The Revolution with Steve Kornacki
Episode 2: The Newt Show
In the early 1980s, Newt Gingrich starts recruiting Republican congressmen to his cause. They form the Conservative Opportunity Society and take advantage of a new cable channel, C-Span, which lets them circumvent the traditional media to spread their message to voters. And they confront Democrats with a fervor that old-school Republicans find distasteful. But when — in 1984 and 1985 — Newt and his followers inspire two angry showdowns in the House, their more staid colleagues start to see value in this new, confrontational style.
David Brinkley: Today, finally, the U.S. House of Representatives turned on its television system in living color, and its deliberations could be seen beyond the House chamber.
Steve Kornacki: It's March 19, 1979, and David Brinkley is anchoring NBC Nightly News.
David Brinkley: They held off a long time in the well-founded belief that there is a little ham on every politician, and in the fear that some of the more flamboyant would use the House floor as a stage to play to the cameras. But there almost aren't any flamboyant politicians anymore. Most of them now look and behave like the managers of Holiday Inns.
Steve Kornacki: I love this clip, and it's nothing at all against David Brinkley. The truth is he was only saying what just about everybody in Washington was thinking when this strange new TV channel appeared. This was back in the dawn of the cable television era, most people still only had antenna TVs they could get a handful of channels. In this segment, Brinkley is introducing a report from a young NBC Correspondent named Chris Wallace.
Chris Wallace: The House almost seemed to go out of its way not to perform for the cameras.
House Clerk: Resolve that there is hereby established in the House of Representatives a select committee to be known as the Select Committee on Committees; hereinafter referred to as the Select Committee.
Steve Kornacki: And that's how most of the media covered the birth of C-SPAN. C-SPAN would in fact reveal a lot of flamboyant politicians who like to perform for the cameras. But that was not supposed to be its purpose.
Brian Lamb: From the very beginning, nobody completely figured out that this was not meant to be television. It was meant to be a service.
Steve Kornacki: This is Brian Lamb who came up with the idea for C-SPAN, and then had to wait around for technology to catch up and for Congress to come around. That finally happened in the late 70s. Lamb was working as a trade journalist. And, one day, he was interviewing a congressman named Lionel Van Deerlin, and Lamb noticed a TV set in Lionel Van Deerlin's office. It was part of a closed-circuit system with a view of the House floor. And he made the Congressman an offer.
Brian Lamb: I said we could figure out how to get this up on the satellite and get into cable television homes. And, he said, really? And, I said, yeah. He said, well, can you write me a speech about that? And, I said, well, let me think about it. And I went back to my office. And, literally, this is amazing. About an hour later, he calls me and says you aren't going to believe this, Brian, but they're going to debate this in about two hours.
Steve Kornacki: And, that House passed it overwhelmingly. When those camera lights flicked on in March of 1979, anyone in America could watch what was happening in the House at any given moment, as long as they actually had cable television, of course, as those of us who grew up in the 80s, no, that hardly meant everybody. When C-SPAN came to Congress, only about one in five households in America actually had cable.
Brian Lamb: You could watch C-SPAN in Hawaii and couldn't watch it on K Street.
Steve Kornacki: It's true. Ironically enough, Washington, D.C. was one of the last places in the United States to get cable, and maybe this explains why some members of Congress like Speaker Tip O'Neill were a little slow to understand just how powerful C-SPAN could be. It's something that would come back to haunt O'Neill.
Every month, more and more Americans were signing up for cable, and that meant that more and more were stumbling across this strange new channel where members of Congress were the stars. Now, O'Neill and his generation didn't quite see that potential. But, the newer generation did. Here is a piece of trivia for you. Who delivered the first speech from the House floor that was televised by C-SPAN?
Al Gore: Mr. Speaker, on this historic day, the House of Representatives opens its proceedings for the first time to televised coverage.
Steve Kornacki: The answer, a 30-year-old Democratic Congressman from Tennessee named Al Gore. And there was no one in the House who recognized the transformative power of the television camera like Newt Gingrich. He had barely been there two months when C-SPAN went live. But he couldn't have dreamed up a better tool for his mission of toppling the permanent Democratic Congress. Think about it. Gingrich was a freshman member of the minority party, a party that seemed like it would be the minority power forever. NBC, ABC, CBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post, no one was lining up to interview him, to give him a platform to spread his message, even to give him the time of day.
But now, all of a sudden, he had a way around all of them. He could go to the House floor and whoever was watching C-SPAN anywhere in America would see him and hear him and maybe they'd even like what they were hearing, and if he could make enough noise, create enough drama, build a big enough grassroots following, well, then all those big establishment media outlets would have to treat him like a serious political player.
