The Revolution with Steve Kornacki
Episode 1: The Gentleman From Georgia
Newt Gingrich’s political rise was anything but certain — a northerner in a Southern state, a historian prone to grandiose commentary. It takes him three tries to win a seat in the House of Representatives. But even as a freshman in 1979, his aim was clear: Defeat the Permanent Democratic Majority. Steve traces Newt’s origins and shows how the freshman congressman launches his first battle, with an attack on what Gingrich sees as corruption in Congress.
Tom Brokaw: Good evening. If you're a political junkie, you'll want to remember this night. If you're a Democrat, you may want to crawl into a hole and pull it in after you. There is a sweep, a blowout on behalf of the Republican Party in this country from sea to shining sea.
Steve Kornacki: It's late at night, November 8, 1994, and I'm watching television in my family's living room.
Tom Brokaw: The most dramatic example in the House of Representatives tonight, where the Republicans have taken control for the first time since the 1952 elections. That's when Elvis Presley was just 19-years old.
Steve Kornacki: I'm 15-years old, and I'm well aware that most 15-year-olds are not riveted by these midterm elections, but I am. At this point, I'm already a political junkie. In fact, technically speaking, I've already been a pundit on TV.
Steve Kornacki: 33 seats or one-third of the Senate will be up for reelection in 1994.
Steve Kornacki: So that's me. I was on the public access channel in my hometown of Groton, Massachusetts. It was called Channel 17 back then. And in the run up to those '94 midterms, I had a segment called Political Corner. There were these two kids in my high school who had their own show, it was basically meant to be a comedy show. I think they thought that my political commentary was so dry, that it would land as humor.
Steve Kornacki: We will start in what should be the most interesting race in Virginia. This is a conservative state. They're frustrated with Clinton, as all people are, with the incumbent president after two years.
Steve Kornacki: In the months before election night 1994, I knew the Republicans were going to have a good showing. But I had no idea just how big their win was going to be, and I could not possibly imagine them taking the majority in the House. And if that sounds hard to believe now, you've got to think about how different politics felt back then to everybody.
Today, we're used to Congress seesawing back and forth, Republican, Democrat, blue wave, red wave.
Rachel Maddow: Are the Republicans going to keep control of Congress? Or are the Democrats going to flip it? What are the odds? Joining us now is the great Steve Kornacki, MSNBC national political correspondent and our elections guru. Steve, what can --
Steve Kornacki: I have been through them all.
Steve Kornacki: So again, right now, this is what the map looks like as Congress is constituted. And for Democrats, it means they need to get in.
Steve Kornacki: But what I always try to tell people who haven't been obsessed with politics since childhood, is that what happened on election night 1994 was, for a lot of people, absolutely and totally unimaginable. I've been covering politics my entire adult life, and I wrote a book on this period, it's called "The Red and the Blue." I wanted to show just how influential it's been on our politics.
In 1994, the Democrats have controlled the House for 40 consecutive years, and it wasn't even close. Decade after decade, Republicans were buried in the minority, and almost no one, Democrat or Republican, thought they had any chance of breaking their way out. The permanent Democratic Congress, that's what it had come to be known as. And so when Republicans won the majority on that night back in November 1994, it was absolutely seismic.
Don Harrison: This was a political earthquake, with the fault line running right through Capitol Hill.
Steve Kornacki: The world turned upside down.
Andrea Mitchell: The president said it was a revolution, and it was, with the Democrats getting run out of town.
Steve Kornacki: And just like that, Bill Clinton seemed doomed to become a one-term president.
Jim Miklaszewski: Although he wasn't on the ballot, President Clinton still comes out a big loser. Nearly every candidate he campaigned for last week went down in flames.
Steve Kornacki: And it felt even bigger than that still. It felt like America wasn't just rejecting Bill Clinton. It was like America was rejecting the entire Democratic Party. It felt like a new era was dawning, an era of top to bottom Republican rule, conservative Republican rule, one that might last for decades to come.
House clerk: House, all be in order. Mr. Doorkeeper.
