Showdown : the struggle between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House /
Elizabeth Drew.
New York : Simon & Schuster, 1996.
398 p.
More Details
New York : Simon & Schuster, 1996.
general note
Includes index.
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A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

OPENING DAY "A Whole New Debate"

In the afternoon of January 4, opening day of the first session of the 104th Congress, Newt Gingrich, the newly sworn-in Speaker of theHouse, was striding across the Capitol Plaza, and giving a disquisition on power. It was one of the few bitterly cold days of Washington's winter, but Gingrich wasn't wearing an overcoat. Washington's biggest and newest star, trailed by family members, aides, and security detail and preceded by a covey of photographers walking backward, was in an understandably ebullient mood, happily acknowledging the greetings and congratulations of people he passed. He had great reason to be pleased: more than any other factors, his efforts and exceptional long-sightedness had brought about what had until very recently seemed most unlikely to almost everybody but him--the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives after forty years, and his installation as Speaker. Until that moment, Gingrich had been widely known as a "bomb thrower," a man more interested in upsetting than observing the regular order, often to the distress of the more mannerly and traditional members of his own party. Next to the takeover of the House, the Republican recapture of the Senate after eight years seemed almost routine. But Gingrich had had a plan.

The opening day of the new Congress W`was being afforded all the excitement and attention of a Presidential Inauguration. The broadcast networks had brought their anchors to town. Tickets to the galleries--especially the House gallery--were precious items. Overflow crowds watched the opening events on closed-circuit television in Statuary Hall. In a sign of the new times, radio talk show hosts--almost all of them conservatives and strong allies of Gingrich's and an important factor in his triumph--were given special quarters in the Capitol. Rush Limbaugh's substitute (the popular conservative talk show host was on vacation) worked out of Gingrich's own office. Lobbyists handing out cards crowded the hallways. In the Ways and Means Committee room in the Longworth House Office Building, some Houston oil men threw a lavish reception for their representative, Bill Archer, the new chairman of the tax-writing committee.

Now, shortly after four o'clock, Gingrich, universally referred to as "Newt," having slipped out of the Speaker's chair, was on his way to a reception in the Longworth House Office Building for the families of new Members of Congress, where the leading attraction, courtesy of Gingrich, was the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, stars of a highly popular children's program. Gingrich said he had asked his five-year-old nephew, Kevin, who was trailing along, whom he would most like to meet.

"I work on four models," Gingrich said, when I asked him what he expected to have accomplished by the end of this session of the Congress, "vision, strategy, tactics, and planning." He continued, "We may have a more limited success in terms of bills, but the whole language of politics will be in the midst of transformation. We'll be building a bow-wave of change." The former history professor cited as earlier examples the change that took place from the McKinley administration to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressives, which led in time to the Wilson administration. Then came the New Deal, which Gingrich called "the most fertile period in our history." The conservative, even radical Gingrich revered Franklin Roosevelt. Gingrich said, "The real breaking point is when you find yourself having a whole new debate, with new terms. That's more important than legislative achievements." While Gingrich may have been trying to lower expectations of what he would achieve legislatively, it seemed also that this was the visionary in him speaking. "We'll know in six months whether we have accomplished that," Gingrich said. "Reagan didn't quite pull itoff."

Gingrich soon reached the cafeteria in the Longworth Building, where a couple hundred people--parents arrd children--had gathered. Six Power Rangers (they weren't actually the ones that appear on television, but the children seemed none the wiser), dressed in white, black, blue, pink, red, and yellow space suits. were standing on a stage. Gingrich took his place beside them, and seemingly a million flashbulbs went off. Gingrich spoke to the crowd for only a couple of minutes, telling the assembled children that "You're probably more interested in them than in me," and he was soon out of the room, on his way back to the Capitol. Gingrich was rarely so laconic, but his schedule was crowded and little time was needed to accomplish his aim at the reception.