Newt Gingrich: Let me put in my perennial plug. I think that C-SPAN is a fabulous institution, and I think if anybody — I can say this, and you can't — If anybody who is watching has relatives who have a cable system that doesn't have C-SPAN, they had to call him in the morning and complain because those relatives are missing a real chance for education. I think it's good for all of America to watch all of us in this nonpartisan open way, and you do a fabulous job. Thank you.
Brian Lamb: Thank you, sir. Come back and see us again. Have a safe trip.
Steve Kornacki: I'm Steve Kornacki, and this is "The Revolution Episode 2, The Newt Show". We'll get to some major televised drama in a bit. But first of all, I've got to explain where Newt Gingrich was coming from and why he saw a C-SPAN as such a powerful tool. C–SPAN is an avowedly nonpartisan. Whatever party you're from, if you're on the floor of the House and you're recognized to speak, you're going to be on the air.
Brian Lamb: There was anybody that wanted to use the system, and a lot of people did, but they weren't controversial.
Steve Kornacki: This is Brian Lamb again.
Brian Lamb: What made the difference was that the Conservatives were starting to disrupt.
Steve Kornacki: For Gingrich, this would be the key to the whole thing. Think about where America was politically in the late 1970s. It had voted for a Republican president in one of the biggest routes of history just in 1972. That was Richard Nixon's 49 state romp over George McGovern.
Richard Nixon: I noticed some of the commentators are referring to the fact that it may be the greatest victory in American political history. Let me tell you, --
Steve Kornacki: And, it was about to elect Ronald Reagan in another seismic landslide in 1980, after which he delivered a victory speech to a rapturous crowd in Los Angeles.
Ronald Reagan: I am not frightened by what lies ahead, and I don't believe the American people are frightened by what lies ahead.
Steve Kornacki: To Gingrich and to others on the right, Americans were sending some clear signals that they were both skeptical of liberal Democrats and open to Republicans, to Conservative Republicans, in brand new ways. Now, the challenge was to connect all of that to Congress to get those same people who were suddenly rejecting Democrats for president to keep going down the ballot and to reject the entire Democratic Party. C-SPAN was a virtual invitation to turn Congress into a real-time television drama. And it was one that Newt eagerly accepted. Of course, and especially in those early days, Newt's biggest obstacle to power was his own party. We talked about this in episode one.
In the House back then, many Republicans got along with Democrats. They worked comfortably with them. They socialized with them after hours. A lot of the Republicans in Congress weren't even that conservative, and a lot of the Democrats weren't that liberal. The lines between the parties could blur easily on any number of issues. And, above all, most members of the GOP thought it was impossible that they'd ever be in the majority, and too many of them were too comfortable with that. At least that's the way Newt saw it, as he later told Brian Lamb in a C-SPAN interview.
Newt Gingrich: I felt that somebody had to try to create a majority. I felt that somebody had to take responsibility for trying. And, even when I fell on my face, I was falling forward. And that was better than sitting and doing nothing.
Steve Kornacki: And so, one member at a time, he set out to build an army.
Can you remember the first time you met Newt Gingrich?
Vin Weber: I don't necessarily remember the first time that I met him. But I remember the first serious conversation that we had.
Steve Kornacki: I spoke with Vin Weber, a former Congressman from Minnesota, who was Newt's first recruit.
Vin Weber: The last day of the session in 1982, and I was down in the well of the House for some reason. Newt came up to me and he said to me, so, what are you doing for the next 10 years? I laughed at him, but he was serious. He said we're going to take control of the House of Representatives, but it's not a short-term project. And, I said, sign me up. That's what I'm here for.
Steve Kornacki: The second person Gingrich called on was Bob Walker, who had just finished his third term. He represented a district west of Philadelphia.
Bob Walker: He recruited people who had shown a penchant toward activism on the floor, whether they were moderates or whether they were conservatives, and so -- and he brought us all together.
Steve Kornacki: Bob Walker didn't just have a penchant for inserting himself into other people's business on the floor. He'd been assigned that role.
Bob Walker: Bob Michel and Trent Lott came to me at one point, and the guys who had been the so-called official objectors on the floor, for a variety of reasons, were leaving. And we were left without anybody on the floor really guarding the floor day in and day out.
Steve Kornacki: Trent Lott was the Minority Whip. That was the second ranking Republican in the House back in the 1980s. The minority leader, remember, was Bob Michel, that's the Bob Michel who was great friends with Tip O'Neill. Now, both Bob Michel and Trent Lott were only comfortable going so far when it came to fights with the Democrats.