Steve Kornacki: Now it's a few months later, January of 1995, the House chamber is packed. The new session is about to begin. And then the soon-to-be Speaker of the House walks into the chamber, the guy who led the Republicans to this massive victory, Newt Gingrich.
House doorkeeper: Mr. Clerk, the Speaker-Elect Newt Gingrich, Representative from Georgia and the Escort Committee.
Steve Kornacki: What my teenage self is witnessing, in fact, what I've been watching the entire previous year is must-see political television. This is one of the least likely coronations in political history, maybe it is the least likely, Newt Gingrich taking over the speaker's gavel.
John Dingell: That you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter. So help you God.
Newt Gingrich: I do.
John Dingell: Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.
Steve Kornacki: Over the next six episodes of this show, I'm going to tell you how Newt Gingrich got to this pinnacle. It's a story about how Democrats took their power for granted. And it's a story about strategy and ambition in sheer force of will, and about how Newt Gingrich sold his party on a brand-new style of politics, one that was intensely ideological, confrontational, and above all, made for television.
The strategy he developed fundamentally reshaped American politics. How Newt Gingrich and the Republicans broke the permanent Democratic Congress and took the house in 1994 is not just some story of late 20th century history, because in many ways, the Republican revolution of 1994 marked the beginning of an era of politics that we are still living through to this day, one where the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans has never felt deeper. If our politics seem broken today, this podcast will help you understand why.
I'm Steve Kornacki, and this is The Revolution.
Episode 1, the Gentleman from Georgia. Newt Gingrich likes to tell a story about the time he was a teenager touring the Verdun battlefield in France. Here, he's telling it to commentator Bill Kristol on Kristol's YouTube series.
Newt Gingrich: The spring of '58, end in my freshman year in high school, my dad took us to Verdun.
Steve Kornacki: This was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in all of World War I.
Newt Gingrich: People were killed in the nine-month period, in this one giant, big valley.
Steve Kornacki: For teenage Newt --
Newt Gingrich: So as a kid, who is going to be either a vertebrate paleontologist or a zoo director, I'm walking around this gigantic battlefield --
Steve Kornacki: That day stirred up passion for history that would become lifelong. But it made an even deeper impression too, the idea that he could be someone who shaped history.
Newt Gingrich: We thought about all this stuff and prayed about it for about five months. I decided, first of all, that societies can die, that you could see that things were fragile and that dictatorship could happen. Second, that some people had to be leaders, and that leadership was really three things. What does the country have to do to survive? How would you explain it to the American people who would let you do it? And how would you implement it if they gave you permission? And that's all I've done, basically, since, for 56 years.
Steve Kornacki: Newt Gingrich's opponents might quibble with that. But there's no question he has done a lot, and always with that heightened sense of mission. When he finally made it to Congress in 1979, Newt already knew how he wanted to make history, by toppling the ruling Democrats, ending the permanent Democratic Congress and making Republicans the majority party. To almost anyone besides Newt Gingrich, Democrat or Republican, this was a fanciful, even ludicrous notion, but it was his mission, and he approached it almost like it was war.
We made multiple requests to speak with Newt Gingrich for this podcast, but he was never made available. But there is no shortage of information in archives for us to draw from. So first, let's do the bio. Gingrich grew up an Army brat. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and his family spent some time living in Europe. By his junior year of high school, they ended up in Georgia, near Fort Benning, and spent the '60s at different schools, eventually earning a doctorate in History from Tulane in New Orleans. And all of that studying and a stint as a professor at West Georgia College, made Gingrich a veritable font of political history.
Newt Gingrich: FDR gave all of his speeches to an illiterate farmer in Upstate New York, who's the guy he'd known as Shaman (ph).
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich likes to sprinkle facts like this into conversation. Here, he is again with Bill Kristol.
Newt Gingrich: And he said, "If I can write this speech so he would understand, then the American people will understand. And I adopted that, and I had an aunt, Loma, who passed away in her 90s, and I sort of used Aunt Loma as my benchmark because it hit me, it's a really great test of your talk. Can you take an important idea and communicate it so that it's intellectually legitimate, but it's so clear that a normal person can get it and say, "Yeah, that makes sense."
Steve Kornacki: This approach to messaging is central to Gingrich's political persona, and he honed it over many years. We think of Gingrich today as a deeply conservative figure. But when he first started out, he was all over the map, politically. In the late '60s, he was for Nelson Rockefeller. That was the liberal Republican governor of New York who was despised by the conservative wing of the GOP. Rockefeller spoke about those conservatives at the 1964 Republican Convention.
Nelson Rockefeller: The methods of these extremist elements, I have experienced that firsthand.
Steve Kornacki: And he got booed.
Nelson Rockefeller: Their tactics have ranged from cancellation by coercion of a speaking engagement before a college to outright threats of personal violence.
Steve Kornacki: When Rockefeller ran for president in 1968, it was Newt Gingrich who helped to run his campaign in the South. Gingrich, a northerner by birth, had been a supporter of the Civil Rights Act. In the '70s, he played up environmentalism. He talked about ecology. And he won more than a few fans on the left side of the political spectrum. Partly, he was searching for his path to elected office, his appointment with history. But there's another throughline at work here too, what Newt Gingrich was always on the lookout for, is always on the lookout for is the populist vein of American politics, some way to connect with everyday people and to unite them against what he calls the elites, and to unite them behind Newt Gingrich.
Newt Gingrich: I'm running against a man who has been there 20 years and for a seat that I think needs aggressive, vigorous leadership.
Steve Kornacki: He first ran for Congress in 1974. Here was a young Republican, a transplanted Georgian, originally from the north, running against an aging conservative Democrat who had been a staunch segregationist, Jack Flint was his name. And Newt nearly knocked him off, but not quite. So there was a rematch in 1976. Again, it was close, and again, Gingrich fell just short. And then comes 1978.
Jocelyn Dorsey: And on the Republican side, Newt Gingrich, who was out for his third time, will face the winner of the 6th District Democratic runoff.
Steve Kornacki: That's Action News in Atlanta. The stakes are especially high this time. If Gingrich can't find the key to the hearts and minds of his potential constituents, he runs the risk of being regarded as a perennial candidate who just can't win. But something catches his attention. Actually, it catches the attention of everyone in politics at that time, a ballot box revolt that was shaking the establishment of both parties to the core.
NBC reporter: The success of California's Proposition 13 and the recent election victories of tax cut candidates may not represent a revolution but could spark a crusade.
Steve Kornacki: A crusade against taxes. Proposition 13 is a ballot initiative that passes in California in June of '78. It calls for slashing property taxes and strictly limiting how much they can increase in the future. Just about every major political figure in the state is against it, Democrats and Republicans. They call it reckless. They call it irresponsible. And then it passes anyway, in a landslide, the people want it. And just like that, the tax revolt is on.
And the champion of this tax-cutting movement is a former football player, a famous one.
Tom Harmon: One of the finest thinking quarterbacks in football today, Jack Kemp shows his artistry as he unleashes a 46-yard touchdown pass.
Steve Kornacki: His name is Jack Kemp. And after his football career was over, he became a member of Congress from New York, and Newt Gingrich cites him as a major influence.
Newt Gingrich: I mean, he's the quintessential outsider, because the Republican establishment despises him. He's noisy. He talks about esoteric ideas like supply side economics. He reads books.
Steve Kornacki: Here's Kemp in June of 1978, explaining himself to Jim Lehrer on PBS.
Jack Kemp: This is not an attempt insofar as I think most of the people are concerned to destroy government; it's an attempt to make government work. And government isn't working when the people are being strangled by taxes and regulations and paperwork, and all the Mickey Mouse that goes on.
Newt Gingrich: Kemp didn't know anything about the tax code. He had a large general theory.
Steve Kornacki: That was Gingrich with Kristol again. And the party is starting to capitalize on big changes in America. Between the New Deal and the Great Society, the federal government has been growing enormously. And since the '60s, there has been social upheaval. Cities are shrinking. Suburbs are exploding, and a lot of these new suburbanites are suddenly skeptical of and even hostile to government.
Newt Gingrich: It was, at least, an idea.
Bill Kristol: Right.
Newt Gingrich: And we beat the normal boring nothingness which is at the heart of the Republican Party.
Bill Kristol: And today, the Republican Party, a forward-looking and --
Newt Gingrich: And inclusive.
Bill Kristol: -- sort of populist and inclusive parties --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: In Georgia's 6th Congressional District, Newt Gingrich plunges into his third campaign in 1978, determined to channel the energy of this tax revolt.
Newt Gingrich: I know people who were here in 1974 during that long, difficult night, and again, 1976, during an even longer night. A number of you, frankly, I was a little embarrassed to call and ask to help the third time.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich runs as a tax slasher and an ardent foe of big government. And this time, he has a new Democratic opponent, a Georgia state senator named Virginia Shapard, who Gingrich is fond of labeling --
Newt Gingrich: A multimillionaire woman reformed senator. She was a very wealthy multimillionaire.
Steve Kornacki: He runs this ad.
Announcer: The welfare cheaters bill would have saved you this money, had passed the Georgia House by a 3-to-1 margin, but died in a closed committee when Virginia Shapard voted to kill it. Mrs. Shapard offered the voters no apology and no explanation. On November 7th, you do have a choice. Newt Gingrich, United States Congress.
Steve Kornacki: Shapard was still feeling resentment years later, when she spoke about the campaign for a Georgia State University oral history project.
Virginia Shapard: He did some things that I consider not illegal, but certainly unethical and sneaky.
Steve Kornacki: Like –
Virginia Shapard: They sent people out into the western part of the district and told people that I had ridden buses with freedom. I'd come down from the north on buses with the Freedom Riders, which I didn't do. I did work here on the biracial committee, kept us running around, putting out fires all the time. And you know, you can never, but the explanation is always longer than the accusation.
Steve Kornacki: On his third try, in a campaign that is pretty much make or break, Newt finally makes it, chosen by the voters outside of Atlanta. You can hear the excitement in the room in this Action News clip.
Sharon McClamma: Newt Gingrich has been leading in the 6th congressional race all night tonight. And just a few minutes ago, Newt, you are telling me that you're going to win this race.
Newt Gingrich: Well, I think the figures now are beginning to be pretty conclusive.
Sharon McClamma: If you hear all that noise in the background, they're auctioning off Newt Gingrich T-shirts.
Steve Kornacki: At his victory party that night in 1978 and just after a belly dancer performs, Gingrich takes the stage. His speech is an energetic embrace of populism.
Newt Gingrich: Carry the word throughout this district, the word we said was true, that we do stand for the people who push a grocery cart and worry about the grocery prices, that we do stand for the people who care about this country and their children's future. That every American, no matter how young, no matter how old, whether male or female, black, white, yellow, every American has a right to a voice in Washington, and that that voice is appropriately in the Constitution, in the House of Representatives.
Steve Kornacki: Finally, after three tries, Newt will get to go to Washington. He's going to be just one of 435 members of the House, but he's already got a huge mission in mind. He is going to blow up the permanent Democratic Congress.
NBC reporter: The new Congress is not all that new; 96 percent of those who ran for reelection won.
Steve Kornacki: Nightly News on a January evening, late in the '70s.
NBC Reporter: The Congress will be essentially the same one we have had these last two years, and in fact, much the same one we've had years before that.
Steve Kornacki: Now at this point, 1977, we're a generation deep into the permanent Democratic Congress. It feels like the gavel is being handed down from one Democratic Speaker to another every decade or so. And this time, it's going to an old school Irish Catholic pal from Boston, or more technically, North Cambridge.
Linda Ellerbee: Tip O'Neill is expected to be an energetic speaker. He has 24 years' experience in the house, and he's popular, even with Republicans.
Tip O'Neill: In partnership with the new president, this Congress faces a long agenda.
Steve Kornacki: Going back to Tip O'Neill in the late 1970s to show you a very different Congress, a Congress that Newt Gingrich entered, and it's run by someone who was already a legend. Tip O'Neill actually took JFK's House seat back when Kennedy went to the Senate in 1953, and O'Neill has been in the House ever since. Politically, he came of age during the Great Depression, that was in the days of FDR and the New Deal.
