As the prospect of Newt Gingrich landing the Republican nomination for president started feeling intensely real last week, the former House speaker placed a call to a man in a position to cause major damage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina once led a band of GOP rebels who tried to oust Gingrich, and hadn’t spoken to him about those days of internecine warfare in the 14 years since.
The two men talked for more than an hour, Graham said, and the senator came away hopeful that the man who once “drove us all crazy” had changed. “The question has to be, ‘Is the Newt today different than the Newt then?’ ” Graham said this week. “Seems to me that he is, but time will tell.”
Others who had a close-up view of Gingrich’s leadership remain skeptical.
“Some people are willing to reconsider him. I’m not,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), one of the remaining members of the Class of ’94, whose arrival in the House made Gingrich the first Republican speaker in 40 years. “His leadership skills back in the ‘90s were not consistent with what I would want to see in the president of the United States.”
As Gingrich continues to surge in polls, Republicans on Capitol Hill are grappling with their attitude toward their former leader. Few in Washington have more baggage than Gingrich, and most in Washington know what’s in it. The question of whether Gingrich can convince his party that he’s evolved may determine whether his support grows or falls back.
Gingrich’s four-year term was tumultuous, marked by ethical lapses, a botched political strategy and palace intrigue.
Budget fights with President Clinton led to two government shutdowns. Gingrich led the push to impeach Clinton for lying about infidelity, even as Gingrich was in the midst of his own extramarital affair. An ethics investigation found the speaker had mingled political and nonprofit enterprises — and then given false information to investigators. The House, in an overwhelming bipartisan vote, reprimanded Gingrich and fined him $300,000.
Almost 15 years later, Gingrich has garnered only a handful of congressional endorsements, most from his home state of Georgia. Interviews with more than a dozen lawmakers from the Gingrich era show the memories — or in some cases the tales — have left many queasy about embracing a revival.
“I’m not endorsing Newt,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). “Those of us who served with him, who watched his leadership up close, aren’t endorsing him. That says something.”
On the other hand, the man who ultimately showed Gingrich the door in 1998 has come around. Lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Bob Livingston, the Louisiana congressman who was chosen to succeed Gingrich but instead confessed on the House floor to adultery and resigned, co-hosted a fundraiser for his former colleague this week.
“He can be mercurial, he can be a whirling dervish, and people get frustrated sometimes when he’s not talking at their level. I can push all that aside and say, ‘How did he perform in those years, regardless of the furor — what did he produce?’ ” Livingston said.
Livingston and others note that Gingrich’s legacy includes welfare reform, balancing the budget and, of course, forging a path to a GOP majority in the House.
A spokesman for Gingrich did not respond to requests for comment. On Thursday, Gingrich told CNN, “If you are a genuine outsider forcing change, you’re going to at least bruise feelings. And I don’t apologize for that. I think I’ve probably learned some more. I think I’ll probably be more effective this time.”
Gingrich was known for unleashing a steady stream of ideas — some that left colleagues bewildered.
“He once called in all the press secretaries and told them that the way to beat Clinton on the shutdown was to tell reporters, when they called, to go down to the rotunda of the Capitol and read the Magna Carta,” said LaTourette, who supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “I mean, what does that mean?”
Eventually, Graham and other leaders plotted unsuccessfully to oust the speaker. Gingrich lasted for more than a year afterward, but was pushed out after the GOP lost House seats in the 1998 midterm.
Some veteran lawmakers say they see no sign of a transformed, more disciplined Gingrich.
“I don’t think he’s changed at all,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told the radio show “Imus in the Morning.”
“If you listen, he’s compared his wife to Jackie Kennedy and to Laura Bush and I don’t know who else. And then he compares himself to Churchill and Thatcher and De Gaulle. No, I mean, Newt is Newt. You don’t change when you’re 68 years old.”
Gingrich defenders cite his conversion to Catholicism as evidence of a newfound balance and discipline. They say they’re proud of the speaker’s record in Congress, regardless of the drama, and see him as the man with the skills and intellectual chops to energize the race.
“I think there are a lot of people that would look forward to seeing a debate between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. I think people would actually stay and watch that. I know I would,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican first elected to the House in 1994.
Acknowledging the Gingrich threat, Romney went on the offensive this week, amplifying the complaints of former colleagues.
In a conference call sponsored by the campaign, former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, who served with Gingrich in the House, portrayed the former speaker as an unpredictable and persistent political liability.
“You were in a situation where you would get up in the morning, and you would have to check the newspaper, the clippings — that was before the Internet — to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district,” Talent said.
More recollections are expected to surface if Gingrich’s campaign keeps rising, but LaTourette said he didn’t think former colleagues would band together to block a Gingrich nomination.
“No, I think Newt will stop Newt,” he said.
Maybe not this time. Graham, who has not endorsed a candidate, said he heard a different side of his former rival. As the men rehashed the old days, Graham said he praised Gingrich for his campaign comeback and his policy work.
“And Newt said, ‘Well, if you can’t learn from mistakes, what good are you?’ ” he said.