Bob Michel: The Republican leadership didn't want to totally separate themselves from the Democratic leadership. And so, they go into these meetings, and they would say, we understand, and we like to go along with you here, Mr. Speaker. But you know Walker. He is an SOB. He is not going to go along with this. He is going to object to it at the end. So, you're going to have to go out and talk to him because we can't do anything with him. And so, often, they'd walk out of those meetings, and Trent would come back and wink at me.
Bob Walker: Mr. Speaker, I object to the vote on grounds. A quorum is not present to make a point of order. The quorum is not present.
Steve Kornacki: This experience got Bob Walker comfortable playing the role of bad cop, which also made him a great asset for Newt Gingrich's army.
Bob Walker: We needed to basically form a faction. We needed to have a team of members, and not always act as individual entrepreneurs.
Steve Kornacki: Vin Weber says this was Gingrich's innovation.
Vin Weber: That sounds pretty basic, but I would think it was a huge insight, and we work very hard and do very specific things to try to make that happen.
Steve Kornacki: The Gingrich army was small to start, but its mission was to show the rest of the Republicans that, well, that life in the House for them didn't have to be the way it had been for decades. What they needed was to create and to dramatize a clear contrast with the ruling Democrats and to capture the public's imagination with it. He wanted the public to think of the Democrats as the party of the liberal welfare state, and to see Republicans as the exact opposite.
Newt Gingrich: We were conservative instead of liberal. We were opportunity instead of welfare. And we were a society rather than a state.
Steve Kornacki: The conservative Opportunity Society, that's what Newt and his allies called themselves. Here is Vin Weber again.
Vin Weber: Newt did not come in one day and say I want to form the Conservative Opportunity Society. We had many meetings to talk about what is it we actually stand for? Importantly, how we contrast to what we think is the other philosophy, the governing philosophy of the Democrats.
Steve Kornacki: And, that contrast was Conservative Opportunity Society versus a liberal --
Vin Weber: Liberal welfare state, right.
Steve Kornacki: Talk about what you were trying to convey there.
Vin Weber: The word liberal was not a positive word, and it was unpopular with the American people, that connoted big spending and big regulation and high taxes. So, we knew that that was an important distinction, liberal versus conservative. There are actually some people at the time of Watergate that talked about changing the name of the Republican Party to the Conservative Party, because Republican became a dirty word over Watergate, but conservative was a very popular word with American people, more popular than liberal by far.
Steve Kornacki: By the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan's revolution had swept the country and conservatism was ascendant, but the energy for that conservatism came more from outside the House than from within it. And, Gingrich wanted to channel, enter a pivotal meeting in Wisconsin.
Brian Lamb: Let's go back and start with the RACI meeting.
Steve Kornacki: That's Brian Lamb again. He didn't just run C-SPAN. He also conducted its biggest interviews. And, in one of them, he asked Newt Gingrich about a gathering in Racine, Wisconsin.
Newt Gingrich: I had just been elected. It was 1979, Paul Weyrich organized, it was a meeting of conservative activists, and we talked about the long-term future of the conservative movement and how to become an effective majority.
Brian Lamb: Paul Weyrich was doing what then and why would you go there?
Newt Gingrich: Weyrich was the Head of the Free Congress foundation. And, in the 70s, I think you'd have to say he may have been the most innovative conservative activist in the country. He helped found the "moral majority". He helped found the Heritage Foundation.
Steve Kornacki: Paul Weyrich is one of the most important people in the history of the modern conservative grassroots movement. We could make an entire podcast just about him. But, what you need to know here is that he was instrumental in connecting evangelical Christians to Republican politics. He also pioneered fundraising through direct mail, and he helped to sharpen Gingrich's vision for how to retake the majority in Congress. Here is why Weyrich, in the late 1980s, giving a speech to the Concerned Women of America and thanking the anti-feminist organization for its work.
Paul Weyrich: When I think of the conservative movement before the religious right got into it, we have very few divisions. We have some intellectual capacity. We had some ability to operate legislatively. But, we didn't have a lot of troops.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich and Weyrich needed troops to get a majority, and at least for a while, the populism of Gingrich aligned with the stringent faith of Weyrich.
Paul Weyrich: And, if we ever get our act together and we organize properly, there is nothing that we can't win, and there is nobody that we can't elect and nobody we can't defeat.
