Excerpted with permission from The Meanest Man in Congress: Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century
Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia was a rising star in the GOP by 1987, either despite or because of his aggressive political tactics toward other members. Almost as soon as the Georgian had entered the House in 1979, he began making ethics charges against colleagues for alleged improprieties, notably against Barney Frank and Charles C. Diggs. In addition to personally spearheading these investigations, he transformed the speech of the political right from pointed rhetoric to sheer vitriol, referring to past and present Democratic speakers of the House as “crooks,” “traitors,” and “thugs.” This kind of personal attack against the opposition and even fellow Republicans would be seen again and again in the rise of other ambitious politicians in the years ahead.
But Gingrich was an early adopter. The junior representative campaigned across the country for a new type of fight against Democrats—referring to Democrats as not just rivals but enemies and regaling crowds with talk such as: “The values of the left cripple human beings, weaken cities, make it difficult for us to in fact survive as a country . . . The left in America is to blame for most of the current, major diseases which have struck this society.”
He spoke of waging a civil war against liberals. He told supporters at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Washington think tank: “This war has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars.”
This was a new kind of slash-and-burn politics that left even Republicans aghast. Senator Bob Dole refused to shake Gingrich’s hand on stage. “Newt was willing to tear up the system to get the majority,” Trent Lott, the Republican whip from Mississippi said. “It got to be a really negative pit over there, but that was probably the beginnings of the Republicans being able to take control.” Gingrich took the reins of a political action committee (PAC) dedicated to helping Republicans win elections. Soon thereafter, the PAC issued materials advising others to “speak like Newt,” using words like “decay, traitors, radical, sick, destroy, pathetic, corruption, and shame” when referring to Democrats.
When the Democrats took back control of the Senate in the mid-term elections of 1986 and Jim Wright ascended to Speaker, Wright tried to consolidate power. Early signs showed that his efforts were working. After Wright led the passage of a budget without a single Republican vote in April 1987, Gingrich told a congressional reporter, “If Wright ever consolidates his power, it’s clear he’ll be a very formidable man. We have to take him on early to prevent that.”
Gingrich began his one-man ethics investigation against the Speaker; it would last for two years. He argued for the appointment of an outside ethics counsel that would investigate instances of individual breaches in conduct. Gingrich had a flare for the dramatic. He and a few other like-minded Republicans had begun a practice of waiting until the House’s business had finished and the chamber had mostly cleared. It was in this period of proceedings called Special Orders when members could make one-minute speeches on any issue they liked, unconstrained by the normal strictures of procedural debate when the House considered bills and resolutions. The one-minute commentaries would be included in the Congressional Record, and viewers at home could watch, although since the cameras stayed fixed on whoever stood at the dais speaking, those at home had no idea there were often no members in the audience.
Gingrich and the others would approach the dais and deliver fiery speeches against the sins of liberalism. As a measure of courtesy, other members were supposed to receive notification about any continued talks on the floor, but many suspected that these notices did not always arrive in time. In one particularly egregious instance, in 1984 Gingrich accused several (absent) Democrats of being “blind to Communism” and challenged them to step forward and defend their positions if they could. No one did, because the room was empty, save a few teenaged congressional pages.
Representative Jack Brooks, a shrewd Texas Democrat and oversight watchdog, found this to be an abuse of the cameras, which had been configured to increase transparency in Congress, not diminish it. Brooks had then Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill institute a change to the programming. Every so often the cameras would now scan across the seats of the floor, revealing that some of the grandstanders were often preaching to an empty chamber. Republicans accused Democrats of playing dirty and arrogantly abusing their power. The conflict became known as “Camscam.”
After Republicans caused a stir over it, O’Neill confronted Gingrich on the House floor before a full chamber: “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House and challenged these people [when you knew they would not be there] and you challenged their Americanism. And it is the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my thirty-two years in Congress.”
The thunder of applause showed that many in the House agreed. However, Trent Lott took issue with O’Neill’s language, seeing it as a personal attack, which was forbidden by House rules. He asked that the House parliamentarian take the Speaker’s words down from the record, which he did, in a rare rebuke to a sitting Speaker. Footage of the incident ran on all three networks that night, giving a significant boost in visibility to the fledgling C-SPAN network.
Three years later, with O’Neill retired, Gingrich continued to use theatrics in his crusade against Speaker Wright. He refused to formally request an ethics investigation into the speaker’s financial dealings himself, but in May 1988 the citizens’ lobbying group Common Cause, compelled by the constant charges, made the request for him. The alleged violations centered around income from bulk sales of the Speaker’s 1984 book, Reflections of a Public Man, which consisted of his speeches and essays. Gingrich then followed up with his own request. Among the charges were that Wright used his staff to help compile the book and that he had circumvented House limits on speaking honorariums by having trade associations purchase copies in lieu of paying him speaking fees.