Resuming our conversation, Gingrich said, "I gave a paper to the freshmen in which I described the role of a leader. The first fob of a leader is to set and create a focus; second, be a symbol--go places where the simple act of being there communicates. That's what the Power Rangers was all about. It was a pro-family statement. Three, gather resources in the society at large. Four, using the resources of the federal government, govern. The traditional leader would focus on the fourth part. Reagan did the first part. F.D.R. did all four; he's the greatest leader we ever had."

In his talk to the freshmen on November 30, Gingrich, typically, gave them a list of books to read, most of them popular theories about the future and management, and said, also typically, "Economic opportunity and technological opportunity will be available if we can stop obsolete political elites and an obsolete welfare state from blocking the future and protecting the past." He spoke, as he so often did, in global and visionary terms. Whether or not it all stood up to scrutiny, it was clear that Gingrich would be a different kind of congressional leader.

Asked if he was going to try to do all four, Gingrich replied breezily, "Sure. Because that's the idealized leader. If you fall short you're falling short of the ideal. If you think of yourself as a transformational leader, you have to try all four. F.D.R. left the Democrats such a powerful base that it could support them for a long time. Now you have a decaying structure and an obsolescent ideology."

Along the way back, Gingrich obliged a couple from upstate New York who wanted to take a picture of him holding their small child. While doing so, he said to the gathering spectators, "His future is what it's all about."

When I asked him, as he resumed his march to the Capitol, what he was most worried about, Gingrich replied, "The biggest thing I'm worried about is being blindsided, which by definition is-something you didn't think of." Gingrich tried to think of everything. "After that," he continued, "is the sheer scale of what we're trying to do. Third, the day-to-day job of creating a new order. Fourth, the established order's ability to thwart things, day by day. It's everything from the New York Times editorial board, the network executives, the managing editor of Time, who was just here." Gingrich was sensitive to criticism, and he spoke and dealt not in terms of people who disagreed with him but of enemies, including "the established order" and "the forces of the status quo." As he made his way through a large crowd back to room H 209, just off the House floor--the large ceremonial office recently vacated by former Democratic Speaker Thomas Foley, who had been defeated for reelection--where he would pose, along with his wife, Marianne, for three hours for pictures with new members and their families, Gingrich remarked, "I'll be doing hours and hours of pictures. This is my point about symbolism. It creates a web." Gingrich's speech to the House, after taking the gavel at 1:30 P.M., had surprised a lot of people, hut not those familiar with his thinking. (In the past, Congress usually met only pro forma until the President gave his State of the Union address, hut Gingrich wasn't waiting for anyone.) While many interpreted Gingrich's praise in his speech of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party for its accomplishments on civil rights--"The greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the twentieth century were in the Democratic Party"--as a magnanimous reaching out, it was, in fact, a reflection of Gingrich's pragmatic long-term strategy of trying to win over more of the black vote to the Republican Party. Vin Weber, a former Republican Member of Congress and close friend and adviser of Gingrich's, said a few days later, "Newt has always believed that politically we need to break into the black community." This was, of course, a strongly held and more openly expressed view of Jack Kemp's. Gingrich had once been a Rockefeller Republican, in part because of his belief that the party should be more committed to civil rights. During the 1980s, Gingrich had ordered up a study by the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose purpose was to elect Republicans to the House, of black attitudes toward the Republican Party. Weber said, "The data showed us that there was a strong basis for a bigger black vote for the Republican Party. The line about civil rights wasn't a throwaway line. It's a vision he has held for fifteen years. How well developed that vision is, I don't know."