Steve Kornacki: The alliance spoke to Gingrich's drive to find and to tap into those populist veins of politics. The more activist allies he could make outside of Congress, the more pressure he could exert on his fellow Republicans inside the House to join the cause, which brings us back to those TV cameras. C-SPAN meant that Newt and his army didn't even have to leave D.C. to connect with grassroots activists.
Vin Weber: Every day, the House of Representatives opens, and any member can get up and speak for one minute on any topic they want.
Steve Kornacki: That's Vin Weber again. And here is Bob Walker.
Bob Walker: The Conservative Opportunity Society would meet some days and say, well, this is the issue that's in the press today. Let's go out and talk about it.
Steve Kornacki: He means talk about it on TV now that C-SPAN is on the air all the time.
Bob Walker: And so, we would line up about 10 of the members, and each of us did a one minute. One minute may not sound like a lot, but you can make a lot of trouble in one minute.
Steve Kornacki: The Conservative Opportunity Society began taking advantage of House rules to get their message out, and they had more than just those one-minute slots to work with.
Bob Walker: And, when the normal business of the day is done, any member of Congress can take out time, for what they call special order, and talk about anything he wants to do. And we got pretty good at the special orders because we made them somewhat entertaining.
Steve Kornacki: Special orders, they can last up to an hour, and members can tag each other in and out.
Bob Walker: So that we don't end up with that family further burdened by taxation, which is irresponsible and unnecessary if we just simply get our fiscal House in order.
Unidentified Male: I yield to the gentleman in Georgia.
Unidentified Male: Well, I very, very much appreciate the gentleman from Pennsylvania taking this time because I think that the country needs to understand the levels of your --
Unidentified Male: One-minute speeches and special orders were the times when we in the minority could command an audience on C-SPAN on the topics that we cared about, and because they had, if I remember correctly, at any given moment, about a half a million people watching. And, as we always said, if you could speak to a half a million people, you would not turn down the opportunity.
Steve Kornacki: Viewed from 2022, what they're really doing is producing a precursor to what we would now see on cable news. It's the Newt Show. It airs just about every night on C-SPAN, and it's amassing a grassroots following, mail and phone calls flood into the Capitol and members of the conservative Opportunity Society are suddenly in demand at conservative events all over the country. They're also starting to irritate the Democrats in the House. And soon, they will enrage the most powerful Democrat of them all and spark a confrontation that will change their place in the House and the House itself for years to come.
So, it's now May of 1984. In the broadcast television world, they call this sweeps month. That's when all the big shows pull out all the stops to juice their ratings, big name, guest stars, surprise twists, cliffhangers, you know the formula. In the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich and the Conservative Opportunity Society are effectively producing their own show every night with their special orders speeches. They've done this plenty of times before. But, tonight, something unusual happens.
Bob Walker: I was alone on the floor because it was the same night as the big Republican Congressional Committee dinner.
Steve Kornacki: Bob Walker was speaking during special order time. If you were watching on C-SPAN, you couldn't see who he was speaking to. The camera had him in its usual tight frame until it didn't.
Bob Walker: All of a sudden, the staff walked down and put a note on the podium in front of me saying the cameras have been pulled back and they're showing that you're speaking to an empty chamber. And so, I responded to the fact that I was told that the cameras have been pulled back.
I do want to take a note of something that's evidently happening right now, which is a change of procedure here. It is my understanding that as I delivered this special order this evening other cameras are panning this chamber demonstrating that there is no one here in the chamber to listen to these remarks.
Steve Kornacki: So, let's just paint the picture here. If you're watching Bob Walker on C-SPAN, one minute you're seeing a tight shot of him speaking and then suddenly the camera angle changes. Now, it's a big wide shot showing the entire House chamber, and it pans the room showing row after row of empty seats. In the moment, Walker understands this reveal to be a political move. He makes one in response.
Bob Walker: It is one more example of how this body is run, the kind of arrogance of power that the members are given that kind of change with absolutely no warning.
Steve Kornacki: Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House, had done this. He and the Democratic leadership control the cameras in the chamber, not C-SPAN, and now he was exercising that control and he was doing it to try to make Newt and his team look small.
Chris Matthews: Clearly, the Speaker had won the battle.
Steve Kornacki: That's Chris Matthews, the writer, pundit, and of course, TV host. But, back in 1984, he was Tip O'Neill's Chief of Staff.
Chris Matthews: They had shown the Republicans for what they were doing. They were speaking to an empty chamber. They were acting as if the chamber was full. The Democrats were all in their seats, and they caught them red handed, and they could have just stopped right there.
