Partisan combat has always been a part of American politics, but Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins traces many of the extreme tactics used today to one man: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
When Gingrich entered Congress in 1979, the Georgia Republican rejected bipartisanship and "turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport," Coppins says.
While in Congress, Coppins says Gingrich treated politics as a "zero-sum" endeavor — and he wasn't above resorting to name-calling, conspiracy theories and strategic obstruction in order come out on top: "He was not there to work in the committee structure and deal with constituent services. He was there to foment revolution and declare war."
Though Gingrich left Congress 1999, his aggressive tactics have had a lasting impact. In his Atlantic article, "The Man Who Broke Politics," Coppins writes about how the former speaker helped pave the way for Donald Trump's election.
"He set a model for future Republican leaders," Coppins says of Gingrich. "I think that his defining legacy is he enshrined this combative, tribal, angry attitude in politics that would infect our national discourse in Washington and Congress for decades to come."
On how Newt Gingrich reshaped Congress into the partisan body it is today
His career is important to understand if you want to understand how we got to this point in our politics. ... If you look at the way that [Gingrich] gained power in the first place, he did it very deliberately and methodically by undermining the institution of Congress itself from within, by kind of blowing up the bipartisan coalitions that had existed for a long time in Washington and then using the kind of populist anger at the gridlock in Congress to then take power. And that's a strategy we've seen replicated again and again, all the way up into 2016 when Trump was campaigning on draining the swamp. This is a strategy that may seem kind of commonplace now but that Newt Gingrich was one of the premier architects of.
On how Gingrich sees politics as a battle
Prior to entering Congress, Newt Gingrich had been a historian. He had a Ph.D. in history. He was teaching history at West Georgia College, and he kind of gravitated toward heroes of war more than anything else. He loved reading war histories [of] World War I, World War II. In fact, one of the defining moments of his life, according to him, was when he was 15 years old and he visited a battleground in Verdun, France, with his parents and toured the grounds. And it was this very macabre setting where there [was] an ossuary where there were bones piled high from dead soldiers, and it was still scarred by cannon fire. He told me that that was an important moment where he realized, in his words, "that countries can die," and that it would be his role to make sure that America didn't.
He's always kind of framed his role in politics as that of a figure in war or at battle. He doesn't kind of look to the great legislators or deal-makers or politicians, for the most part, as his role models; he looks to generals and warriors.
On how Gingrich went about creating a new kind of Republican to run for the House
This just isn't a story of ideology, it's also a story of kind of attitude and style and tactics. Most of the congressmen that Gingrich helped elect or kind of gave power to were more conservative, but they were also — for lack of a better word — meaner and more aggressive and more combative and more confrontational. ...
Gingrich had this organization called GOPAC that he used to provide training to Republican candidates who wanted to emulate Newt Gingrich. He would send out cassette tapes and memos to these candidates providing them with kind of attack lines and and talking points and frankly created a whole new vocabulary for this rising generation of conservatives.
There was one memo I write about in the piece called "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," that literally included a list of recommended words that Republicans should use in describing Democrats. And they included words like "sick," "pathetic," "lie," "anti-flag," "traitors," or "radical" and "corrupt." ...
The kind of broader strategy when waging these national campaigns was to reframe the kind of policy debates in Washington that may have seemed kind of dull or inaccessible to the average American and turned them into these big struggles between good and evil, or white hats versus black hats, and a battle for the character and soul of America.
On how Gingrich worked outside of the established Republican infrastructure
His tactics, strategy was to build his own infrastructure entirely outside of the Republican institutions. So he went out himself and raised money. He went out himself and recruited candidates. Some of the candidates that he backed were explicitly Republicans that most establishment figures in Washington did not want to see in Congress, but he didn't care. He kind of saw his role as building a new Republican Party outside of the existing infrastructure. ... And certainly Donald Trump was able to win the Republican nomination without any institutional support at first by kind of following the same tack.
