As a Republican U.S. congressman from Georgia’s Sixth District from 1979 to 1999, Newt Gingrich emerged as one of the nation’s most powerful and polarizing political leaders in the 1990s. He served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999, a position he achieved largely through his “Contract with America,” a ten-point program of conservative reform that, along with frustration over U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration, led to a historic shift in congressional power, with Republicans winning a majority of both houses for the first time in forty years.
Newton Leroy Gingrich was born on June 17, 1943, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Kathleen and Newton McPherson. Shortly after Gingrich’s birth, his parents, who were teenagers, divorced, and his mother soon married Robert Gingrich, who adopted Newt and gave him his surname. Because Robert Gingrich served in the military, the family moved frequently through different assignments in the United States and Europe. As a boy, Gingrich walked through World War I (1917-18) and World War II (1941-45) battlefields, which inspired a keen interest in history, particularly in military battles and strategy.
By 1959 Gingrich and his family found themselves stationed at Fort Benning near Columbus, where Gingrich graduated from Baker High School in 1961. He went on to attend Emory University in Atlanta, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1965. While at Emory, Gingrich married Jackie Battley, and they had two daughters, Kathy and Jackie. Gingrich earned both a master’s and a doctoral degree in European history at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in 1970 he joined the faculty at West Georgia College (later University of West Georgia) in Carrollton.
Soon thereafter Gingrich began to engage in politics. He was a Republican, but the party in Georgia at that time was virtually nonexistent outside Atlanta. Undaunted by the odds against him, he ran for Congress in 1974 against Jack Flynt, an eleven-term incumbent. Gingrich went door-to-door with a new brand of progressive conservatism, emphasizing environmental issues and the need to end corruption in government. Gingrich charged that the Democrats had been in power so long that it had led them to become arrogant and unresponsive to the needs of their constituents. Although Gingrich lost the 1974 race against Flynt and another one in 1976, he gained strength with each campaign and began to be recognized as a formidable opponent. In 1978 Flynt chose to retire rather than run again against the energetic Gingrich, who was at last successful in getting elected to Congress.
Rise to Power in Congress
Gingrich brought to Washington, D.C., the same energy and determination that had served him well on the campaign trail. He quickly became known as one of the “Young Turks,” a group of technology-savvy, young Republican conservatives reshaping the national party. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican, was elected president, Gingrich was reelected to the House of Representatives. Though still a part of the minority party in the House, Gingrich and his allies, including Trent Lott of Mississippi, began to employ an aggressive strategy to use all available media to rail against what they believed were unfair manipulations of House rules by dominant Democrats.
Coinciding with Gingrich’s arrival in Congress, the chamber began to be televised through the C-SPAN network. Gingrich learned that any member could give a speech after the House had concluded its business for the day. The House ended its day around 9 p.m.—a time when many Americans were watching television. Gingrich began giving speeches, which were broadcast on C-SPAN, and through these speeches he was able to build a loyal following of conservatives. His popularity increased as he denounced the policies and personalities of the Democratic leadership in the House. He also formed a political action committee to aid conservatives running for Congress from across the country. It was also during this time that Gingrich divorced his first wife, Jackie, and married Marianne Ginther.
In 1988 Gingrich lodged an ethics complaint against then Speaker of the House Jim Wright, a Democrat from Texas, over a book publishing deal the Speaker had signed. After a lengthy investigation in which evidence was found to support Gingrich’s contentions, Wright gave up the Speakership and resigned from Congress. This setback weakened the Democratic leadership in Congress and at the same time made Gingrich an even more powerful player in Republican circles. In 1989 his Republican colleagues in the House selected him to be minority whip, the second-most-powerful post in his party.
Gingrich’s own ethics were questioned in 1993, when he was hired to teach a course entitled “Renewing American Civilization” at Kennesaw State College (later Kennesaw State University) in Cobb County. His detractors did not dispute Gingrich’s credentials, but they alleged that the content of the course was political. The fact that Gingrich’s supporters had given $200,000 to the university’s foundation was also controversial. Eventually, under pressure from Kennesaw State faculty, the arrangement was ended. However, Gingrich moved his course to Reinhardt College (later Reinhardt University) in Cherokee County; he stopped teaching the course in 1995.
The overall impact of the college course and its controversy was that Gingrich was even more popular on the conservative fund-raising circuit. Additionally, Gingrich was a shrewd campaign strategist. He had a talent for recruiting candidates to run for Congress, and once elected, these members remained fiercely loyal to him. When the minority leader of the House announced that he was stepping down after the 1994 midterm elections, Gingrich was poised to lead the party.
