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The Madness of Speaker Newt

A divided court schemes against its king.

I am the King. I cannot rest. I must rule. Half the day is gone already.
                                                                 –the celluloid King George III, as he goes mad

There are always signs that a reign is ending, and they are usually spotted not in the king himself but in his court. In the inner circle, latent jealousies between advisers spill into open conflict, as they angrily debate who is to blame for the calamity, chewing over each other’s past errors and pointing the finger at old and nascent enemies. Next, the parliament crumbles. The ingrained habits of reverence toward the great one—the averted eyes, the bowed head, the devotion to every word as received truth—break down. The subjects no longer regard the king as divine; they begin to speak of him as if he is all too human: one of them, perhaps not even much of an example of one of them. They hang on his every word for an altogether different reason now: to spot the next stumble, record the growing list of regal follies and delusions. Among the strongest, a naked ambition blazes, a wish, unseemly in its desire, to succeed the dying One, a wish barely tempered by lingering loyalty. Hopefuls scheme, cabals form. Amid all this, the king himself is absent, retreated to some protective space, some refuge in his mind.

In the reign of Newt Gingrich, all the signs are there. Two circles of advisers are gripped by a frenzy of recriminations. The old crew of friends from Gingrich’s early visionary days is blaming a new inner circle for leading their prophet astray. They’ve fingered a villain—Gingrich’s closest adviser, Joe Gaylord—as the Rasputin who has bewitched the wayward speaker. Gaylord’s people—the pollsters and consultants he’s hired—chalk it up to jealousy.

Meanwhile, the once buoyant Republican majority in the House has grown listless and bereft, lost without their guiding star. The revolutionaries of the 104th Congress, now sadly diminished as the seat-holders of the 105th, wander aimlessly from vote to vote—and with every vote just a few too many defect. Into this void on the Hill has seeped an edgy impatience for something—anything would be fine—that will resolve the speaker’s fate. The prognoses range from brazen pronouncements of the speaker’s downfall to nervous support. Conservatives have been losing faith for months, at least since Gingrich’s unmanly crying during the budget deal. “His only circle is himself,” grumbles one. Now moderates, his last remaining friends, are fading, too.

Many urban Republicans and other moderates were ostracized for failing to line up behind Gingrich before his re-election as speaker and for speaking against him during the ethics investigation. Now they are gleeful at his demise. “Basically, Newt right now is not a factor,” says one such happy apostate. “It’s like he has an honorary title. You don’t find Republicans talking about him. People aren’t scared of him or trying to impress him or even feeling sorry for him. It’s like he’s just not there.”

What were once seen as the telltale marks of an erratic genius—the speaker’s occasional bursting into tears, his open hydrant of millennial gushings, his flirtations with cuddly animals—are now, increasingly and increasingly openly, seen as the symptoms of a corrupted mind: “He used to have grand visions,” says one dispirited colleague. “Now all he has is ranting and raving, vacuum tubes and ice buckets and squealing pigs.”

Others are still supportive, but the shakiness shows through. “He is the speaker, and I don’t see any point in trying to change that fact,” says Connecticut Representative Chris Shays, one of Gingrich’s more moderate defenders. “I don’t feel his speakership is in danger. Why, do you hear anything different?” Even among the speaker’s earnest supporters, the vocabulary has changed. They mean to defend him, to prove that he is still his old warrior self, but all they can come up with is the language of recovery. “Mentally, he’s still all there,” says one member of leadership. “Emotionally, he’s still holding it together.” Another fretted that Gingrich might be “depressed” and wondered if a “good dose of antidepressants might not help, if he isn’t on them already.” In assuring tones, the member plots out the speaker’s plan for “self-renewal,” complete with rest and daily laps at the House pool.

And, indeed, there are other concrete signs that he is relinquishing control. Gingrich has disbanded the Speaker’s Advisory Group, the elite clique that once issued all commands. In its place, he’s set up a new leadership group that includes representatives from all factions, the Conservative Action Team, the moderates: everyone, and thus no one. Last year, at this time, House Republicans had already passed fifty bills. This year, they’ve made three failed attempts and adjourned for a long recess.

The speaker’s problems started in late January after the Ethics Committee charged him the $300,000 fine. The next week, Gingrich held a Saturday morning town hall meeting at Roswell City Hall in Georgia. He began with a standard inspirational talk about the Balanced Budget Amendment, then opened the floor for questions. There were several gooey supporters and a few hecklers. The last was Anne Bartoletti, of Alpharetta, who held up signs blaring “Shame, Newt, Shame,” “Speaker of Lies,” and “Slippery Lizard.” “Since you have admitted to, and been convicted of, violating the ethics of the House,” queried Bartoletti, “I would like to know, why shouldn’t you resign in shame?”