Tip O'Neill: You know we've just been through a war. We're through about 10 years of the gloomiest depression any nation ever had, where a quarter of its people were unemployed. And looking back at those dark days, America never wanted it again. And we set in motion legislation and what did that legislation do? It changed America.
Steve Kornacki: A profile in the "Los Angeles Times" describes Tip O'Neill this way, quote, "Physically, he is the very model of a political boss, a cartoonist's dream, 6'3", a hefty 280 pounds, with thatched Olympian white hair, busted plump nose, heavy lids drooping over warm blue gray eyes, and a friendly mug with something like a road map of County Cork etched from jowl to jowl. And he plays cards too with everybody. Here, he's remembering sitting across from Richard Nixon.
Tip O'Neill: He talked too much during the card game and never followed the cards.
Steve Kornacki: O'Neill always follows the cards. And in 1979, he and his party have all of them. Their majority is massive. And with it, Democrats run every committee. They decide which bills will and which bills won't come up for votes, and what if anything at all, they're willing to parcel out to Republicans.
Linda Ellerbee: This year, the Democrats control the Congress, and they control the White House. Theoretically, they can pass anything they want.
Steve Kornacki: But there's a problem.
Linda Ellerbee: All they have to do is agree with one another, something that doesn't always happen.
Steve Kornacki: The Democratic Party is now a massive political tent. There are plenty like O'Neill. But there are also deeply conservative Southerners, holdovers from the days before civil rights began shaking up American politics. And there are African American members whose numbers have been growing since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There's also a new breed of reform-minded liberal technocrats, their politics shaped by the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. They're steadily filing into the Democratic ranks too. It's balancing the clashing interests and priorities and egos of this broad and gigantic coalition that Tip O'Neill has to contend with every day. Plus, what are Republicans even going to do about it?
Bob Michel: I wouldn't be a winner if I were on the majority, but I lose far more than I win on the issues.
Steve Kornacki: Now. That's Bob Michel of Peoria, Illinois, talking to C-SPAN. Michel was the minority leader for much of O'Neill's tenure as speaker. His nickname was literally Mr. Nice Guy.
Bob Michel: Well, Tip O'Neill and I had a special and very special relationship. We both like to play golf. Number one, we both liked to play cards.
Steve Kornacki: Despite the friendship, the power imbalance at work was still huge. It wasn't like Michel or any other Republican felt like they were just one election, or just a handful of seats away from winning the majority. The permanent Democratic Congress to them, it felt like a permanent condition.
Bob Michel: And it was just kind of automatic that we'd have to be adversaries during the work hours and still be the good friends after work was concluded.
Steve Kornacki: Today, this might feel like a foreign concept.
Ray LaHood: Steve, I think that people that listen to this podcast are going to have a hard time understanding what I'm going to try and explain here.
Steve Kornacki: Bob Michel died in 2017. But I had the chance to speak with someone who knew him very well. Ray LaHood was Michel's Chief of Staff before LaHood himself, became a Republican congressman, and then ultimately Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama.
Ray LaHood: Back in the day, there weren't members on either side who were offended. There weren't Democrats who were offended that O'Neill was friendly with Michel. And there weren't Republicans who were offended that Bob was friendly with Tip O'Neill because they knew people came to Congress to get things done and they came with the idea that the art of compromise was the way they -- and not one of the 435 got their own way.
Steve Kornacki: And here's another story that people accustomed to today's politics might have a hard time understanding. It goes back to 1982.
Ray LaHood: The Democrats came to Tip and said, "We've got this candidate. This was a young lawyer from Peoria. His name is Doug Stephens. He's running against Michel. He's given him a run for his money." And Tip O'Neill said, "I don't care who's running against Bob Michel. We are not going to spend one penny against him. We need Bob Michel in Congress. We need Bob Michel, his friendship, and we need him as a leader." And I think people were flabbergasted by that.
Steve Kornacki: The case, what's going on here isn't entirely clear. This is like Nancy Pelosi saying she won't support a Democrat who's running against the Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, because he's her friend or because he helps her get things done. In other words, it's not going to happen today.