Few observers believed Gingrich when he announced that he was going to lead the Republicans in taking over the House of Representatives, but he developed a cohesive and popular agenda to do just that. The “Contract with America” was the outcome of his efforts—a ten-point plan for action that he promised to bring to a vote if the Republicans won. Republicans stated that if they were elected to lead Congress, they would work to balance the budget, repeal certain tax increases, strengthen the military, and hold a vote on term limits, among other items. Democrats criticized Gingrich for having developed the agenda solely from popular opinion polls, but Gingrich said, “What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority. If voters care about parking lots, then talk about parking lots.” With the 1994 elections the Republicans won 54 additional seats in the House and gained the majority (230 to 204), and Gingrich was poised to become Speaker.
Speaker of the House
Gingrich was elected by congressional Republicans as the fifty-eighth Speaker of the House of Representatives in January 1995. He was the third Georgian to serve as Speaker, following Howell Cobb (1849-51) and Charles Crisp (1891-95). In the early days of his speakership Gingrich drove members to vote on all ten provisions of the Contract with America within the first 100 days of the congressional session. Gingrich also was the voice of the Republicans in opposing the Clinton administration. Perhaps the most famous showdown with President Clinton came in late 1995, when Clinton vetoed a budget bill and Gingrich refused to reconsider the legislation, thus allowing several government agencies to shut down.
The government shutdown began to galvanize voters against the congressional Republican leadership and aided in the reelection of Clinton in 1996, when the Republicans lost nine seats in the House of Representatives. During the 105th Congress (1997-98) Gingrich’s leadership was increasingly questioned by members of his own party. Several ethics complaints were filed against Gingrich. In one complaint Gingrich was accused of being inappropriately compensated by GOPAC, a political action committee that he founded. This and other charges led to his being reprimanded and fined $300,000 by the full House of Representatives in 1997. The ethics reprimand led some House Republicans to publicly criticize the effectiveness of his leadership. However, Gingrich’s ability to raise funds and the loyalty of younger members kept him in power.
The most visible event of the Republican-controlled House during Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker was, surprisingly, not one of his initiatives. Late in 1997 conservative members of the Republican Party began an impeachment drive against President Clinton on charges of perjury. While Gingrich did not oppose the impeachment proceedings, he was also not leading the charge. Outside observers concluded that Gingrich was beginning to lose the broad support of the Republicans in the House.
In a bold move, Gingrich stated that the 1998 midterm elections would serve as a referendum on the Republican congressional agenda. After the Republicans lost five more seats in that election, Gingrich announced that he would step down as Speaker and resign from Congress, which he did in early 1999. Gingrich’s departure from Congress was largely overshadowed by the passage in the House of two motions of impeachment against President Clinton, which ultimately were not passed by the Senate.
Since leaving Congress, Gingrich has remained active politically, largely through his position as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and through his own organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future. In 2003 he founded the Center for Health Transformation, and in 2005 he engaged in close discussions with Democratic senator Hillary Clinton on the problems of health care and national defense. His political papers are housed in the Annie Belle Weaver Special Collections at the University of West Georgia.
Gingrich has also devoted much of his energy in recent years to writing both fiction and nonfiction. His policy-related books cover a range of topics, from the broad-based Winning the Future: A Twenty-first Century Contract with America (2005) and Real Change: From the World That Fails to the World That Works (2008) to more focused treatises, Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation’s History and Future (2006) and A Contract with the Earth (2007), coauthored with Terry L. Maple. With North Carolina historian William R. Forstchen, Gingrich has coauthored several series of popular historical novels on George Washington, the Civil War (1861-65), and World War II. Each series offers alternative, or “what if,” scenarios to the course of history, such as a Confederate victory at Gettysburg or a victory by Nazi Germany over the Soviet Union.
In 1999 Gingrich and his second wife divorced, and in 2000 he married Callista Bisek. The couple lives in Virginia and has collaborated on numerous books, as well as a 2010 documentary film on Pope John Paul II. Gingrich, formerly a Southern Baptist, converted to Catholicism in 2009.
Gingrich publicly considered entering the 2008 presidential race but announced in September 2007 that he would not do so, in part because he would have to step down as the head of his American Solutions organization. In May 2011, however, he announced his candidacy for the presidential race in 2012.
The campaign experienced some early setbacks, including the en masse resignation of his staff in June 2011 and the bankruptcy of American Solutions in July. Gingrich continued with the campaign, however, and was endorsed in December by Georgia governor Nathan Deal. In 2012 he won two early primaries—South Carolina in January and Georgia in March—but withdrew from the race in May.