Last week, former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy became the first Speaker in American history to lose his post due to a motion to vacate. Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who introduced the motion, was one of nine Republican representatives (alongside all House Democrats) to vote to end McCarthy’s Speakership. In 1997, House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced a similar attempted ouster – a near-replacement that reflects today’s fractious Republican Party.
By early 1997, the Republican euphoria of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 right-wing “Contract with America” movement, which saw the GOP take both the House and the Senate in a promise to slash President Clinton’s budgets for social services, had stalled.
For one, Gingrich had come under a decided ethics cloud. Secondly, Clinton was handily reelected for a second presidential term in 1996, pushing Gingrich to occasionally compromise with his effective boss.
The ethics problem, in a very 2023-sounding flourish, was tied up in Gingrich’s embrace of partisan education. In 1994 and 1995, Gingrich had presided over two versions of a 10-week college course at Reinhardt College in Georgia, which he dubbed “Renewing American Civilization.” Democrats alleged that Gingrich had raised personal funds from the course from Jack in the Box and Chili’s founder and GOP mega-donor Norman Brinker, while praising several other financial backers, like carpet magnate Roger Milliken, to his students.
A lengthy House Ethics Committee investigation fined Gingrich $300,000 in January 1997. The cash-strapped Gingrich had to appeal to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to help cover the costs.
Gingrich’s capitulations to Clinton were also sitting badly with his erstwhile GOP colleagues. A particularly low moment came in June 1997, when Gingrich failed to insert some budget-hawk provisions into a Midwestern flood relief bill that resultantly, unpopularly languished in the House for several weeks. The GOP caucus ultimately decided to support the bill, sans the Gingrich add-ons – a major PR victory for Clinton.
Amid the dual embarrassments, a coterie of GOP insurgents had a secret meeting with Gingrich’s political lieutenants to discuss replacing the Speaker. The anti-Gingrich voices included then-Republican Florida Representative Joe Scarborough (now a decidedly not Republican face on MSNBC’s Morning Joe) and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham. Beginning in early July, the group began meeting with Gingrich’s political lieutenants – Majority Whip Tom DeLay, Majority Leader Dick Armey, GOP Conference Chair (and eventual House Speaker) John Boehner, and Leadership Conference Chair Bill Paxon.
At one point, the group appeared ready to give Gingrich an ultimatum to leave the Speakership or face a motion to vacate. The plan quickly corroded amid infighting over whether Armey or Paxon would replace Gingrich, but The Hill published a detailed account of the maneuvering in their July 16th, 1997 issue, leading to a news frenzy about the near-betrayals by the Speaker’s ostensibly close allies in the House leadership.
I endeavored to track down a source that captured the vibes in the GOP in the immediate aftermath of the almost-coup’s revelation. I took the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and found an episode of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer from July 22nd, 1997, six days after the quasi-coup.
Correspondent Margaret Warner – who is still at NewsHour today – interviewed three Republican legislators about Gingrich and the way forward.
One interviewee was Matt Salmon. He was a second-term Arizona congressman and a fierce budget-slasher who was one of the nine leading dissidents who had floated replacing Gingrich. Salmon, however, maintained that he had misunderstood that the dramatic conversations with Gingrich’s lieutenants actually were leading toward an ultimatum and maintained that he was not totally sold on replacing the Speaker.
On the opposite end of the Republican Congressional spectrum was Marge Roukema, a ninth-term Representative from New Jersey. Roukema was one of the dwindling number of moderate Republicans left in the House. A backer of abortion rights, gun control, and campaign finance reform, she entered politics after her 17-year-old son died of leukemia in the mid-1970s. Once in office, Roukema – often citing her personal, painful experience with family disease – was the critical GOP supporter of the Democrat-backed Family and Medical Leave Act, which guaranteed new parents or immediate family members of gravely ill Americans three months of unpaid time off. After passing the House in 1990, largely thanks to Roukema, President George H.W. Bush vetoed the legislation. Three years later, President Clinton signed the bill into law.
And lastly, situated somewhere between Salmon and Roukema ideologically – and firmly in the Gingrich camp – was former Pennsylvania Representative Bob Walker. A longtime friend of the Speaker, Walker had retired from the House months earlier and was serving as the President of a powerful Washington lobbying firm, the Wexler Group.
Warner first pressed Salmon on why he participated in the talks to replace Gingrich and whether the efforts signaled a “philosophical dispute” with the Speaker. Salmon – echoing the words of several of the GOP insurgents last week – argued that the issues were about results rather than ideology:
I don’t think it’s so much of a philosophical dispute as much as it’s getting back to the things that we’ve promised that we would do three years ago on the Capitol steps. We simply want to get back to the things that are important for the Republican Party, and that is balancing the budget, cutting taxes, getting the federal government off of our backs, and returning power back to the states. That’s all we ever wanted. It’s not a personality dispute. It’s not in my mind that [Gingrich] has so-called become a moderate. It’s just about keeping promises.
Salmon also hedged on his support of the ultimatum that the insurgent GOP group almost delivered to Gingrich, arguing that he had always been opposed to a quick decision on the issue:
I’d point out it wasn’t my time frame, because, frankly, I was in more of a “wait and see” mode to see exactly how things were going to play out.
