WASHINGTON — All bluster and brains, he was the messiah, leading his people away from a decadeslong power drought.
Newt Gingrich, who stormed through the 1994 elections to become the first Republican speaker of the House in four decades, chased an ambitious agenda and won major victories. But four years later, he collapsed in a cloud of political and ethical missteps, acerbic behavior and mutiny.
"I'm willing to lead," Gingrich said the night he quit, "but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."
The peaks and valleys of his reign are the opposite course of his 2012 presidential campaign, from the horrendous beginning to his sudden lead in the primary. Gingrich, 68, has risen as other Mitt Romney alternatives have fallen away. Florida polls last week showed him ahead by as many as 30 points.
If it's no longer farcical to imagine a Gingrich White House, the tumultuous period in the mid '90s is worth revisiting. Twelve years removed from the spotlight, two images of the man endure.
There's the strategist whose Contract With America led to welfare reform and a balanced budget agreement. And there's the corpulent, white-haired partisan who forced a government shutdown, blaming it on a perceived snub from President Bill Clinton while flying to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"You probably don't want a president who by his very nature needs to be tethered," said Steve Gillon, author of The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation. "That's the real downside to Gingrich. If given that opportunity, he lets that demon out of the bag. But if he can be tethered, I think he would be successful, centrist, deal-making, practical conservative."
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Gingrich was elected to Congress in 1978 from suburban Atlanta. He built a reputation as an aggressive partisan, leading attacks against Democrats on ethical issues, even as he endured his own, including being fined $300,000 for using tax-exempt money to pay for a course he was teaching that had a political bent.
His rhetoric was always heated, always over the top. Democrats were the party of "total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose."
He called them "sick," "grotesque," "loony," "stupid," "corrupt," and keepers of a "welfare state." When he won a close election for minority whip in 1989, the sharp rhetoric kept party members in line.
By 1994 Gingrich had turned to more substantive matters, the manifesto known as the Contract With America. From tax cuts to less regulation and balanced budgets, it unified the GOP message heading into the midterm elections.
Republicans won a landslide 54 seats, taking control of the House for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich was elected speaker and began a 100-day campaign to pass much of the contract. He was boisterous and free flowing — King of the Hill, as Time dubbed him.
"It was amazing," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Pinellas County Republican. "I would sit there at the table and listen to the arguments and then Newt would say, 'Okay, here's how we're going to do it.' Everyone would say, 'Gee, why didn't we think of that?' He was extremely careful and extremely well prepared."
That same Newt-knows-best approach bristled others. His ego ballooned.
"He started to compare himself to the Duke of Wellington and seeing himself as a transformative historical figure," said John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former senior House aide. "The question is, will that happen again in the White House?"
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Another open question is how Gingrich would view his place in the Washington power structure. He tried to use the speakership in an executive fashion, dictating policy to the president. The current Republican leaders of the House take the same view.
But Gingrich is bursting with ideas. He wants to overhaul immigration, create two versions of Social Security and Medicare, abolish or transform federal agencies, reign in the judiciary, and so on. The man who views himself as the smartest in the room would feel a tremendous impulse to speak first, and loudest.
"I think his first reaction would be, 'Now I'm president, here's what I want to do,' " said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "But more than anyone else, he would understand that a properly run conservative movement runs out of the House."
Gingrich can be remarkably contradictory. Shortly after Republicans took control in 1994, he praised Democrats and cautioned conservatives not to "pick artificial fights" with Clinton, who was embracing tax cuts and a balanced budget.
But in budget negotiations that followed, he clashed violently with Democrats, gambling that the election results gave the GOP a mandate. Gingrich dug in and said his back seat on Air Force One for a trip to Jerusalem hardened his resolve. As the government shut down, ridicule poured in. The New York Daily News showed a cartoon Gingrich in diapers and holding a bottle under the headline, "Cry Baby."
In his book Lessons Learned the Hard Way, Gingrich described the plane excuse as "the single-most avoidable mistake" of his tenure. Indeed, the debacle helped ensure Clinton's re-election in 1996, and Republicans lost nine seats in the House. They would lose several more in 1998, despite Gingrich's prediction of major gains.
The off-the-cuff tendencies have gotten Gingrich in trouble throughout his career — and he's still making them. Early this year he likened the House budget blueprint as "right-wing engineering," angering conservatives he now needs to convince he should be the nominee.
Gingrich insists he has mellowed and matured. "I think I've changed in a lot of ways. I've had 12 years to think about what I did right and what I did wrong," he said on the Sean Hannity Show last week. He said his various business ventures, all centered around politics, have imparted knowledge. Becoming a grandfather has made him wiser. "At 68," he said, "I'm probably calmer, a little bit slower and more careful."
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Gingrich loyalists say his stubbornness as speaker had purpose. "The ugly fighting that went on and that everybody remembers was the precondition to finally getting an agreement with President Clinton that balanced the budget," said Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary at the time.
Gingrich was already struggling to hold together a fractured caucus and the compromises he made with Clinton fanned tension with conservatives. He showed the deal-making, persistent side again by pressing for welfare reform despite two previous vetoes by Clinton.
"The test of leadership is what he succeeded in doing. He can get the job done," said former Rep. Clay Shaw, a Republican from South Florida. Shaw helped write the welfare legislation and credits Gingrich for pushing for the third try despite pressure from other Republicans who wanted to use it against Clinton in the 1996 campaign.
Gingrich and Clinton began to work on an overhaul of Social Security, but it evaporated amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Gingrich — who unbeknownst to the public was having his own extramarital affair with an aide, now his wife — pushed for impeachment, miscalculating public appetite for a drawn-out, sordid spectacle.
Gingrich, who first urged a measured response, seemed unable to control his partisan animal.
"The thing with Clinton was handled really poorly," said Shaw, who is backing Romney because he considers him more electable. "I think we got too excited trying to remove a sitting president. It kept the country all tied up."
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In the end, Gingrich fell, not Clinton. The right wing of his party, distrustful of the compromises with the president, attempted a coup in 1997, and the additional loss of Republican seats in the midterm elections in 1998 left the speaker adrift. Gingrich resigned three days later and announced he would leave Congress as well.
"To a lot of members he was the Moses who led us to the majority. But governing was another matter," said Don Wolfensberger, a former Republican staffer who now directs the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Still, he and others say Gingrich's vast congressional experience — something Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton lacked — would benefit him as president.
"Gingrich has always been at war with himself," said Gillon, who wrote the book about Gingrich and Clinton. "There's the campaign Gingrich, who will say anything to get power. And then there's the Gingrich who actually, when he has power, can be very responsible, reasonable and centrist.
"He's a far more complicated figure than liberals who demonize him and conservatives who have ignored him appreciate."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyspt.