Spending Six Tumultuous Months With Gingrich
Filmmaker Michael Pack says it was pure luck that in his project to chronicle six ordinary months in the life of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, he turned up six extraordinary ones.
When Pack’s cameras started following the Georgia Republican in September 1998 during a dinosaur bone search in Montana, the intent was to contrast this moment of relaxation with an otherwise hectic schedule.
Little did he know how vivid the contrast would turn out to be.
Soon, the House would ponder whether to impeach President Clinton, and Gingrich’s grasp on one of the country’s most powerful posts would unravel in lightning speed. Pack’s 90-minute retelling, “The Fall of Newt Gingrich,” airs at 8 tonight on PBS.
It’s tough to tell who got the better end of a pre-taping arrangement: Pack’s behind-the-scenes access to fascinating political theater, or Gingrich’s assurance the footage wouldn’t be made public until well after the fact.
“Once people grant you access, sometimes they forget about the cameras,” said the Manifold Productions president, whose credits include a documentary last year on the Rodney King incident and another on the Gingrich-led Republican takeover of 1994.
“We weren’t news cameras. They knew there would be at least a six-month lag; that they weren’t in some ‘gotcha’ journalism trap.”
Still, perhaps the documentary’s most stunning revelation was the presence of cameras themselves during sensitive closed-door leadership meetings, when Gingrich and his allies hash out how to punish a president for lying about a sex act under oath.
In one such meeting, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) makes the case that many people want to dispose of the matter quickly so they can “get on with their lives,” but fellow Ohio Republican John Boehner insists he hears the opposite sentiment.
Gingrich appears almost bored during these proceedings and any time a member of the press or congressional candidate brings up impeachment. He tries to step out of the spotlight and allow Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde to lead the charge, but the question continues to haunt him.
In an interview with Pack the following March--after Clinton’s impeachment and Gingrich’s resignation under fire--the former House speaker seems to criticize independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s graphic report to Congress.
“The way Starr wrote the report was much too sex-oriented, and not legally oriented enough,” Gingrich said. “On the other hand, do you believe the American people ought to have the right to have information about their government?”
Gingrich even concedes conviction in the Senate probably wouldn’t have been the correct response to the allegations. Such doubts could have been a prime weapon for Clinton defenders had they known about them at the time.
Pack also interviews Gingrich’s former wife, Marianne, who discusses Gingrich’s ability to fall asleep on a campaign bus and wake up exactly 15 minutes later without an alarm clock.
The film only gives passing reference to their divorce and Gingrich’s recent marriage to a longtime congressional aide. Pack says his purpose was to show the speaker as a political figure, not provide exhausting details about his personal life or personality.
Cameras also chronicle the Nov. 3 election night, when Republicans lose five House seats despite Gingrich’s earlier predictions they would gain more than 20.
Even that night, Gingrich’s senior political director, Joe Gaylord, expresses confidence--which ultimately will be exposed as overconfidence--that “we would gain seats, it was only a matter of how many we gain.”
As the night progresses, smiles disappear from Gingrich’s “war room,” and multiple shots capture the speaker, mouth widened in disbelief. Later, he tells Pack he was “genuinely confused.”
Gingrich goes on camera to accept his share of the blame, but even in the walk to the interview room, he tries to cast the losses in the best possible light, explaining to his advisors that most GOP incumbents were victorious.
The next day, a somber-looking Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) is seen slumping in a chair and talking on the phone beneath a sign that reads: “Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Victory.” Coverdell, who helped Gingrich map out a strategy in the 1970s to get Republicans elected in Georgia, died last month from a stroke.
The film doesn’t conclude why Republicans lost so badly, and Pack says he doesn’t even know for sure.
Instead, it simply breezes through the well-documented resignations of Gingrich and heir-apparent Bob Livingston, who steps down on the day Clinton is impeached after admitting his own extramarital affair.
As a lame duck, Gingrich had tried to keep a low-key profile during impeachment. But he tells Pack that as soon as the Louisiana congressman resigned, he called Illinois Republican Dennis Hastert to “draft” him as the next speaker.
Throughout the film, Pack reveals the fierce rivalry between Gingrich and Clinton, whom, the speaker says, he found “routinely unreliable.”
“He won the personality contest, and I won the policies,” Gingrich said. “It’s a swap I would have taken.”
* “The Fall of Newt Gingrich” airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV and KVCR-TV.