On how Gingrich pioneered the use of C-SPAN for political advantage
Gingrich recognized the potential political value in the C-SPAN cameras that had just recently been installed in the House at the time that he was kind of rising up through the ranks. He would kind of take to the floor at the end of the day when the chamber was basically empty, and he would give these kind of thundering speeches, kind of tirades against the Democrats, that were being delivered to no real audience in the actual room where he was, but that were then being beamed out to televisions across the country. He found that the more provocative he was and the more angry he was, the more likely his speeches were to get picked up in the news.
On Gingrich losing his speakership and resigning in 1999
On the way out the door, there's this great quote where he says, "I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals." I think, like a lot of revolutionaries — or people who see themselves as revolutionaries — they're great at gaining allies early on and turning it into a movement and gaining power, but then they're not always great at using that power to achieve the agenda that originally got them to where they were. And so Gingrich did end up kind of getting driven out by the same bloodthirsty brigade of right-wing lawmakers that he helped elect in the first place.
On how Democrats in the Trump era are also using Gingrich tactics
Gingrich's tactics began with the Republican Party, and to a certain extent, the Republican Party ever since Gingrich has been much better at wielding them. But you do increasingly, in the Trump era now, see Democrats kind of saying that: "We need to take cues from Newt Gingrich. We need to take cues from the Republican Party. If we want our agenda to be taken seriously, we need to take this war for power ethos that Gingrich enshrined and play by those same rules, or we'll never get our priorities passed and we'll never be able to kind of beat back Trump and his Republican allies."
Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Dana Farrington adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. "The Man Who Broke Politics" is the headline of an article about Newt Gingrich written by my guest McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. It's about how Newt Gingrich pioneered a style of partisan combat, replete with name-calling, conspiracy theories and strategic obstructionism, that paved the way for today's divisive politics. Coppins says few figures in modern history have done more than Newt Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump's rise.
Gingrich served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Georgia from 1979 to 1998 and was speaker of the House during his last three years in office. He remains powerful today through his appearances on Fox News and his relationship with President Trump. Trump appointed Gingrich's wife Callista ambassador to the Vatican. Gingrich has always used polarizing issues to rally his base. Lately, he's been warning Americans that there are threats posed by the migrant caravan heading to the Mexico-U.S. border. Here he is on Fox News on October 19 speaking with Laura Ingraham on her show.
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NEWT GINGRICH: This is an invasion. This is an act of attacking the United States' sovereignty, and the fact is...
LAURA INGRAHAM: Right now, Mexico - and I want to thank the Mexican officials and the Mexican police who are putting their lives on the line and getting a lot of grief from leftist politicians who are happy to give Trump a, you know, a pain in the you know what over this issue.
GINGRICH: Well, I think, actually, this was the best Mexico's ever been.
GINGRICH: I attribute that to President Trump and Secretary Pompeo but also, I think, to the Mexican government beginning to realize...
INGRAHAM: Pena Nieto.
GINGRICH: ...That this is going to be a crisis. You can't have thousands and thousands and thousands of people decide to break the law and have any expectation that civilization is going to withstand it.
GROSS: OK. So that was Newt Gingrich on Laura Ingraham's show. McKay Coppins, welcome to FRESH AIR. So your new article is about Newt Gingrich. He just called the caravan an invasion, an act of attacking U.S. sovereignty, something civilization might not withstand. Those are frightening warnings. What has Newt Gingrich's role been in the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration and in its rhetoric about immigration?
MCKAY COPPINS: Yeah. Newt Gingrich occupies a kind of interesting place in the president's orbit. He doesn't have an official job in the administration. His wife is the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. But he kind of plays the role of informal adviser and, you know, constant on-air surrogate and defender of Trump. When I spoke to him earlier this year, it was before the caravan had become the issue or the wedge that it has. But he told me that he - you know, very blatantly and brazenly - he was advising Republicans in their midterm strategy - was to make immigration law and order issues like that kind of center to the campaign.
And he's said that the midterm elections are going to come down to two words - Kavanaugh and caravan, one of the many kind of Newt-isms (ph) that get picked up and circulate on social media and cable news. But I think that it's clear that he sees this as a political advantage for Republicans that they need to exploit in these final weeks of the midterm. He's kind of pushing all his chips into this one big bet.
GROSS: I thought Newt Gingrich had kind of disappeared from the political scene. But apparently, he's very active on Fox News and very influential on Fox News.
COPPINS: Yeah. It's, I think, interesting. If you're not a regular Fox News viewer, I think a lot of people probably forgot about Newt Gingrich. He's very influential with the Republican base, the Fox News audience. He's seen as kind of this iconic figure, this truth teller. And he's also, frankly, influential within the Trump administration. He talks to the White House, he told me, 10 to 15 times a week. He's on the phone with Jared Kushner or Mike Pompeo or, you know, talking to Republican leaders in Congress. He is quite an influential figure. And I think that a lot of people forget about him, but I don't think we should for many reasons.
GROSS: What are the reasons?
COPPINS: Well, for one thing, he's influential in this current Trump administration. But also, his career is important to understand if you want to understand how we got to this point in our politics. He entered Congress in the '70s. And if you kind of trace the last 40 years of his career, you'll really come to understand how our politics has devolved into this kind of zero-sum culture war. You'll see the way that he pioneered a lot of the tactics of partisan warfare that we now take for granted as just a common fixture of our political landscape but were actually important innovations by Newt Gingrich and his allies.
And more than anything, I think that if you look at the way that he gained power in the first place, he did it very deliberately and methodically by undermining the institution of Congress itself from within by kind of blowing up the bipartisan coalitions that had existed for a long time in Washington and then using the kind of populist anger at the gridlock in Congress to then take power. And that's a strategy we've seen replicated again and again all the way up into 2016 when Trump was campaigning on draining the swamp. This is a strategy that may seem kind of commonplace now but that Newt Gingrich was one of the premier architects of.
GROSS: So your new article about Newt Gingrich is titled "The Man Who Broke Politics." And you date his really divisive style of politics to 1978. He was running for Congress as a House representative from Georgia. He was speaking to a gathering of college Republicans. He was 35 years old. And he said, one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics. And he told them that to be successful they need to, quote, "raise hell," to stop being so, quote, "nice" and to realize that politics was, quote, "a war for power."
So what insights do you have about why, before he was even in Congress, he saw that kind of raising-hell, war-for-power approach as being, like, a terrific tactic?
COPPINS: Prior to entering Congress, Newt Gingrich had been a historian. He had a Ph.D. in history. He was teaching history at West Georgia College. And he kind of gravitated toward heroes of war more than anything else. He loved reading war histories - World War I, World War II. In fact, one of the defining moments of his life, according to him, was when he was 15 years old, and he visited a battleground in Verdun, France, with his parents and kind of toured the grounds. And it was this kind of very macabre setting where there were, you know, an ossuary where there were bones piled high from dead soldiers. And it was still scarred by cannon fire.
And he told me that that was an important moment where he realized, in his words, that countries can die and that it would be his role to make sure that America didn't. But it's important that he's always kind of framed his role in politics as a - as that of, you know, a figure in war or at battle. He doesn't kind of look to the great legislators or deal-makers or politicians, for the most part, as his role models. He looks to generals and warriors. And I think that that's important to understand as you watch him enter Congress in the late '70s. He was not there to kind of work in the committee structure and deal with constituent services. He was there to foment revolution and declare war. And that has always kind of been his mindset.
GROSS: So when he actually took a seat in Congress in 1979, he said the Republican Party was at a low point largely because of Watergate. And Newt's strategy was to revitalize the party. What was his plan to revitalize the party?
COPPINS: Well, he had a very specific plan that he was pretty candid about. He would tell everyone that he encountered about it. And at the time, they kind of dismissed him as this loudmouth freshman congressman who should remember his place. But his plan was to reclaim power for Republicans in Congress by blowing up the bipartisan coalitions that were essential to legislating and then seizing on that dysfunction to then turn around and tell Americans, look; you need to put Republicans in charge because Congress isn't working with Democrats.
It was a very cynical strategy, but he wasn't afraid of describing it. You know, I talked to Norm Ornstein, who's a political scientist who knew Gingrich at the time. And Ornstein said that he wanted to build toward a national election where people were so disgusted by Washington that they would throw the ins out and bring the outs in. So that was his strategy from day one.