It was clear to many that this was the effort of one man to destroy another. Some saw it as a personal vendetta because Wright had orchestrated Democratic opposition to providing military aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, the House Ethics Committee conducted a six-month investigation, the majority of which was held in private, but a steady stream of leaks found their way into the press. The drumbeat of accusations against Wright, and soon his wife Betty as well, went on and on, clogging up congressional operations. Soon accusations and subsequent investigations flew against House Majority Whip Tony Coelho and chair of the House Budget Committee, Bill Gray.
Brooks, speaking to a crowd in Washington on May 18, 1989, fielded a question about the investigation. He did not hold back:
I think it’s a disaster for Congress; if we don’t win this fight, it’s going to ruin Congress. That will suit Gingrich well; he wants to destroy Congress. Then he thinks they can rebuild it. Now that’s the way I look at it.
I have never seen Congress at a lower level of back-biting, knifing each other, partisanship, never in thirty-seven years. And I’ve dealt with what, eight Speakers. Joe Martin was Speaker when I came to Congress, Republican from Massachusetts. Honest as could be. Straight as a string, nice old boy, courteous, pleasant, his word was good. I liked him. I respected him. Never said one word against him.
Charlie Halleck came up not as Speaker but as [minority] leader. Halleck was mean and devilsome. Liked to drink and party. But Halleck was honest. He was a good partisan fighter. We got along with Charlie Halleck fine. Liked him. There wasn’t any feeling of acrimony. I remember sitting many times, well most every night, with Sam Rayburn in the Board of Education [a small private office in the Capitol], drinking a little coffee in the evening. We started drinking coffee about 5:30 p.m. I didn’t take cream. Many a time Charlie Halleck would come down there and visit, raise hell with me, raise hell with everybody, just argue and talk and visit about our issues. But there was never any hard feeling. We didn’t go out to the press and say, “Halleck had a real load on last night.” None of that business. Course not. Course not. Had nothing to do with his thought processes.
I’ve never seen, I’ve seen all kinds of problems and tough ones, but nothing ever like this. Nothing like this. And it’s destroying Congress. It may destroy it if they let it. But if they do this to Jim Wright, they’ve already started on Coelho, they’ll start . . .
The FBI, last year, went and got a copy of the financial disclosure forms of every chairman in the Congress. Now I don’t know why they got it for. They didn’t say they were going to investigate. They just got it because they like to read? Or they just collecting numbers on paper? I don’t know what their collection is. But you and I can understand what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to put the pressure on every chairman. And they just got a list. They’ll go through the list.
What they’re mad at Jim Wright about on the program is his effectiveness, not his ethics. That’s what they’re going to be mad at all the Democrats about. If you elected anybody as Speaker, they would start finding fault with him because they’re not for him. I don’t mind them being against him, but I think when they hide partisan attacks like this, it doesn’t look good. It’s not good for Congress. It’s not healthy. It’s not conducive to encouraging decent people to run for Congress.
I feel sorry for people who’ve got a couple years in Congress. If they think they can enjoy the next twenty years in Congress, they’re crazy, the way it’s going now.
Less than two weeks later, on May 30, 1989, Wright announced that he would address the entire House the next day. He then spoke in private with Brooks and attended a friendly luncheon with other members of the delegation. Brooks said the speaker seemed “cheerful and happy” and had not explicitly told his friend what he was about to do, though Brooks had an inkling. The next day Wright stood at the dais on the House floor in front of a full chamber:
It is intolerably hurtful to our government that qualified members of the executive and legislative branches are resigning because of the ambiguities and the confusion surrounding the ethics laws and because of their own consequent vulnerability to personal attack. That’s a shame. It’s happening. And it is grievously hurtful to our society when vilification becomes an accepted form of political debate. And negative campaigning becomes a full-time occupation. When members of each party become self-appointed vigilantes carrying out personal vendettas against members of the other party. In God’s name, that’s not what this institution is supposed to be all about. When vengeance becomes more desirable than vindication. Harsh personal attacks upon one another’s motives and one another’s character drown out the quiet logic of serious debate on important issues...
Surely that’s unworthy of our institution, unworthy of our American political process. All of us, both political parties, must resolve to bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end! There’s been enough of it!
Those remarks brought the entire House to its feet. Gingrich, to whom much of the criticism was directly pointed, hunkered down throughout the address. Wright continued:
Well, I tell you what, I’m going to make you a proposition, let me give you back this job you gave to me as a propitiation for all of this season of bad will that is going around. Give it back to you. I will resign as Speaker of the House effective upon the election of my successor.
He finished by imploring both parties for restraint. He asked that they not try “to get” somebody from the other side as payback, even for his own sake. The institution ought to be more mature than that, he said.
The Speaker, fighting to control his emotions as he closed, left the podium and took a seat next to Brooks. No other Speaker had resigned from the position because of a scandal. This ignominious end to a long and productive career in Congress had come about not through a conviction or because of overwhelming evidence but because of an unrelenting two-year political campaign. Brooks leaped up to the dais once Wright sat down. Brooks asked and was given permission to address the House for one minute.
Mr. Speaker, I have known Jim Wright for about fifty years. I know his wife and his children. He has been a good father, a good husband, a good congressman, a great speaker, and a superb friend.