But of course, back in those days, Tip O'Neill also could afford to be magnanimous when it came to protecting his Republican friend. The Democratic majority was absolutely ironclad, and no one could imagine it ever being anything but that. O'Neill and Michel could still argue on the floor, like here, over the federal budget.
Tip O'Neill: Will the gentleman yield again?
Bob Michel: Yeah, sure.
Tip O'Neill: The gentleman has been as inaccurate as the president has been in addressing the Congress.
Bob Michel: Tell me how.
Steve Kornacki: They argued, but it wasn't personal. All that gentleman language is meant to regulate emotions, even in the heat of debate. And that gentleman's code extended to how Congress dealt with scandal. A man of the House, and they were almost all men back then, didn't try to score political points by questioning the character of another man of the House.
But the world outside of Congress was changing. The Watergate scandal that took down Richard Nixon to help to fuel a wave of cynicism with everyday Americans, and it created a greater incentive for the media to chase down stories of impropriety, wrongdoing and misconduct by public officials.
Tom Brokaw: Good evening. Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio has vehemently denied allegations that he is keeping a mistress on the government payroll at $14,000 a year, even though she admits that she can't type, can't file and can't even answer the telephone.
Steve Kornacki: In May of 1976, "The Washington Post" ran a blockbuster story and NBC got everyone who was involved on tape.
Elizabeth Ray: My qualifications were to show up and to keep my mouth closed, and you know, to see him when he wanted to see me.
Eric Burns: Congressman Hays, what can you tell us about the charges that appeared in today's "Washington Post"?
Wayne Hays: Well, let me say that my family and I are deeply disturbed by the charges that I have a mistress on the government payroll. And I'm personally deeply disturbed about its effect.
Steve Kornacki: The story was a big deal. Wayne Hays became a national punch line, and he ended up resigning from the House in disgrace. It spoke to the new realities of politics and media in the wake of Watergate. There's always been plenty of scandalous, even salacious activity by members of Congress. And generally, their colleagues look the other way. But now, for a politician willing to defy the gentleman's code of the House, it was something to take advantage of.
Newt Gingrich: There are now apparently some 35 or so congressmen who have some kind of ethics problem, whether it's bribery, or it's a sex scandal, or it's cheating on their travel vouchers. Is the Ethics Committee going to do anything?
Steve Kornacki: There's Newt Gingrich talking about ethics while he was still campaigning. Instinctively, he grasps the power of this, the potential to connect the public's growing cynicism with Congress, to the Democrats who have been running it for decades, and to stir a backlash. And almost as soon as he's sworn into the House, he's handed a golden opportunity. That's coming up.
Tom Brokaw: Good morning, everyone.
Steve Kornacki: It's the Today Show.
Tom Brokaw: This is Today, Wednesday, November 8th, almost a half day after the poll is closed in the 1978 midterm elections.
Steve Kornacki: Tom Brokaw tees up a reporter.
NBC reporter: Also in Michigan, Democratic Congressman Charles Diggs won reelection yesterday. He got 81 percent of the vote, even though he's been convicted of 29 counts of fraud. Diggs said last night, he's going to appeal those convictions.
Charles Diggs Jr.: File public notice for appeal, and that appeal will take place, if under normal circumstances, somewhere like a year from now. And we have reasonable confidence in our appeal process.
NBC reporter: Charles Diggs has been in the House of Representatives longer than any other black man. He's been there for 24 years. The question now is does he stay there or go to the Big House.
Steve Kornacki: Charles Diggs, a Democrat from Detroit was elected to his 13th term, in that same year that Newt Gingrich won his first election. Diggs had first won his seat back in 1954. That was the year that the permanent Democratic Congress was born. He'd racked up seniority, he'd become a committee chairman. He won a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. That was the approach he used to speak out against apartheid in South Africa. And in the early '70s, he helped to start the Congressional Black Caucus.
But now, he was jammed up. The charges against Diggs had to do with padding his office payroll and taking kickbacks from staffers. It was a pretty big story, as you just heard. And Diggs was facing the real prospect of jail time. But he was also maintaining his innocence, vowing to appeal, and in the meantime, insisting on going about the day-to-day activities of a member of Congress, like none of this legal trouble existed. And really, most of his colleagues didn't seem to have much of a problem with that. This was pretty much the way things worked back then.