GROSS: And this was a period when Jimmy Carter was the president and Democrats controlled the House and the Senate.
COPPINS: Right. And Democrats had controlled Congress for quite a while now. And in the wake of Watergate, Gingrich actually - he told me that it seemed like Republicans in Congress had sort of settled into what he called a permanent minority mindset, that Republicans basically believed that they weren't going to take back the House or Senate anytime in the future, or at least in the near future, and that their job was to kind of work with Democrats, keep congressional business humming along and pull legislation inch by inch to the right where they could but that, you know, their job was not really to lead to Congress. And Gingrich wanted to change that mindset and kind of shake it up.
GROSS: Right. So he was very disillusioned by the Republicans who were already in Congress. He wanted his own brand of Republicans in Congress who would follow his lead. So how did he go about recruiting and then helping elect people who would follow his lead politically?
COPPINS: Yeah. So right away, he kind of started capturing attention because he was very charismatic, frankly, and also very brash and bold and noisy. And so he started out by recruiting 12 congressmen who were generally younger, more conservative and kind of bomb-throwers by nature. And he called them the Conservative Opportunity Society. And this cadre of 12 acolytes and Gingrich would stalk Capitol Hill looking for ways to make trouble.
They were not extremely interested in legislating or in their kind of low-level perches on whatever committees they'd been assigned to. They were trying to change the national debate. And they did that by picking fights with other members of Congress by being very TV-savvy. People that you talk to from the time will note that they even looked different because they had these blow-dried pompadours that made them TV-ready or camera-ready, whereas most of the members of Congress were sort of old and had comb-overs and weren't very comfortable on television.
But they very deliberately set out to kind of upend the old dynamics of comity and decorum and to kind of shred a lot of the traditions that had stabilized Congress in the middle of the century and heading into the late 20th century.
GROSS: Did that include taking aim at moderates in the Republican Party?
COPPINS: Yes, definitely. In fact, some of Gingrich's earliest targets were members of his own party. He famously called Bob Dole the collector for the welfare state and, you know, was constantly kind of needling Republican leadership, especially Bob Michel, who was, at the time, the head of the Republicans in the House. He was this amiable World War II veteran who was kind of widely seen in Washington as just a great man of decency. He loved to carpool with Democrats or play golf with Democrats. And Bob Michel kind of embodied this ethos of kind of unity and cooperation and looked for ways to work in good faith with Democrats. And Gingrich just despised that whole kind of conciliatory approach. And so he looked constantly for ways to get in Bob Michel's face, to make his job harder and to kind of rile up the members of the Republican caucus against Republican leadership.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, who's a staff writer for The Atlantic. And his latest article is about Newt Gingrich, and it's called "The Man Who Broke Politics." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His latest article is called "The Man Who Broke Politics." It's about Newt Gingrich. And the subtitle of this article is, "Newt Gingrich Turned Partisan Battles Into Bloodsport, Wrecked Congress And Paved The Way For Trump's Rise. Now He's Reveling In His Achievements."
So by taking aim at moderates in the Republican Party and then helping bring in new young Republican congressmen who believed, like Newt Gingrich did, that you should try to blow up bipartisan coalitions and destroy that kind of, you know, moderate approach to Republican politics. By doing that, was he a major force in moving the Republican Party to the right?
COPPINS: Absolutely. And it was important how he did it because this just isn't a story of ideology; it's also a story of kind of attitude and style and tactics. You know, most of the congressmen that Gingrich helped elect or kind of gave power to were more conservative. But they were also kind of, for lack of a better word, meaner and more aggressive and more combative and more confrontational. And those were actually the things he looked at more than hard right ideology. He just wanted people who are willing to fight.
But he did play an important role. And it's important to note the way he did it, which was basically by circumventing the traditional Republican institutions that were in charge of recruiting and grooming and supporting congressional candidates across the country. His tactic, strategy, was to build his own infrastructure entirely outside of the Republican institution. So he went out himself and raised money. He went out himself and recruited candidates. Some of the candidates that he backed were explicitly Republicans that most establishment figures in Washington did not want to see in Congress. But he didn't care.
