Remembering the Attempted Coup Against Gingrich

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As people marvel at how quickly Newt Gingrich’s fellow Republican piled on him this week, it’s worth remembering how glad they were to see him leave Congress more than a decade ago. (Salon‘s Steve Kornacki is good on this.) Best remembered is the way Gingrich was pushed from his speakership after House Republicans lost seats in the 1998 midterm elections, an outcome that this (amusingly retro) wrap-up declared “practically unthinkable.” The view on the Hill was that Gingrich had badly mismanaged the House GOP’s showdown with Bill Clinton, from the budget to impeachment, and that he had to go. A New York Times account from November of ’98 paints a vivid picture of his last hours:

Some Republicans, deeply consumed with the extraordinary tale of Mr. Gingrich’s rise and fall, say he went down after a combative private flurry with his aides, offering bare-knuckle political threats to destroy the careers of his main critics in the final days. But he finally backed off under even greater counter-pressure, including, Republicans say, warnings from potential Presidential candidates that Mr. Gingrich would only be a millstone in the 2000 elections.

People forget, however, that Gingrich was almost forced out even before the 1998 election. By the prior summer, Newt had become so unpopular with even some of his top GOP colleagues that they secretly plotted an extraordinary coup attempt against him. What followed was a farcical misfire, led by soon-to-be House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, that left Gingrich in the speakership for several more months. For the borderline slapstick details, let us return to the TIME archives and an up-and-coming reporter named James Carney (what’s become of him, I wonder?):

In scheming to be rid of House Speaker Gingrich, DeLay and his co-conspirators showed all the talent for intrigue of Peter Sellers in his Pink Panther days. Depending on who’s doing the telling, the schemers included one, two or all three of the other House leaders ranked directly below the Speaker–majority leader Dick Armey, G.O.P. conference chairman John Boehner and leadership chairman Bill Paxon–not to mention 20 or more insurgents from the rank and file. Cooked up in secrecy, the coup collapsed before it could begin. The result was a week of backstabbing that left Gingrich weaker yet more entrenched….

The plan was to have Armey, DeLay, Boehner and Paxon present Gingrich with a fait accompli: step aside or be voted out by parliamentary maneuver. What happened next is murky. By some accounts, when DeLay reported back to his fellow leaders later that Thursday night, he brought news that the rebels wanted Gingrich to be succeeded by Paxon, not Armey, who was next in line. Early Friday, Armey told his colleagues that he spent the night “praying with my wife” and decided he could not support the coup. “When Armey realized he wasn’t going to be Speaker, he backed out,” insists a knowledgeable source.

Not so, says Armey. When details of the aborted putsch broke in the July 16 edition of the scrappy weekly newspaper the Hill, he issued a statement that “any and all allegations that I was involved in some ridiculous plot to oust the Speaker [are] completely false, and, in fact, ludicrous.” But later when Armey stood up in a meeting of House Republicans and declared that the Hill story was inaccurate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a rebel leader, lunged for a microphone to challenge the assertion–knocking over a chair before another member could restrain him. Later, Armey changed his story. To his utter surprise, sources close to him now claimed, he realized that several of his fellow leaders–in other words, Paxon and DeLay–had been conspiring against Newt. Asked at a press conference whether DeLay should resign, Armey remained silent. DeLay wouldn’t comment on any of it. And Boehner said he’d been assessing the rebel threat, nothing more….

The Speaker was bolstered by the failed coup, albeit temporarily. House Republicans of all stripes say they’re tired of the warfare. But dissatisfaction with Newt remains high, and a survivalist strategy won’t satisfy his ego for long. Which is why Gingrich himself may be searching for a way to quit. He has a cover. According to several advisers, America’s most unpopular politician is thinking about stepping down as Speaker–to run for President.

Nearly fifteen years later, not much has changed. Senior Republicans still see Newt as a politically toxic party figure, and are looking for ways to knock him off the public stage lest he drag them down in a presidential election. We’ll see whether, this time, they can do so with a little more dignity.