Diggs was a member in good standing, a man of the House. And the legal drama surrounding him was his own business, especially if his constituents wanted him right where he was. PBS spoke to three of them.
First Man: Diggs' record, in terms of representing the interests of black people, that's why he's getting back in there. He's trying to get the kind of legislation passed that we want passed.
First Woman: I like to say, and haven't been a man in Congress or in the White House period, haven't did something wrong in his lifetime?
Second Woman: Many people think that if other politicians, such as Richard Nixon, was able to get off scot-free, that why should Congressman Diggs be penalized for doing things that were probably less serious than those which Nixon was convicted or accused of?
Steve Kornacki: Charlie Diggs goes about his appeal, he gets sworn in for his 13th term, and he goes back to work, chairing this committee and casting votes on the floor. And that's where the freshman Congressman from Georgia's 6th District comes in. Newt Gingrich is in a hurry. And when he looks at the Diggs' situation, he sees something his colleagues don't, an opening. Newt Gingrich, in what would soon become one of his signature moves, goes to the press, in this case, to Andy Cassles. That's the reporter that Atlanta's Action News had assigned to cover him in D.C.
Newt Gingrich: The big issue that I've been trying to raise, Andy, is how can I go home and talk to my citizens and say we passed a law yesterday by 201 to 200, and the margin of difference was a convicted felon, that you have to obey the law, even though the man who was the margin of difference himself has been convicted on 29 counts of breaking the law. I don't see morally how we can uphold the authority of government if we have convicted crooks serving in Congress.
Steve Kornacki: Less than two weeks later, Newt goes back on TV in Atlanta.
Newt Gingrich: What we are doing is we are asking the question, should a man who is now guilty of committing 29 felonies be allowed to vote in the House?
Steve Kornacki: And he didn't only ask these questions on his local TV station, he put a motion on the floor of the House to expel Diggs. Now in the house of 1979, this would be shocking from any member. No one had been expelled from the House since the Civil War, and here was a first term Republican from Georgia, demanding that his colleagues vote on expelling a 13-term member.
Dick Gephardt: All the older members around this were really offended by what he was doing. And you just didn't do things like that in the old days.
Steve Kornacki: I talked about this with Dick Gephardt, the longtime Democratic congressman who would ultimately become the Democratic leader.
Dick Gephardt: I remember he was always, you know, angry may not be the right word, but was aggressive and wanting to attack people as human beings, as individuals, as much as talking about issues. He was interested in issues, and he was smart, and he was a historian, he was good at that. But kind of his M.O., as he came in, was we got to attack the other people as bad people.
Steve Kornacki: A couple of things are happening here. First, Gingrich has found a ripe populist vein, political corruption. After all, what average American, if they heard about it, wouldn't be offended by a congressman who'd been convicted of dozens of corruption charges, voting to spend their tax dollars? But Gingrich was also challenging his fellow Republicans to see it too, to join him in calling out Diggs, to join him in demanding action, and to tell the country that it was the Democrats, the permanent Democratic Congress that was protecting Charlie Diggs. Here's Dick Gephardt again.
Dick Gephardt: Corruption, he was always beating the drum that the Democrats are corrupt in the way they run the House. And so, he was effective at charging the other side with not being worthy of public office.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich has only been in Congress two months, but he's made enough noise to get a vote on his motion to expel Diggs. Now, it fails overwhelmingly, but there are a few dozen Republicans who support it. It's a start. And the matter then goes to the Ethics Committee, which suddenly feels new pressure, public pressure to act. And by the summer of 1979, John Chancellor, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, introduces a segment about something that at that point, hadn't happened in almost 60 years, something short of expulsion, but a big deal, nonetheless.
John Chancellor: In 1921, the Congress of the United States voted to censure one of its members, a Democrat from Texas named Thomas Blanton, for inserting what was then regarded as obscene language in the Congressional Record. Not since then has the House voted censure until today. James Polk has that story.
James Polk: Charles Diggs, the senior black member of Congress, was the first to arrive on the House floor to face a vote of censure, after his conviction for padding his office payroll to meet personal debts.