He kind of saw his role as building a new Republican Party outside of the existing infrastructure. And by doing that, he set a model for future Republican leaders and conservative bomb-throwers to follow. You know, we saw most recently, in the last few years, people like Ted Cruz do the same thing and kind of follow his lead. And certainly, Donald Trump was able to win the Republican nomination without any institutional support - at first - by kind of following the same tack.
GROSS: OK. So we've been talking about how Newt Gingrich recruited people, young congressmen, who would follow his lead tactically in Congress and help blow up the traditional ways that Republicans did things. So once he recruited people to run for office, how did he train them to campaign for office?
COPPINS: So Gingrich had this organization called GOPAC that he used to provide training to Republican candidates who wanted to emulate Newt Gingrich. So you know, he would send out cassette tapes and memos to these candidates, providing them with kind of attack lines and talking points and, frankly, created a whole new vocabulary for this rising generation of conservatives.
There was one memo I write about in the piece called Language: A Key Mechanism of Control that literally included a list of recommended words that Republicans should use in describing Democrats. And they included words like sick, pathetic, lie, anti-flag, traitors, radical and corrupt. (Laughter) And so - these were words, you know - the whole idea, the kind of broader strategy when waging these national campaigns was to reframe the kind of policy debates in Washington that may have seemed kind of dull or inaccessible to the average American and turned them into these big struggles between good and evil or, you know, white hats versus black hats. And kind of, you know, a battle for the character and soul of America. And he was a master, especially of finding kind of creative wedge issues to turn into political talking points.
So for example, when Woody Allen had an affair with his partner's adoptive daughter, that might have seemed like a kind of unseemly story in pop culture or Hollywood. But Gingrich saw it as an opportunity and gave a speech saying that that Woody Allen affair fits the Democratic platform perfectly. That's just one example of how he kind of would show his kind of followers and acolytes how to politicize these stories in the news and try to turn them to Republicans' advantage.
He also - I think one thing that I came across in doing the research for this story was interesting that he was kind of an early pioneer of branding your enemies with catchy, alliterative nicknames. So he would frequently call Dukakis Daffy Dukakis and, you know, say that we're running against the Loony Left, which clearly is a tactic that we're now familiar with, given who is in the Oval Office.
GROSS: Newt Gingrich was very good at using media. And you say he believed and probably still believes that the media loves a good fight. So if you pick a fight, if you create a battle, that's a great way to get coverage. So what are some examples of how he did that?
COPPINS: Well, one of the early examples that I think helped shape his thinking on this is, you know, Gingrich recognized the potential political value in the C-SPAN cameras that had just recently been installed in the House at the time that he was kind of rising up through the ranks. And he would kind of take to the floor at the end of the day when the chamber was basically empty, and he would give these kind of thundering speeches, kind of tirades against the Democrats that were being delivered to no real audience in the actual room where he was but that were then being beamed out to televisions across the country.
And he found that the more provocative he was and the more angry he was the more likely his speeches were to get picked up in the news. At one point, he was giving one of these speeches, and Speaker Tip O'Neill kind of had had enough and erupted, saying that this is the lowest thing he'd seen in Congress and kind of irate with Newt Gingrich. And that fight ended up on the nightly news, the national nightly news.
And, you know, some members of Congress might have been embarrassed that this had gotten so much publicity, but Gingrich kind of knew the score and immediately declared victory. He kind of crowed to The Washington Post, look, I'm a famous person now. And I think that that shows a lot about how Gingrich kind of was able to use these confrontations to his advantage.
GROSS: My guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His latest article, "The Man Who Broke Politics," is about Newt Gingrich. We'll talk more after a break. And David Edelstein will review an Orson Welles film that was unfinished when he died. A team of producers and editors have assembled a final cut, and tomorrow it will open in select theaters and start streaming on Netflix. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. His latest article, "The Man Who Broke Politics," is about Newt Gingrich and how he pioneered a style of partisan combat with name-calling, conspiracy theories and strategic obstructionism that paved the way for today's divisive politics.
