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Gingrich's career: Highs, lows and a knack for survival

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Nov. 6) -- Newt Gingrich's sudden departure from Congress Friday came almost four years to the day after the most stunning triumph of his political career -- the GOP's capture of the House in the November 1994 election.

Almost no one anticipated the Republicans' historic 52-seat gain -- except Gingrich, the dreamer, idealist and political hardball player who had the audacity to predict it.

That shining moment was the harvest of 20 years of work toward a goal that reportedly was sown in Gingrich's childhood.

A history professor at West Georgia College, Gingrich first ran for the House in 1974, in an era when Republican congressmen were rare on the Georgia landscape and being a Yankee with a funny-sounding name was hardly an asset.

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Gingrich addresses a crowd concerning the GOP's "Contract with America" in 1994  

Gingrich ran as a moderate and an environmentalist against a more conservative Democrat -- and lost. He lost again in 1976, but came closer. In 1978, running as a full-fledged conservative, he finally captured the seat.

As a brash, young Republican turk, he argued that GOP leaders were too complacent, too willing to compromise with the majority Democrats. He formed the Conservative Opportunity Society to oppose what he termed the liberal welfare state. When the House started broadcasting its sessions on C-SPAN, he gave fiery speeches that were aimed at the public rather than his House colleagues.

In 1987, he brought ethics charges against House Speaker Jim Wright that eventually forced Wright's resignation and helped propel Gingrich into the No. 2 spot in the House hierarchy.

But Gingrich's outspokenness made him a prime target. He came within 974 votes of losing his seat, centered in Atlanta's southern suburbs, to a Democrat in 1990. The next year, enemies in the Georgia legislature dismembered his district during reapportionment, hoping to derail his career.

But Gingrich simply picked himself up, moved to a more Republican area in Atlanta's northern suburbs, ran for an open seat there and won. He hasn't faced a strong challenge since.

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House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt hands Gingrich the House gavel in January 1995  

When House Minority Leader Bob Michel retired at the 1994 election, Gingrich moved up to the top Republican spot. Buoyed by an agenda they called the Contract with America, the Republicans won their first majority in four decades, the gentleman from Georgia was speaker of the House, and the Republican revolution was on.

But Gingrich proved more popular as a revolutionary than as a leader. Like Wright, he became entangled in an ethics imbroglio that eventually led to his reprimand by the House in 1997 and a $300,000 penalty.

After the Republicans in Congress shut down the government in 1995 in a showdown with President Bill Clinton, Gingrich's popularity plunged, never to return to the heights of 1994. By 1996, nearly six in 10 voters had an unfavorable opinion of him. Some of his top lieutenants even plotted a coup against him, but Gingrich, ever the survivor, managed to keep his job.

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Gingrich leaves his Marietta, Georgia, headquarters after announcing his departure as speaker of the House  

On Tuesday, election night, Gingrich pointed to the fact that Republicans had won House majorities in three successive elections for the first time in 70 years. But each majority was smaller than the last, and his troops became restless. Exit polls showed that 58 percent of the voters had an unfavorable view of him, while just 36 percent viewed him favorably.

In the end, the job that Newt Gingrich always wanted, and spent much of his adult life working toward, was his for just four years. Still, his high-profile tenure as speaker -- and the political earthquake he engineered in 1994 -- will likely earn him a notice in history, good or bad, that few of his predecessors as speaker can match.


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Friday, November 6, 1998



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