The hissing lizard in Newt was awakened. “I wasn’t going to talk about this today.... I think there is an amazing double standard.... You people on the left can do anything you want, and nobody seems to notice. But, if you are a conservative, and you follow the law, and you hire lawyers, and you do what you can, if you make a single mistake, you had better plan to be pilloried.”

Those four seconds of grumbling caused a great rumbling of discontent. Members who had worked to re-elect the speaker, sometimes at great cost to themselves, and who now wished very much to move the focus on to something else besides Gingrich’s ethics, were aggrieved. “We felt the issue had been dealt with, and when he responded that way, it brought it all back again,” says Shays. “I’ve got 500 constituents angry at me for voting for him for speaker, and he shouldn’t be getting me into this position. He should just pay the penalty and move on. It’s fair to say that, even among his supporters, the feeling is he has no margin of error.”

Dark talk of The Twin—the unhappy, angry Newt who stalks the Newt of the Fourth Wave—began to emerge. “People are asking, `Is Newt a manic depressive, is he depressed?’” says one Republican lobbyist close to leadership. “My view is that he doesn’t think he’s guilty of anything. It’s like a man on death row who keeps saying, `I’m innocent, I’m innocent,’ but the jury is already in. Newt psychologically can’t get over that fact, which is why I think he will keep bringing up the matter again and again. If Newt can control his erratic behavior he stays, but if he reverts to his old behavior he’s gone. Right now members are waiting for a signal.”

After the Georgia speech, Gingrich was put on a strict regimen of pollster Prozac. “He has been told to smile more and use the phrase `fun, we’re having fun’ whenever possible,” says the Republican lobbyist. He’s also been instructed to show his profile to the camera whenever possible, since it makes him look gentler. And the strategy seems to be popular. “As long as Newt can discipline himself to be upbeat and cheery and positive, he’ll do well,” says Representative John Shadegg of Arizona. “The American people like upbeat, happy people. Even in his darkest moments Clinton smiles. All Newt needs to do is smile.”

Gingrich’s erratic mood swings have not escaped the notice of even the most lowly of his subjects. Somewhere deep in the House, young staffers have set up an elaborate and secret poll to guess the day the speaker steps down. So far, thirty-three Republicans and twenty-eight Democrats have signed up. The poll is run by a Republican; Republican participants are given the code-names of presidents, and Democrats hide under the names of first ladies. The entry fee is $15, plus an initial $100 bet, placed with “Alexander Hamilton,” the main bookie. Members buy and trade shares, each worth a quarter, and those who eventually guess the right day will split the pool. At first, people chose days for prosaic reasons: the last day of the year, since that was the day the pool would be divided if the speaker never resigned; Christmas; Gingrich’s birthday. But, now, the mean of chosen days has moved closer and closer to the present: it was once December 14; now it’s June 4.

Trading soared after the ethics vote. The day of Gingrich’s outburst in Georgia, volume was so overwhelming that trading had to be shut down early; 300 shares were traded that day. On February 18, a rumor spread that Gingrich had publicly berated a longtime staffer, and 180 shares were traded. The composite of the ten most expensive days has soared from $508 to $3,000. “The April stock is just flying away,” frets one Republican bettor, “Ulysses S. Grant.” “Four days ago a rumor went out that he looked flush, and then some people heard he wasn’t feeling well. It could be the sniffles, or worse. Now people are buying up even early March shares. I mean, I don’t think he’s out that soon, but who knows? It’s going wild.”

Speculation is rampant at higher levels as well. Each week, another member of leadership has to tamp down rumors that he is priming himself to succeed Gingrich. The main suspects are all members of Gingrich’s trusted leadership circle—Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, John Kasich and even diehard loyalist Bill Paxon. Armey’s staff is suspiciously primping their boss, polishing his TV image and prompting him to lose weight. In a recent whip meeting, DeLay went around the room to ask all the deputy whips their level of support for Gingrich. “He was doing ground research without seeming too apparent,” says a member who was there. “Everyone’s being intensely loyal, but, if the shoe drops, they’re ready to shove him out the door.” Strangely, and without prompting, members will often praise Paxon, who is dogged in his public support of Gingrich. Meanwhile, the speaker himself seems to have disappeared; in the last ten-day recess, he made only one brief appearance. The subjects wonder: Has the king lost control of his own destiny?