I remember at nineteen years of age, he left the University of Texas for the Army Air Corps. Commissioned at twenty, when the Japanese controlled Guadalcanal and threatened Australia, Jim Wright was on the north coast of Australia flying long B-24 bomber runs, flying down the Crocodile River trying to locate a base one hundred miles out in the bush. Often returning with his tanks almost empty, he was among the many heroes of World War II who literally risked their lives to preserve the freedom we enjoy today.
I remember his election to the state legislature at twenty-three years of age, and his election to Congress in 1954. He never sought fame and fortune, but was always dedicated to reading and studying the issues vital to his district and to our country. He has spent his life representing the people of his district, his state, and his country.
There is an evil wind blowing in the Halls of Congress today that is reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition. It is replacing comity and compassion with hatred and malice. Jim has not been convicted in court or in Congress, but his political opponents have pronounced him guilty, and the media has engaged in a feeding frenzy. Fleet Street never had so much competition for the most sensational headline, no matter how unfounded.
Conviction without a trial is a new and dangerous rule for this Congress and for this country. This scenario can destroy Congress and with that the strongest defense of our American people against an insidious dictatorship.
Jim Wright’s decision to relinquish the office of Speaker of the House is the clearest possible demonstration of his love for this institution and our country. It is testament to his character that, despite his deep belief in his innocence—a belief that I share completely—Jim is unwilling to let his personal situation impede the work of the House.
I believe I speak for the Texas delegation and for a majority of our members when I say history will commend Jim Wright as a good man and a great Speaker with a magnificent, unparalleled record of accomplishments in this Congress for our people and for peace. We thank you, Jim Wright, for your leadership, for your friendship, and we wish for you and Betty, all of your family, the very best for many years to come.
Brooks then spoke to reporters a few minutes later outside the chamber. When asked about what this portended for Wright and Congress, Brooks said:
He’s been lynched by leaks. He is guilty without trial. And if that’s going to be the new rule, it’s to have sad consequences for both this Congress and for these United States . . .
I know him well and I love him and I like him and respect him. But I wonder if he wanted to stay and dangle for another six months while the committee evaluated things and while there were leaks every day. Just little leaks, not big leaks, just little leaks. And escalation of the investigation. They could start investigating his children, I guess, next.
Brooks later admitted that Wright’s wife Betty “was embarrassed by the publicity and she didn’t like the pressure,” which Brooks thought made the decision to resign easier for Wright.
Other members’ statements to the press that day varied to a degree, but many Democrats and Republicans alike ominously foretold that this would change the nature of the House of Representatives. This was one of the most dramatic examples of the breakdown of comity in Congress. Rancor had grown louder and more extreme, and Rayburn’s old maxim, “To get along, go along,” no longer carried the weight it once did.
Shortly after Wright’s resignation, Brooks sponsored a celebratory barbecue in Texas to honor his good friend, and the week following the resignation, the 259-member Democratic Caucus unanimously selected Tom Foley, a mild-mannered Democrat from Washington state, to succeed Wright as Speaker. Before Foley could even assume the speakership, there quickly spread around Capitol Hill a rumor that Foley was a child molester. After a brief scandal, the rumor was traced to a leaked memo from political consultant Lee Atwater’s RNC titled, “Tom Foley: Out of the Liberal Closet,” which compared Foley to the openly gay Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Frank responded, “This is George Bush’s national committee we’re seeing now. He invented Lee Atwater.” Atwater acknowledged the memo but denied approving it.
The communiqué had actually been crafted in part by Gingrich, and then an aide in Gingrich’s office followed up by telling reporters, “We hear it’s little boys.” Though the rumors about Foley were entirely baseless, nearly 30 years later a Republican former House Speaker, Dennis Hastert would admit in court to sexually abusing several high school wrestlers during his time as a coach, a scandal that would culminate in a 15-month prison sentence for illegally structuring bank transactions to hide money he was using to pay off one of his former victims.
The new type of virulent partisanship that ensnared Wright and Foley was anathema to Brooks. For all the enemies he had made in Congress, even his opponents did not question his integrity. He thought that Gingrich was “a scum,” and that resorting to baseless personal attacks for political gain was ruining the institution of Congress and the national discourse.
As one story goes, shortly after Wright’s resignation, Gingrich and a staffer were waiting for an elevator inside the Capitol building when the congressman began telling his aide of the apparent lack of blowback against him since Wright’s resignation, saying, “It really hasn’t been too bad. I think it’ll be okay.” The elevator doors opened; Gingrich walked in, and then realized he was not alone. The aide recounted the horrified look on Gingrich’s face as he turned and saw Jack Brooks standing next to him. The last thing the aide could hear as the doors closed was Brooks exclaiming, “You son of a bitch!”
Excerpted from The Meanest Man in Congress: Jack Brooks and the Making of an American Century, by Timothy McNulty and Brendan McNulty, reprinted with permission from NewSouth Books (2019).