Gingrich's speech to the House lasted forty-three minutes rather than the fifteen predicted by his press secretary, Tony Blankley. As usual, Gingrich spoke from notes and winged much of the speech. Gingrich was no great orator, and he was normally garrulous, so his speech was rambling, as most Gingrich speeches were--but effective nonetheless, touching on severe themes he had been developing. Another point of the speech, in which Gingrich said, "The balanced budget is the right thing to do, but it doesn't, in my mind, have the moral urgency of coming to grips with what's happening to the poorest Americans," was, Weber said, to show that a conservative leader was saying that domestic policy is as important as macroeconomics. "How can we not decide," Gingrich continued, "that this is a moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery, and how can we not insist that every day we take steps to do something?" He stamped certain issues which Republicans as a whole had never cared much about--health care, the cities, education--as now matters of their concern. This was an important, even historic, statement--if it was genuine. Weber said that Gingrich was proceeding on the theory that unless the conservative party offered an alternative domestic vision to that of the liberal party, it couldn't be competitive. Weber said, "He wants the country to think of the Republican Party as attacking social ills. If it does, the realignment is complete."

Gingrich's going on to say that "If you cannot afford to leave the public housing project, you are not free. If you do not know how to find a job and do not know how to create a job, you are not free. If you cannot find a place that will educate you, you are not free" sounded (DO close totraditional liberalism for some conservatives, who later let Gingrich know of their unhappiness.

But despite the generally positive reviews of Gingrich's speech, there remained questions about whether he had the steadiness, the maturity, and the discipline to be an effective Speaker. That he had a taste for power was without question. He and his party took power with a lot of rage in them, based on the not completely invalid feeling that the Democratic majority had oppressed them. But beyond that, Gingrich, his momentary ebullience notwithstanding, seemed to have a lot of anger in him.

Bob Dole, the new Senate majority leader, knew that the opening day belonged to Gingrich, and he had to make the best of it. Dole and Gingrich, being of different temperaments--Dole the more traditionalist, institutionalist, and at heart more of a centrist, even if he had moved right in recent years with the Republican tide and his Presidential ambitions--had never been comfortable allies. Dole, whose tongue could be sharp, had already taken some swipes at parts of Gingrich's program, and, in a most uncollegial way, poked at a controversial book deal Gingrich had recently made. (Referring to Gingrich's having gone after former Speaker Jim Wright for questionable arrangements regarding a book, Dole said, of the fact that House Democrats were now attacking Gingrich's book deal, "You live by the sword, you die by the sword.")

But Dole, planning to run for the Presidency, knew that he couldn't afford to alienate Gingrich and his followers--who constituted a substantial portion of the nominating force of the Republican Party. When Dole in January hired as his campaign manager Scott Reed, then the executive director of the Republican National Committee and considered a good catch, they agreed on two things: that Dole would be in synch with Gingrich, and that Dole's majority leader office would be in synch with the campaign. Dole's Senate allies were discouraged from openly criticizing Gingrich, on the ground that that wouldn't be helpful to Dole. On opening day, Dole took steps to seemingly align himself with the new star, including going to the House Chamber for Gingrich's speech (this drew more attention than if he had stayed in the Senate). He did introduce four bills on foreign policy, which, as he had hoped, did get him some notice.

Dole was under growing pressure from within the Senate Republican caucus, which had in accent years become increasingly conservative and activist, in large part because of members coming from the more rambunctious House, several of them allies and co-troublemakers of Gingrich's. The eleven Senate freshmen, seven of whom had served in the House, added to that pool. The newer senators showed less respect for their elders than had been Senate custom and were impatient with the "upper body's" rather creaky ways.

The culmination thus far of this trend was the election, in early December of 1994, of Trent Lott, a conservative activist from Mississippi and a former House member and ally of Gingrich's, as majority whip, ousting Alan Simpson, of Wyoming, a Dole ally. Lott argued that an important election had occurred, that the Senate Republicans should show that they had got the voters message, and that he would be an "agent for change" in their leadership. He added that he would work well with the new leader of the Republican House. Like his House counterpart Tom DeLay, of Texas,Lott had campaigned for Republican challengers, and won the support of many of the freshmen. Gingrich's being in charge of the House, and the House Republican ranks being more conservative than before, brought still more pressure on Dole.

The House Democrats, under now--Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, still in shock at finding themselves in the minority for the first time in forty years, were a fractionated and unhappy lot, blaming the various factions among them, as well as President Clinton, for their reduced circumstances. Most of them had had to face the loss of friends who had gone down to defeat in November; had had to fire staff members, many of whom they had grown close to (some two thousand committee staff members were laid off) and now could not help--Democrats weren't in great demand in Washington's lobbying and law firms; had been demeaned and demoralized by losing office space. They were having difficulty adjusting to the loss of status. Former powerful committee chairmen were suddenly toothless and irrelevant. (Later, the Democratic caucus would rule that the former barons couldn't serve as ranking member of both a full committee and a subcommittee. For such former almighties as John Dingell, of Michigan, who had been chairman of both the Energy and Commerce Committee and its Oversight Subcommittee and had used his subcommittee as a platform before which CEOs and bureaucrats cowered, this was a tremendous blow, robbing him of his congressional identity, as well as numerous members of his staff.) Several House Democrats weren't pleased with continuing to be led by former members of the leadership, on whom they placed at least partial responsibility for the disastrous election results.

Gephardt wasn't in a particularly strong position within his own caucus. About sixty members backed Charles Stenholm, a Texas conservative, for whip over David Bonior, of Michigan, the incumbent, who was returned to his old post. Several Democratic members--not just conservatives and moderates--grumbled at Gephardt's and Bonior's tendency to cast issues against the Republicans in terms of class warfare, a strategy they saw as outdated and irrelevant.

Senate Democrats, now under the leadership of Tom Daschle, from South Dakota, a pleasant man but an untested leader, were still in a daze. The Senate Democratic caucus had chosen Daschle, a protege of former Majority Leader George Mitchell, who had had the foresight to retire, over the feistier and more articulate Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, by one vote. Therefore, Daschle was very much on trial within his caucus, had yet to prove that he was a leader.

President and Mrs. Clinton, who at 2 P.M. on the opening day of Congress returned to Washington from a brief vacation in Arkansas, were still angry and hurt by the results of the midterm elections. In his post-election ragings to increasingly concerned friends, Clinton blamed the press, his staff, his consultants. He didn't much blame himself. A prominent Democratic senator said, "He gets p.o.'d when someone blames it on him." Clinton had a more than ample capacity for self-pity, which didn't help him see his problems clearly, and when expressed publicly even in its less extreme forms didn't convey leadership. Whining isn't Presidential. When one friend said that his mood was doing him no good, that he should pull himself together and get on with the Presidency, Clinton screamed some more. Clinton felt that the main problem was that the public didn't knowabout and didn't appreciate his accomplishments in his first two years in office. One evening in late November, in a four-hour session in the White House residence with Cabinet officers and other advisers who had been in or managed political campaigns (Clinton particularly valued advice from such people), Clinton blew his top. When one intrepid soul suggested that the President hadn't taken enough strong stands, Clinton shouted, "Don't ever say that to me again!" He said that he had taken strong stands on such issues as NAFTA-(the North American Free Trade Agreement), cutting the deficit. "The problem isn't that I haven't taken strong stands," the President went on. "It's that I don't have any help around here." Red-faced, he said, "They treat me like a f--ing pack mule around here. They use my time poorly. They schedule me to make calls to individual Members of Congress, not understanding that the role of the President of the United States is message." Leon Panetta, his Chief of Staff, bravely pointed out to Clinton that when the staff scheduled two or three hours off, "You say, `Is this the best use of my time? Don't people here have anything for me to do?'" As late as two months after the election, Clinton was still reported by some as "screaming" over the telephone--telling friends that the press had "f--ed" him, had done him in. To many in the White House as well as to the President, the election results represented a failure to communicate Clinton's accomplishments, and a failure of the Democratic Party to organize for the election.

The atmosphere in the White House was, one staff member said, "bunker-like." He added, "There is a tendency to see the election results and the criticisms of the President as the malevolency of an unjust world-a tendency to grasp at tactical answers rather than look for deeper reasons."