Coppins says few figures in modern history have done more than Gingrich to lay the groundwork for Trump's rise. Gingrich served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Georgia from 1979 to 1998 and was speaker of the House during his last three years in office. He now makes frequent appearances on Fox News and is an informal adviser to President Trump.
So one of the things Newt Gingrich became famous for is the Contract with America. And this was in the lead-up to the 1994 midterms. What was the Contract with America?
COPPINS: It was a document that Gingrich had created that outlined 10 bills Republicans were promising to pass if they took control of the House. So in September of 1994, 300 Republican candidates across the country gathered outside the Capitol and signed this document and basically said, look, put us in office and we will pass all these bills in the first hundred days. And these were carefully poll tested, you know, bills that were about fighting crime - which was a major issue in that election - about cutting unnecessary spending, various other kind of Republican priorities. And then these candidates left and fanned out across the country and started campaigning on the contract, though I think that this is something that's misunderstood by a lot of people because while it's true that the Contract With America was an important moment in that campaign - it was an important force that carried Republicans into election day in the final weeks of the race.
It's also true that it only worked because it was paired with this strategic obstructionism that Republicans in Congress were engaging in. You had, basically, Republicans in both the Senate and the House refusing to work with Democrats on any bill, even if it was a bill that would have normally gained bipartisan support. For example, there was a lobbying reform bill that came up heading into the election that Republicans just kind of scuttled. And the thinking was if we work with Democrats and start passing these popular bills that will get public support, it'll undermine our message that Congress isn't working and that you need to put new leadership in place.
So they very carefully avoided passing any legislation to the point where by the end of that Congress - when that session of Congress was gaveled out heading into the '94 midterms, the Washington Post declared it perhaps the worst Congress in 50 years. But what's amazing is that strategy worked. You know, a lot of pundits at the time - you can go back and read the coverage - said this is going to backfire. Voters are going to turn on Republicans over this. The fact is most voters either didn't notice or didn't care. And exit polls at the time showed widespread dissatisfaction with Congress, and that worked to the Republicans' advantage.
GROSS: Well, Mitch McConnell was, at the time, an up-and-coming senator. And he, at the time, said that the Democratic agenda gives gridlock a good name.
GROSS: McConnell became really famous during the Obama administration for pledging to block anything that Obama wanted to pass and for being pretty good at it, most especially when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court justice. And Mitch McConnell refused to even bring it to the judiciary committee. Do you think that McConnell learned obstructionism from this period where Newt Gingrich was a leader?
COPPINS: Yeah. This is a key point because prior to the kind of Newt Gingrich era, there had, of course, been some obstructionism. And there had always been, you know, partisan battles. But there had also been a kind of widely embraced idea that whoever was in charge of Congress, whoever had the majority, they were going to lead the way on legislation. And the other party was going to work with them and negotiate with them and try to get things that they wanted but that ultimately, on most issues, they had to let the majority win.
And Newt Gingrich pioneered very creative ways of making sure that that didn't happen. And yeah, I do think Mitch McConnell learned a lot from that period. Like you said, he was quoted in a Washington Post article at that time sort of giving credit to this strategy and saying - opposing the Democrats' agenda and President Clinton's agenda gives gridlock a good name. Also, Bill Kristol, who was then a Republican strategist, was quoted fretting a little bit over whether this would backfire, but then marveling at the fact that what he called the party's principled obstructionism ended up working, that voters weren't punishing them for it.
I think a lot of Republicans at the time were worried about it. They were hesitant about this strategy because it defied the conventional wisdom that voters didn't want you to deliberately block any progress on popular bills. But it ended up working. And I think a lot of Republicans took an important lesson from that that was then later applied during the Obama years.
GROSS: So Newt Gingrich and his followers were very effective at blocking legislation, at preventing bipartisanship and obstructing Democrats. But when they were in power and when Newt Gingrich got a lot of his people elected with the help of the Contract for America, did they succeed in actually passing the things that they said they would pass in the first 100 days?
COPPINS: Well, they actually did. And this is where, I think, Gingrich and his Republican allies actually deserve some credit. They campaigned on these poll-tested popular bills. And then they got into office and immediately got to work over the first hundred days passing these bills. And, you know, the American Dream Restoration Act, the Taking Back Our Streets Act, they got all these bills passed. But the problem is that Gingrich didn't have a plan for what came next, right?
