In 1998, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) walked into the United States Capitol every day as his Republican-led majority drew up articles of impeachment against President Clinton....Even as Gingrich himself was in the throes of an affair that started in 1993 with Callista Bisek, an aide on the House Agriculture Committee.
In 1999, Gingrich asked his second wife Marianne for a divorce. Gingrich and Bisek then married in 2000.
An affair between President Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky punctuated the end of the 1990s in Washington. Republicans and Democrats alike were apoplectic about the president's lapse of judgment, particularly during encounters in the Oval Office. There was salacious material about the now infamous, stained blue dress. The Starr Report produced a rather lurid passage about Clinton and Lewinsky carrying on in the Oval Office with a cigar. But to be clear, the president's moral failing with Lewinsky wasn't the grounds for any of the four articles of impeachment crafted by the House Judiciary Committee. The Gingrich-led House walked a very narrow path in its impeachment inquiry. While plenty of overzealous Republicans were ready to tar and feather Mr. Clinton for having an audacious affair with an intern, it dropped the sordid stuff and turned to much more academic subjects in its impeachment articles. In the end, the House approved two of the four articles, accusing the president of lying under oath and obstructing justice. It then kicked the matter to the Senate for a three-week trial.
"This is not political. It's not partisan. This is constitutional," said Gingrich to the Associated Press on September 23, 1998. "Future presidents must know what they can and can't get away with."
Questions about Gingrich's own personal conduct have rattled around his presidential campaign now for weeks. His campaign blasted ABC News for airing an interview with Marianne where she alleged the former speaker asked for "an open marriage." Gingrich vehemently denied the accusation. The Georgia Republican took CNN host John King to task for making Marianne's allegations the lead question at a recent GOP candidates' debate.
There are numerous charges and countercharges about what may or may not have happened at the end of Gingrich's second marriage. But one thing is clear: Gingrich presided over the House as it attempted to end the administration of an American president who had an extra-marital affair while the Speaker of the House did the same thing.
The Lewinsky scandal percolated into the summer of 1998. The president consented to a tape recorded deposition in August. There, Clinton conceded he conducted an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. A month later, Gingrich spoke to a forum hosted by the Christian Coalition. The speaker described the president's behavior as an emblem of the nation's fraying morals.
"We've got a 35-year experiment of driving God out of the schools and prayer out of the schools and God out of public life," Gingrich said at the time. "And it has led us to the current investigation. Which I think in 1963 probably would have been fairly unthinkable."
President Clinton published his memoir "My Life" in 2004. There, he recounted a November, 1998 conversation between White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and Gingrich. Bowles asked why Gingrich and the GOP-controlled House would forge ahead with impeachment.
"Because we can," Gingrich said, according to the book.
In a Newsweek interview last year, Gingrich said he remembered the conversation differently. He says he told Bowles that the House's impeachment effort wasn't "about Bill Clinton groping some girl. This is about the President of the United States, who is a lawyer, sitting in front of a federal judge, lying under oath."
At one point, during the Lewinsky probe, Gingrich declared that he had two principles which he was "prepared to live and die on. The first is that the American people have the right to know about basic facts. And the second is that we are a nation under the rule of law and no person, including the president, is above the law."
In the spring of 1998, Gingrich said that he would never give a speech without invoking the specter of the Lewinsky affair. But by fall, many wondered if Republicans overplayed their hand against Mr. Clinton as GOP political hopes began to wane with the midterm elections approaching.
"For anybody to talk about doing anything before we finish the investigative process simply puts the cart before the horse," Gingrich said that fall. "I don't understand how people can rush to a solution before they finish the investigation. I just think there's an awful lot we don't know yet and there's an awful lot of evidence that hasn't been gathered yet and that people need to allow the process to go forward in an orderly manner and not assume they know what the final outcome will be either way."
In September, 1998, the Associated Press reported that Gingrich called the president a "misogynist" at a closed-door meeting of the House Republican Conference. The AP said that Gingrich asked the GOP to consider backing down from a plan to release Mr. Clinton's videotaped deposition.
Bawdy news reports about the president's libertine behavior with Lewinsky seemed to multiply daily throughout 1998. But what's interesting is that Gingrich generally refrained from criticizing the president for his rakish behavior. Instead, Gingrich confined his comments to whether Mr. Clinton may have run afoul of the law by lying under oath during the investigation or obstructing justice. By late summer and early fall, questions arose as to whether Republicans could maintain control of the House. A review of Gingrich's comments at the time show that the House was prepared to go for Mr. Clinton's jugular, even as the Speaker of the House attempted to dial back the offensive.
Once the House impeached the president, it tapped 13 members of the Judiciary Committee to serve as managers to "prosecute" the case before the Senate. Only three of that baker's dozen remain in Congress today. One, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), now in the Senate. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) declined to be interviewed for this article. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) lost in 2008 but returned to Congress last year.
Chabot said even though Gingrich was Speaker of the House, he recalls then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX) as driving the effort to impeach the president.
"Newt was really not pushing us to go after Clinton," said Chabot. "He was the head of us. But Newt wasn't fanning the flames. I remember him saying we shouldn't be doing this."
In fact, Chabot goes as far to say that had Gingrich been more forceful on the issue, he believes the Senate may have convicted Clinton, thus removing him from office.
Of course, that raises the question as to whether Gingrich may have harnessed himself on the impeachment matter, considering the personal peril he could face if his affair was ever exposed.
"I think that Newt would acknowledge that he was inconsistent," said Chabot.
Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) is a close friend of Gingrich. The two were freshman House classmates in 1979. Lungren left the House in 1989 and served as California's Attorney General during much of the 1990s. So he wasn't a House member during Gingrich's speakership. However, Lungren returned to Congress in 2005 and is one of Gingrich's biggest backers for president.
"We all suffer from a bit of hubris," said Lungren of Gingrich's affair amid the Lewinsky inquiry. "He shouldn't have done what he did."
Lungren attended Gingrich's holy communion a few years ago when he converted to Catholicism.
"I think he's different now," Lungren said. "To convert to Catholicism is a formidable decision."
Few former aides and fellow lawmakers are openly backing Gingrich. Certainly there's Lungren. There are only about nine others, most of whom are from Georgia. Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) is also a vocal Gingrich supporter. And that's about it. When Gingrich campaigns, you often see former Rep. Bob Walker (R-PA) behind him on stage. Walker was a Gingrich lieutenant leading up to the 1994 Republican revolution. Walker was Gingrich's hand-picked choice to become majority whip, but lost in a leadership race to Tom DeLay.
Gingrich may be a changed person today as Lungren suggests. But it's rare that someone who rose to the pinnacle of power has so few public supporters from that era today.
Lungren says Republicans never would have reached the majority in the House were it not for Gingrich.
"He was the only one willing to rattle the Democrats' cages," he said.
Republicans approve of that. But it's the other baggage that gives them pause about Gingrich's candidacy.