Panetta, who had been brought in the past July to try to impose some order on the Clinton White House, had taken several steps to bring more discipline to the place, and to the President himself, but now Clinton was angry with him for not having fixed things-enough. The main problem, of course, was Clinton, who had become unpopular with the public and would accept only so much discipline. Panetta was still having trouble getting decisions out of the President.

Aides said that often when the President did calm down, Mrs. Clinton would start in with her own anger. Hers was in many ways the most dramatic human story of all. An extraordinarily bright woman who had been so praised by so many (including much of the press) that when Clinton first ran for the Presidency he'd say, "Vote for me and get one free," had been brought so low, especially by the debacle over the Clintons, health care program, that toward the end of the previous session of Congress she was virtually in hiding. She had to face the fact that she had been part of the problem In January, after the 1994 election, her approval ratings were below even close of the President, a rarity for First Ladies. In an NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll, her approval rating was forty percent, while her husband's was forty-four percent. Mrs. Clinton now was in a quandary about what her role should be in the next two years. Her new situation caused another problem, because in the past it was often Mrs. Clinton who stepped in in a crisis. Now she had to be careful about any appearance that she was taking charge.

At the same time. the President was holding extensive meetings with his staff, with Mrs. Clinton participating, on a strategy for the coming strugglewith the new Republican Congress, as well as for his reelection. A number of meetings were held tO discuss-what the President should say he had stood for all along, and to the extent aides told the press that this time Clinton's positions would "come from his core," they undermined the idea that he did have a core.

His Oval Office address to the nation on December 15, in which he called for a "Middle Class Bill of Rights" and offered a tax cut and other benefits for the middle class, was controversial among Democrats and even within the White House, because to many it looked panicky, and it also went against his earlier efforts to bring down the deficit. Several Democratic operatives thought that Clinton should lie low for a while, be a little mysterious, and then come bursting before the public in his State of the Union speech, in late January; but Clinton, and others, felt that the State of the Union speech was too far in the future, and that he had to "get back in the game." A President shouldn't have to "get back in the game." On the day after the Oval Office speech, in a long and strange press conference, Clinton led his Cabinet officers in a round of self-criticism, the Cabinet officers confessing what parts of their departments weren't necessary after all, and vowing to abolish them. Vice President Al Gore's project for Reinventing Government was given new vigor. As in the case of the tax cuts, Clinton was trying to catch up with the Republican parade.

Thus the Clintons, smart people who had come to Washington nearly two years before amidst such high hopes, were hurt, bewildered, and floundering. Within the administration, spirits were low. A senior official said, "The administration is facing a total collapse of morale."

As the various participants in the new drama took their places, the stakes were tremendous. There was to be a war of ideas. Fundamental questions about the role of the federal government would be argued over. Assumptions of the past thirty years--since Lyndon Johnson's administration, or even since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal--would be challenged. Budget and spending priorities would be reexamined. The rationale for many programs would be questioned. The powers of the Presidency would be challenged on virtually all fronts. It was to be the greatest legislative onslaught on the executive branch in modern history. There would be struggles over consumer and environmental protection laws, and over the economic power of the private sector. There would be a cultural war as well. Gingrich and his allies in and out of Congress--the conservative talk show hosts, the Christian Coalition--were bent on challenging the morals and mores that had been fashionable among many Americans since the 1960s. It would be a war on both the elites and the counterculture--which weren't necessarily the same thing. Before the new Congress assembled Gingrich had called the Clintons "McGoverniks" (he insisted later that the word he used was "McGovernites"). He charged (without substantiation) that there had been extensive drug use by members of the White House staff before they came to government. The cultural war had been building for years, but now the counter-counterculture had attained unprecedented power.

Gingrich believed that the 1994 election was the most portentous one since the one in 1860, which elected Lincoln and caused the formation of the Democratic and Republican parties. Gingrich was a self-styled revolutionary, bent on radical change--on fundamentally revising the role ofgovernment and overturning the established order. The obvious pent-up rage and the revolutionary temperament fed a number of people to think of him as "Robespierre."

Some Republicans, Gingrich included, believed that the year 1995 could be their own 1933. They also believed that they had little time--six or eight months--to establish their hegemony arid bring that about.

Alongside these struggles, the question of whether the Democrats or Republicans would next occupy the White House seemed almost incidental. But that question was very likely to be heavily affected by the big struggles of 1995. This year, in a most unusual turn, the Congress would set the agenda. In times past, there sometimes seemed little difference between the two major parties. This time it would be different.

And the stakes were great for certain individuals. Would Clinton or Gingrich be seriously damaged--or strengthened--by the events of 1995? What would the conflicting pressures on Bob Dole, as majority leader in an institution where his powers were limited, and as Presidential candidate trying to persuade the public that he was a strong leader, and as essentially a traditional conservative being pushed to the right, do to his roles both as majority leader and Presidential candidate?

Finally, would the Republicans understand the mandate of the 1994 election, or would they go beyond it? And how would the American people react?

Copyright © 1996 Elizabeth Drew. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Library Journal on 1995-08:
A big shootout is brewing at the D.C. corral, and journalist Drew (late of The New Yorker) is there to report.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1996-03-04:
Washington political reporter Drew (On the Edge) believes that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow conservative Republicans have overinterpreted‘and outrun‘their mandate to scale back government. Based on interviews with key players of both parties, her chronicle of the battle between the Clinton White House and a Republican Congress concludes that the president has regained the moral high ground with voters disenchanted with a congressional majority that seemingly has scored few positive accomplishments. Drew labels as farcical the Republican proposal to balance the budget in seven years, largely because tax cuts will make the deficit increase again after year seven. She accuses the Republicans of "playing suburban politics" by favoring their own constituencies, which do not include the poor, and by devolving power to the states. And she persuasively argues that the debate over Republican cuts in Medicare was fraudulent on both sides‘Republicans in effect proposed to change the nature of Medicare, luring the elderly into private plans, while the Clinton administration took a pass on the hard questions of controlling costs. This is a trenchant, behind-the-scenes look at the making‘and possible unmaking‘of Gingrich's "Contract With America." (Apr.)
Appeared in Choice on 1996-10-01:
Drew has been in the right place at the right time. Her very useful book chronicles the clash between Clinton and Gingrich over the Contract with America. She provides an excellent introduction to the new cast of characters who came to prominence after the 1994 Republican election victory. Her book analyzes legislative relations between the president and Congress in the new age of centralized party politics. It deals with the fundamental debate over the role of government that dominates American politics. Drew's account is balanced and her writing interesting. This book could easily serve as a supplementary text in a course on legislative politics or the presidency. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. A. D. McNitt Eastern Illinois University
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, August 1995
Kirkus Reviews, February 1996
Library Journal, March 1996
Publishers Weekly, March 1996
Choice, October 1996
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Table of Contents
Introductionp. 11
Opening Dayp. 13
Taking Overp. 23
Gingrich Talksp. 44
The Second Transitionp. 59
The New Federalismp. 81
The Contract Marchp. 93
Money Riverp. 113
Freshmen Troublep. 119
The Upstartp. 126
Welfare Crisisp. 140
Dole's Difficultiesp. 150
Limitsp. 167
The Crown Jewelp. 171
Newt Unchainedp. 184
Oklahoma Cityp. 195
The Budgetp. 203
Newt Soars, Dole Maneuversp. 227
Budget Reduxp. 232
Bosniap. 243
The Real Revolutionp. 256
The Synthesizerp. 284
Readying For Battlep. 300
Endgamep. 305
Denouement?p. 342
Epiloguep. 376
Afterwordp. 378
Author's Notep. 382
Acknowledgmentsp. 383
Indexp. 385
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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