Steve Kornacki: Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming who was close to the party's leadership, spoke from the floor.
Dick Cheney: Mr. Diggs has dishonored himself. And more importantly, he's dishonored this House. I believe Representative Diggs should have resigned long ago, and I believe he should consider doing so now.
James Polk: Speaker Thomas O'Neill announced the vote, 414 to 0. Diggs rose as O'Neill read the judgment in a hushed chamber.
Tip O'Neill: The resolution in the matter of Charles C. Diggs Jr. resolved. Representative Charles C. Diggs Jr. is censured.
Steve Kornacki: A censure has no legal ramifications. It is symbolic. But like you just heard, it hadn't happened to anyone since 1921. And yet, it's taken Newt Gingrich just a few months to push his party and to push the whole House into issuing one. To Gingrich, this would become a cornerstone of his mission. Find the other Charlie Diggs in the House, call them out, make headlines, put Democrats on the spot, make the country see that this was the rock that the permanent Democratic Congress was producing.
Years later, during a press conference, Gingrich listed these incidents like bullet points on a resume.
Newt Gingrich: By 1984, I had already moved to expel one convicted felon from Congress, Congressman Charles Diggs in 1979; helped expel Congressman Kelly from the House Republican Conference because of Abscam in 1980; supported the expulsion of Congressman Ozzie Myers for corruption 1980, the first expulsion in American history for corruption; and moved to strengthen the sanctions against One Republican and One Democrat during the page scandal.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich spoke about this ethics crusade as a point of principle, but that was just part of it. In that 2015 YouTube interview with Bill Kristol, Gingrich said that he'd gone to Richard Nixon, the Republican president who resigned before he could be impeached to ask for advice.
Newt Gingrich: He said, "The House Republicans are boring. The House Republicans were boring when I was there in the '40s. And unless you quit being boring, you're not going to attract enough energy to become the majority."
Steve Kornacki: And then was happy to animate the voters with a little outrage. It was all part of the plan.
Newt Gingrich: So when I won, I went to Vander Jagt in December of '78. We hadn't been sworn in yet.
Steve Kornacki: Guy Vander Jagt was then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. That's a group of House Republicans that works to get members of the GOP elected to the House.
Newt Gingrich: And I said, "You know, we've not been in power for 24 years. And shouldn't we have a plan to become a majority?" And he said, "That is a terrific idea. Why don't you chair the planning committee?"
Steve Kornacki: To Democrats and Republicans alike, the idea of a Republican House still seems extremely absurd, a quixotic notion. By the late '70s, there are barely any Republicans left in Congress, who even remember a Republican majority. It's Gingrich's mission to make them believe that it is possible, but only if they are willing to change, and only if they're willing to follow his lead.
But Diggs' episode is his first breakthrough. It isn't huge, but it is different. He's pulled off something that until then just wasn't done in the House. But he's still just a freshman. He's still just a one-time history professor, with a penchant for grandiose rhetoric. His party's leaders are suspicious of him, plenty of rank-and-file Republicans look at him as an irritant or worse. He needs to show them that what had happened with Charlie Diggs could be just the start of something much bigger.
And wouldn't you know, just as the Diggs drama is going down, he finds what looks like the perfect tool to do it. Gingrich is about to ride a brand-new invention, something called C-SPAN, right around the traditional gatekeepers of the national media and the Congress itself, and he's going to ride it all the way to a direct confrontation with a lion of the House himself, Tip O'Neill. That's next on The Revolution.
After this series was released, we heard from Newt Gingrich, and he wanted to talk. You’ll hear that conversation in episode 7.
From MSNBC, this is the first of six episodes of The Revolution. If you like what you've heard, please give us a 5-star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts. And be sure to tell your friends and follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now.
The Revolution was written and hosted by me, Steve Kornacki. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley, Ursula Sommer and Adam Noboa. It's edited by Alison MacAdam. Our associate producer is Eva Ruth Moravec. Sound designed by Ramtin Arablouei. Bryson Barnes is our technical director and he wrote our music. Soraya Gage is our executive producer, and Madeleine Haeringer is our head of Editorial.