To walk into the Progress and Freedom Foundation is to walk into a shell. The hall table is littered with evidence of what the place once was—cheery manifestos like “future insight: a magna carta for the knowledge age,” a 1995 prospectus that plots schemes for “big change,” “cyberspace and the american dream.” Everything in the pamphlets is always in capitals; so far, very little of it has come to pass. “Truth in advertising,” begins President Jeff Eisenach, lighting up the first of a chain of Marlboros. “I haven’t seen Newt in about a year and a half.” (Because the foundation was mentioned in the ethics investigation, lawyers suggested they not speak.) Behind him, the table is covered with photos of a luminous Newt in varied poses, waving his pudgy hands to greet an adoring crowd, beaming down at Eisenach’s two young children. “Newt in 1995 was being watched for his next move forward,” he says, pausing to exhale. “Now he’s being watched for his next stumble.”

For some of this dizzying tumble, movement zealots like Eisenach are willing to take the blame. “We made big mistakes in 1995,” he confesses. “We felt like we only had 100 days to get things done. There was a frenetic quality, both unrealistic and disconcerting, about our effort. We brought out the worst inferences of the word `revolution.’ But now we learned that the system doesn’t work that way. In reality, the way change happens is one step at a time, one bill at a time.”

But for some mistakes the blame lies elsewhere. Eisenach does not think Gingrich was treated fairly by the Ethics Committee, and he thinks the semi-disastrous outcome could have been avoided. “The whole matter could have been handled more effectively. Newt was preoccupied with the business of governing, the business of steering the new majority, and I think he relied on people around him who told him it was well handled.” Who exactly those people are Eisenach declines to say. Instead, he ends on a note of optimism, of sincere affection for the lost prophet: “Newt is absolutely in control of his destiny.”

Eisenach sticks to his gentle musing, but some in his circle prefer barbs. Arianna Huffington, a sharp-tongued board member of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, published a blistering attack on the people around Newt on February 10 in Roll Call. Her target was Joe Gaylord, Gingrich’s very secretive and most intimate adviser, “The Man Behind Gingrich’s Fall.” In her column, Huffington accuses Gaylord of a Stalinist purge, of systematically ousting anyone who threatens his own power, one by one, including Eisenach; Gingrich’s former press secretary, Tony Blankley; pollster Frank Luntz; and Gingrich’s close friends and former colleagues Vin Weber and Bob Walker. “At different times, he has gone after every gifted person around Gingrich he could not control,” she writes.

Since Huffington’s article, the banished consultants are speaking up to confirm her story, although anonymously. Advisers paint a portrait of a dark, jealous figure who secluded his keep like a shrewish and tantrum-prone wife (or like Dick Morris). “She is absolutely right about the systematic exclusion,” confirms one shunned adviser. “Joe makes it impossible for someone who disagrees with him to get on Newt’s schedule. Any decision where Joe has an opinion he will make sure a conflicting opinion does not get aired in front of Newt.” A bleak psychoanalysis of Gay-lord emerges. “It is a function of Joe’s personality,” says the former adviser. “He cannot tolerate conflict. He literally clams up. He freezes. It’s like this panic symptom; you get the sense he wants to run.”

The advisers never fail to mention that the people who are in the room, and who were whispering to Gingrich during his black period, are considerably more dim than they are and should be held accountable for the bad advice that has brought down the king. “The real question is whether the advice Gingrich is now getting is the best,” says one Republican consultant. “The fact is, Joe gets to choose Gingrich’s team, and he chooses people who can be controlled.” These people are the group of pollsters Gingrich meets with every month or so—Fred Steeper, Bob Teeter, Linda Divall, Bill McInturff. “Linda Divall can be controlled,” says a consultant who has worked with both Gaylord and Divall. “Other pollsters would have stood up and yelled, `You’ve got to do something! I can’t let you do this!’ But she’s the get-along go-along type. If Gingrich were to have the very best talents around him, it would have kept him from screwing up the situation as bad as he did.”

The anti-Gaylord faction sees the usual tragedy: the bad guys just won’t let Newt be Newt. The pollsters, they say, have stamped the life out of Gingrich, crushed him into a dime-store pol. He is now, well, ordinary, the bulb of the Republican Enlightenment dimmed. “Pollsters are the least creative people in the world,” says a former adviser. “Joe systematically advances the traditional Republican clique of advisers. It’s one thing for Newt to have an ambassador to that world but quite another for the world to come to dominate him. We wanted much more from Newt. We wanted him to lead not just a party, but a revolution.”

Former Gingrich advisers in the anti-Gaylord camp have pored over the Gaylord years to pinpoint his crucial mistakes. They are, certainly, many. His worst was encouraging Gingrich to sign the $4.5 million book deal, which brought on his first moment of public shame. They also pin Gaylord with advising Newt to cut the impossible deal with the Ethics Committee forbidding him to coordinate his defense and then actively helping Newt sabotage that deal.