So the House passed all these bills. But most of them ended up either dying in the Senate or getting snuffed out by President Clinton's veto pen because at the end of the day, you do need to work with both parties to be able to get these big, aggressive, ambitious bills passed. And Gingrich did occasionally try to work with the Clinton White House. But he still approached every negotiation as a battle in this grander war, which was a change from how past congressional leaders had worked.
In fact, Newt Gingrich saw himself, he would sometimes say, as a prime minister, that, you know, President Clinton was - had the monarch figure in American government but that he was the prime minister. And he was actually responsible for passing laws and legislation and kind of running the government, which was a complete change from how other House speakers had viewed themselves. But it manifested itself in all kinds of ways in the battles with the Clinton White House.
GROSS: So when - if you were to do a kind of ratio of how much Newt Gingrich cared about power and his personal power versus how much he cared about passing legislation and any form of, you know, belief system in terms of politics, what would the ratio be?
COPPINS: Oh, what would the ratio be? Maybe five to one, 10 to one in terms - in favor of power. And the reason I say that is because even when he was in Congress, he seemed to have a lot more interest in holding onto the House majority than he did kind of enshrining these big, conservative ideas. So for example, Gingrich reoriented the congressional schedule around filling campaign war chests. He actually shortened the official work week in Congress, in the House, to three days so that his members had time to go home and dial for dollars or raise money.
And actually, from 1994 to 1998, when Gingrich was speaker, Republicans raised a billion dollars, which was unprecedented at the time. You know, if he was somebody who cared more about conservative legislation, he might not have, you know, sent all of his members home to try to raise money. Another example is in the budget battles he had with the Clinton White House in 1995. He had an opportunity. He had a president who was chastened by the midterm defeat, who was willing to work with Republicans and who, frankly, was already kind of a centrist and was open to a lot of conservative ideas.
But Gingrich was just constantly overplaying his hand and kind of wielding power in ways that made it impossible for them to get a lot done in terms of actual legislative accomplishments. One of his innovations, for lack of a better word, was the weaponized government shutdown. So while there had been government shutdowns in the past, they had tended to last just one or two days. They were seen as minor affairs. In fact, a lot of federal agencies would just stay open during them because everyone knew it was sort of temporary.
Gingrich's shutdowns lasted weeks and furloughed hundreds of thousands of government workers. And kind of - he was trying to hold those paychecks hostage as a bartering chip in his negotiations with the White House. That strategy ended up kind of imploding, but it ushered in this new era of government shutdown sort of looming over every congressional negotiation now. And so I think that that, again, is an example of how he prioritized his power over any single conservative policy or ideological motivation.
GROSS: I think the most recent weaponized government shutdown was over immigration in the Trump administration.
COPPINS: That's right. And frankly, that was being driven by Democrats. And that's an important point here - that, you know, Gingrich's tactics began with the Republican Party. And to a certain extent, the Republican Party ever since Gingrich has been much better at wielding them. But you do increasingly, in the Trump era now, see Democrats kind of saying that we need to take cues from Newt Gingrich. We need to take cues from the Republican Party. If we want our agenda to be taken seriously, we need to take this war for power ethos that Gingrich enshrined and play by those same rules, or we'll never get our priorities passed. And we'll never be able to kind of beat back Trump and his Republican allies.
I think that's dangerous, personally. I think that rather than constant escalation, which is what we've seen - Harry Reid, also, a Democratic leader, was one of the people who took the Gingrich model and applied it to Democratic politics. I would rather see at least one party in America trying to de-escalate. But obviously, if you're a partisan Democrat and you think that your ideas need to be passed and turned into law, then it's easy to see how you would come to the conclusion that you need to fight Gingrich-style warfare.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins. He's a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine. And his latest article is about Newt Gingrich. It's called "The Man Who Broke Politics." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic. His latest article is about Newt Gingrich, and it's called "The Man Who Broke Politics." It's subtitled "Newt Gingrich Turned Partisan Battles Into Bloodsport, Wrecked Congress And Paved The Way For Trump's Rise. Now He's Reveling In His Achievements." Newt Gingrich was speaker of the House when President Clinton was impeached, and Newt Gingrich was very much in favor of impeachment. And I think it was, like, after Newt Gingrich left office that it was revealed that he was involved with sexual indiscretions. And they had some echoes of what President Clinton had done. So tell us about those indiscretions.
