Skip to main content

Controversies key in Gingrich's rise and fall

By Kevin Bohn, CNN Senior Producer
  • Newt Gingrich apparently considering presidential bid
  • Gingrich used ethics issues to bring down his foes
  • But ethics problems also helped bring down Gingrich

Washington (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich first arrived on the national political scene when, a few years after being elected to the House, he pushed ethics violations charges against then-Speaker Jim Wright, who later resigned.

Ethics complaints and a budget battle that forced a government shutdown, led to Gingrich's downfall after he had risen to the speaker's chair.

On Thursday, Gingrich is expected to announce that he will explore a presidential run, typically the first step toward a national campaign.

While Gingrich's quest to topple Wright helped him become the deputy leader of House Republicans in 1989, what solidified his place in American political history was his championing of the 1994 Contract With America, a blueprint for changes the GOP pledged it would bring to Congress if it gained control of the House.

The contract required that all laws the public had to abide by also applied to Congress, limited the terms of committee chairmen and required a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase.

The contract helped propel the GOP to its first majority in the House in 40 years and got Gingrich, a representative from Georgia, elected speaker.

Gingrich explores running for President
1994: Gingrich's 'Contract with America'
1995: Gingrich becomes House Speaker
1997: GOP attempts to oust Gingrich

"Those of us who ended up in the majority stood on these steps and signed a contract ... aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government," Gingrich said as he was sworn in as speaker in January 1995.

Soon Gingrich was battling the Clinton White House as congressional Republicans pushed government cuts to help balance the budget. Both sides dug in and there were two government shutdowns.

Gingrich and congressional Republicans came out the political losers.

"It's very difficult to work with a president who seems to be primarily driven by his political advisers to engage in public relations stunts," Gingrich said of Clinton in early November 1995, a few weeks before the first shutdown.

Democrats ridiculed Gingrich for allowing hurt feelings over a perceived slight by Clinton to influence his stance in the budget negotiations. Gingrich said he had felt snubbed by Clinton and his staff when he traveled with the president to Israel for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. Gingrich had to use Air Force One's back stairs for the trip. He said Clinton's behavior had caused him to toughen his stand during initial budget discussions.

The incident was later immortalized by a New York Daily News cartoon titled "Cry-Baby."

In a Washington Post op-ed last weekend, Gingrich dismissed suggestions the shutdowns were that bad for his party.

"Those who claim that the shutdown was politically disastrous for Republicans ignore the fact that our House seat losses in 1996 were in the single digits," Gingrich wrote. "Moreover, it was the first time in 68 years that Republicans were re-elected to a House majority and the first time that had ever happened with a Democrat winning the presidency."

1998: Gingrich won't seek re-election
2010: Gingrich: Obama is a 'con man'
2010: Gingrich: Need to restore values
2010: Gingrich takes jabs at president

In 1998, Gingrich lashed out at the Clinton White House's handling of the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky affair, calling it a "systematic, deliberate, obstruction of justice." Later it was revealed that Gingrich was having an extramarital affair with a congressional staffer.

Gingrich had to confront numerous ethics complaints brought by Democrats. He voluntarily turned in a $4.5 million book advance after critics questioned its appropriateness.

In 1997 he agreed to pay $300,000 to the House to reimburse the cost of an ethics investigation into whether he used tax-exempt funds to promote Republican causes. He was not found guilty of those charges. He was reprimanded by the House for giving what was considered misleading information.

Republicans kept control of the House for a third consecutive term in the 1998 elections, but won fewer seats than expected. Gingrich resigned as speaker and left Congress the next year.

Over the next decade, Gingrich mounted a comeback, expounding on the lecture circuit on his numerous ideas about how to reform government and society -- ranging from creating a new Social Security system based on what one contributes to completely revamping the country's energy policy to replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with a new Environmental Solutions Agency.

He also formed a successful think tank, called American Solutions for Winning the Future, which he used to help develop and communicate his ideas.

His visibility was elevated when he joined Fox News as a contributor, which gave him a national platform to comment on the news and promote a number of books he has written on subjects ranging from the American political scene to Ronald Reagan.

Fox announced on Wednesday that it was suspending the contracts of Gingrich and a fellow contributor, Republican former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, until they make decisions about running for president.

Gingrich is also a prolific fundraiser. American Solutions raised more than $3.8 million between October and the end of December 2010 and almost $14 million over the entire year. The American Solutions political action committee raised an additional $425,000 from October through December. With those numbers, Gingrich outpaced his potential 2012 rivals in money brought in.

Republican consultants not affiliated with any prospective campaign said they believe Gingrich as a presidential candidate offers positives as well as negatives.

"He is an idea factory. Republican voters love him," GOP consultant Ron Bonjean said. "They have watched him on TV and watched his think tank produce on an almost weekly basis.

"The cons are that he has a political record. He has been a career politician in Washington and a House speaker who left under controversial circumstances and that could weigh on voters' minds."

Some Republican consultants also said his personal life, with two divorces, will complicate any potential run because that will not be popular with some social conservatives who are a key voting bloc in key early voting states.

CNN's Emily Gold, Kerith McFadden and Susan Steele contributed to this report.