Gaylord is a template on which any Republican critic, moderate or conservative, can focus his complaints. He is alternately accused of being too much the warrior and too anodyne. He is faulted for encouraging the speaker’s nastiest, pettiest bulldog instincts, his outbursts of useless anger, and then covering them up with dumb, fuzzy makeovers. Schooled at the National Republican Campaign Committee (nrcc), Gaylord spent most of the last twenty years plotting races. This endless campaign mindset, critics say, brings out the frenzied, mean side of Gingrich.

At the same time, Gaylord authored what conservatives derisively call the “Dare to be Dull Campaign.” In 1996, Gaylord predicted an impending recession and advised Gingrich to ride it out by being jolly and vacuous. Gingrich was encouraged to smile, wear makeup to cover his bags and make a series of apolitical appearances. One shining moment was his appearance on the Jay Leno show, petting a squealing pig. The crowning achievement came at the Republican convention, with Gingrich’s now infamous beach volleyball speech, authored by Gaylord.

Lost in the Gaylord demonology is Newt himself, once the great leader of the revolution, now a consultant’s puppet. This is perhaps the greatest sign of diminution of all. In the narrative of the Gaylord/Gingrich embrace that Gingrich’s former worshipers love to relate, it is Gaylord who is in control. He is, they say, the puppeteer; he pulls the strings and keeps the money. The relationship between the two men goes back to the mid-’70s, when Gaylord, along with then-Congressman Guy Vander Jagt and then-Finance Director Wyatt Stewart, controlled the purse strings at the nrcc. They helped Gingrich get elected and immediately took him in. Gingrich was just beginning to agitate and threatened to shake up the flailing organization in order to use it as a tool to achieve his master plan of winning the House. Gingrich was essentially bought off by the nrcc trio to keep him quiet, according to former congressmen: Gaylord used nrcc money to fund Gingrich’s pet projects, such as galas honoring Ronald Reagan. Then in 1989, the narrative goes, Gaylord engineered Gingrich’s victory as minority whip by sealing the two votes necessary to beat Dick Cheney. In the meantime, Gaylord got rich. Even after he left the nrcc, in 1989, he was still on the payroll. In the last election cycle, he was paid $240,000 by the nrcc, $26,000 from the RNC and $350,000 from Friends of Newt Gingrich, according to FEC reports.

Gaylord guards his privacy and would not return phone calls. But his old friends defend him. “No one in this town can match his encyclopedic knowledge of races,” says Vander Jagt. “And he stands alone as the implementer of Newt’s vision and ideas.”

The speculation about Gingrich’s fall may be idle talk, and Gingrich may recover as he has many times before. But, whatever happens, a certain permanent dynamic of disappointment has set in. The visionaries are still willing to be dazzled by Gingrich, but they are a lot more skittish now. Once they think the king has taken to waltzing in his nightshirt, even a little bit, it’s hard to feel the same old awed way about him again. On February 12, at a dinner at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, Gingrich gave what many describe as an inspiring speech in support of Ward Connerly, the black University of California regent who led the fight to end affirmative action. It was a Gingrich classic, veering emotionally from Lincoln to Lech Walesa to Nelson Mandela to John Wayne. Conservatives loved it. One young committed conservative described it as a “revival thing, a quasi-religious experience.” She said a friend turned to her during the speech and said, “Tonight, I remember why I am a conservative.” Yet, within a day of the speech, the same conservatives were spreading rumors that Gingrich had gone back on his word, that, in a meeting on the hill, he had told a group of Republicans he was not sure he’d push anti-affirmative action legislation in the House.

But why should they be surprised? Gingrich has always waffled wildly on race, from campaigning for Proposition 209 to celebrating Charles Rangel and Jesse Jackson. It’s not Gingrich that’s changed so much as his subjects. Two years ago, there was a collective hair-trigger willingness among the chatterers and the courtiers of the Washington right to see everything the speaker did as proof of his divine right to rule; now there is an equally hairtrigger impulse to see everything as proof of less-than-divine madness. Conservatives speak of Gingrich as if he’s undergone some dark transformation, but maybe he’s always been just what he seems now—an erratic and emotional but basically traditional speaker, more concerned with counting votes and passing bills than with ideological purity. During last week’s recess, Gingrich had dinner with Margaret Thatcher, and the irony was all too obvious. Gingrich was supposed to be America’s Iron Lady, but he has succeeded, as the conservative writer David Brooks pointed out in The Standard in October, as “a superior Bob Dole.” But that is painful to admit because it means that conservatives have been wrong all this time, that, behind the grand rhetorical sweep, the vacuum tubes and the ice buckets are all there is.

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