COPPINS: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the more amazing little footnotes to the whole Clinton impeachment saga, which is that Newt Gingrich, who was leading the charge unimpeachable over this affair in the White House and various other things, was, at the time of the impeachment, engaged in an illicit relationship with a much younger congressional aide named Callista, who he would later marry. And he had kind of successfully kept it a secret throughout the impeachment crusade. It came out shortly after he left office. And frankly, while certainly people were shocked and angry about the hypocrisy, not that many people were surprised. By then, Newt Gingrich had a reputation for being a less-than-loyal husband. He famously had been accused of many other affairs over the course of his first two marriages.
But what he had figured out was that the tribal nature of our politics - and frankly, the tribal nature of our politics that Gingrich had been working to make permanent and make more serious - meant that it didn't really matter if he was, you know, a perfectly moral husband or embodiment of Christian values. He would still have the backing of the conservative base in the Republican Party as long as he was aiming his ire at the other side and as long as he was an effective warrior in those battles.
And that had profound consequences, I think, for the way that people in both Republican politics and Democratic politics became more and more cynical about these partisan battles. They increasingly felt like the - whatever underlying principles were supposed to govern these fights could be thrown out the window, and it was more about which side won.
GROSS: So in a way, Newt Gingrich was eventually, like, driven out of Congress. Why?
COPPINS: Yeah. Well, so the impeachment crusade ended up backfiring with voters. In a year that, frankly, Republicans, just according to the regular laws of political gravity, should have gained seats in the House, they ended up losing seats because voters were kind of so fed up with the investigation and the impeachment proceedings and felt like Republicans had gone way overboard with this stuff. And Republicans in Congress then kind of turned around and blamed Newt Gingrich for leading them astray with this strategy and basically drove him out of office. He lost his speakership, decided to resign. You know, on the way out the door, there's this great quote where he says, I'm willing to lead, but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.
So you know, I think, like a lot of revolutionaries or people who see themselves as revolutionaries, they're great at kind of gaining allies early on and turning it into a movement and gaining power. But then they're not always great at using that power to achieve the agenda that originally got them to where they were. And so Gingrich did end up kind of getting driven out by the same bloodthirsty brigade of, you know, right-wing lawmakers that he helped elect in the first place.
GROSS: So are there other echoes today that you see of the kind of battlefield politics that Newt Gingrich brought to politics?
COPPINS: Yeah. I mean, I think that, certainly, his tactics have lived on - the obstructionism, the name-calling. One of the early things that he did was mainstreaming conspiracy theories as part of kind of regular discourse. So for example, when Vince Foster, a Clinton aide, committed suicide, Gingrich was one of the most prominent Republicans sort of publicly flirting with the kind of fringe conspiracy theory that he had actually been assassinated. And he saw that as a way to kind of muck up Clinton's White House and his agenda.
But I think the bigger point is the way that he turned national politics and congressional politics into, you know, team sport, right? - that at the end of the day, there's no point in ever working with the other side. It's zero-sum. It's them or us. You know, it's good versus evil. And the other side is corrupt.
In fact, he wrote a book just recently - Newt Gingrich - in which he says outright that Trump's America is incompatible with the anti-Trump coalition's view of America. He said one will simply defeat the other. There is no room for compromise. Trump has understood this perfectly since day one. And I think that is what's driven him to Trump more than any ideology or shared world view, beyond this kind of idea that we have to beat the other side, and that's all that matters.
GROSS: McKay Coppins, thank you so much for talking with us.
COPPINS: Hey, thank you.
GROSS: McKay Coppins is a staff writer for The Atlantic. His article about Newt Gingrich is titled "The Man Who Broke Politics." After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new final cut of the Orson Welles film that was unfinished when he died. This is FRESH AIR.
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