislatively useless, for the most part, but freakishly talented at political warfare and self-promotion, wielding idealism as a cudgel while never deigning to be idealistic themselves. You don’t have to be nostalgic for the old political era of smoke-filled back rooms to wonder if the public was better served by an arsonist bearing a blowtorch and a Cheshire cat grin.