If Salmon positioned the dispute as somewhat overblown, Roukema argued that the very fact that a small group of Republican legislators could unilaterally push toward a Speakership replacement painted an unsettling portrait of the GOP’s basic health. She told Warner:
I’ve got to say that I was completely out of the loop, surprised, astounded, and more than a little ashamed to see how this whole so-called coup hit the press and hit the public.
Roukema went on to deliver a clarion call for a larger tent in the GOP:
If we’re going to be a majority party…we’ve got to get all the elements, the different caucuses within our Party, whether it’s the Right-conservative or the more moderate element, such as myself, to pull together, to have communications, to have alliances, and to form consensus. We can’t be a minority regional party.
She ended her initial response with a more dramatic denunciation of the infighting, referring to a Republican “civil war”:
Right now we have the budget agreement and the tax bill that are going through negotiations. And that was our commitment, that we would behave like a majority party in a professional and businesslike way and get the legislation that belongs to the people passed and signed into law. How can we do this to ourselves? A civil war has erupted and is bordering on cannibalism.
After Roukema’s broadside, Salmon reiterated his hedge about his aversion to the rushed nature of the Gingrich replacement plan, while also redirecting blame toward Clinton and – in another very 2023 move – the press:
I don’t believe the timing was good. And frankly, my timing all along has kind of been wait and see through the August recess, see if we can get our act together, see if our leaders will lead, and stop appearing to bow down to the pressures exerted by Bill Clinton and the media.
Warner then pivoted to Walker – the Gingrich stand-in of sorts – to weigh in on the historic nature of the dust-up: “All right. Former Congressman Walker, you’ve been through a lot of battles, I’m sure, on the Hill, but have you ever seen anything like this, and why do you think this is happening?”
Walker responded by acknowledging that nothing like the GOP insurgency had been seen in the Party since the early 20th century – perhaps a dramatic positioning, but also an acknowledgment of the real peril the Party faced as the moderates and the conservatives drifted further afield:
Well, we haven’t seen anything quite like this for a long, long time in the Congress, probably going back into the early part of the century, but I think what’s happening here is that you have a period of time in which people are not seeing it all come together in exactly the same way.
Walker then attempted a synthesis of the Salmon and Roukema positions, arguing that Gingrich was in fact still a Salmon-style conservative, but that his education in power politics had made him recognize that he needed Clinton to sign his bills:
I believe that the agenda outlined by Matt Salmon a minute ago is exactly what the Speaker’s attempting to do. He’s attempting to get a tax cut. He’s attempting to get spending cuts. He’s attempting to get entitlement reform. He’s attempting to balance the budget, while we do all that, but he also recognizes you have to negotiate in a way that brings the Senate on board, and ultimately the best way to get all that done is to have the President sign it. That means making some compromises along the way, and it has not been clear all the time that people were prepared to do some of the compromising that was necessary to get the job done.
Following Walker’s spirited defense of Gingrich, Warner soon pivoted back to Salmon, asking the insurgent whether he was willing to pursue the type of compromises Walker and Roukema had defended: “Are you open to the kind of pragmatism that Mr. Walker and the Congresswoman are talking about, in terms of negotiating with the White House and so on?
Salmon responded in a very telling way: a metaphor about Reagan’s stubbornness at the end of the Cold War, complete with an intriguing historical interpretation that Reagan’s refusal to compromise with Gorbachev on his Strategic Defense Initiative led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Salmon’s implication, seemingly, was that the House GOP should be as intransigent with the Clinton White House:
I look back at one of the greatest leaders in my mind of this century, and that’s Ronald Reagan. If when he went to negotiate with Gorbachev on the nuclear disarmament, when Gorbachev said, ‘Okay, you do away with SDI and then we’ll talk about nuclear disarmament,’ if President Reagan would have said, ‘Okay, well, I guess pragmatism should kick in now and maybe to get something I should give that up,’ the Berlin Wall would still be up.
A side note: Salmon would in 1999 lead a failed crusade to carve President Reagan’s face into Mount Rushmore.
The roundtable wrapped up with some mutual calls for “open dialogue” between the three perspectives – Roukema’s moderation, Walker’s Gingrich love, and Salmon’s desire for a more belligerently anti-Clintonian party.
Salmon’s positioning of the Republican Party as the proverbial Reagan standing firm against the Clintonian USSR is a perspective obviously shared by those who ousted Kevin McCarthy last week. McCarthy, like Gingrich, was certainly no friend to the Democrats, but lost support in part due to his pursuit of some compromise with Biden, like their May agreement on raising the debt limit.
Now, as the GOP moves toward a new Speaker and attempts to shake off the rancor of McCarthy’s tenure, the ideological fault lines that were so exemplified by the trio of Republicans on NewsHour some 26 years ago have calcified – and have plunged the House into decided disarray.
For more on the 1997 GOP leadership crisis and Gingrich’s unpopular move toward compromise, read Steven M. Gillon’s 2008 The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation
And head to the Twitter account of Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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