Steve Kornacki: Right. They could have just stopped right there. But, that's not what happened.
Chris Matthews: You know, you're dealing with real emotions and Speaker O'Neill had real emotions, and his reaction was, I don't like these people for what they were doing there. I don't like the fact that they have used technology to spread bad beliefs about my membership.
Steve Kornacki: So, let's go back a bit and explain how this incident came about. You see, O'Neill actually had his reasons for being furious with Walker, Weber and Gingrich.
Judy Woodruff: The feud that has been simmering for weeks between Democrats and a group of Conservative Republicans finally reached the boiling point.
Steve Kornacki: None of this was escaping the media's attention. Judy Woodruff covered it on PBS.
Judy Woodruff: It all started a few weeks ago when the GOP's Newt Gingrich, a Congressman from Georgia, publicly lambasted some Democratic House members for writing a letter to the head of the Marxist government in Nicaragua.
Steve Kornacki: Back in the mid-1980s, Nicaragua was a huge subject of debate.
Newt Gingrich: Radical Democrats perfected the technique of not holding left-wing governments accountable for their actions, a view of the modern world that is rigid, unyielding, and skewed. It's a world where America does nothing right.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich and his allies were arguing that Democrats had a long history of being soft on Marxist regimes.
Newt Gingrich: Every time a Communist movement takes power, Democratic Congressmen, they will fair, progressive, enlightened. Every time, it's not. The blame goes to the United States.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich is speaking after hours on the House floor, again, special order time, which, remember, means that he is basically talking to an empty chamber. But here is what really gets under the Democrat's skin. Gingrich is calling out Representatives by name.
Newt Gingrich: Representative Tom Harkin had high hopes for the Sandinistas in July of 1979. Tom Downing on the last -- Representative Robert Garcia -- another Congressman elected in -- Representative Howard Wolpe, "We have supported time and time again right-wing dictatorships that have been violative of the rights --
Steve Kornacki: Democrats thought the camera angle, that close-up on Gingrich, made it look like he was attacking them to their faces, and that the average viewer would think that the Democrats were too cowardly to step forward and to defend themselves.
Judy Woodruff: Democrats immediately complained to House Speaker Thomas O'Neill, who retaliated last week by ordering TV cameras to pan the House floor so that when Republican members –--
Steve Kornacki: And so, that's why Tip O'Neill ordered the camera angle to be changed a couple of nights later when Bob Walker was speaking. Chris Matthews told me that O'Neill was especially mad because he thought these upstart Republicans were questioning the patriotism of the Democrats they were calling out and that they were deliberately doing it in a moment when the Democrats weren't there to defend themselves.
Chris Matthews: He didn't like these people. He thought that they were a new breed of Republicans that were coming in there to cause trouble and to go after people personally. There is a lot of that there that hadn't been there before.
Steve Kornacki: The next week, O'Neill himself stood in the House during business hours and decried the special order speeches. C-SPAN told us it no longer has that tape. But, from the transcript, we can see that O'Neill was most upset about Gingrich's speech on Nicaragua. He said that Gingrich was "giving the thought and the idea that members of Congress were un-American". All of this set the stage for a showdown for the ages, one with its own name, Camscam, they called it back then. The next day, with the House chamber packed and reporters from every outlet looking on, Newt Gingrich took to the floor.
Tip O’Neill: The gentleman from --
Newt Gingrich: Mr. Speaker, I rise to a question of personal privilege.
Tip O’Neill: Gentleman will state his point of personal privilege?
Steve Kornacki: Which just means that Gingrich gets to talk.
Newt Gingrich: Yesterday, in my absence, the Speaker made certain allegations which are inaccurate, and which require correction. And I see –
Steve Kornacki: Tip O'Neill recognizes Gingrich and there is a hubbub as Gingrich comes before the House and as O'Neill, in a rare move, leaves his perch on the dais and joins his fellow colleague seated on the floor.
Tip O’Neill: The members will kindly take their seats.
Newt Gingrich: Mr. Speaker, --
Tip O’Neill: The members will kindly take their seats. The Chair wants to listen, with keen interest, to the gentleman from Georgia.
Steve Kornacki: Gingrich pleads his case and says that he and his group were not calling out Democrats behind their backs, but that they had in fact invited Democrats to debate.
Newt Gingrich: We sent a letter on May 8 to every single member mentioned, and we said as follows. Dear Colleague, --
Steve Kornacki: Here is Democratic Congressman Tom Downey in response.
Tom Downey: Well, I would inform the gentleman, on preliminary inquiries to my office, we received no letter.
Newt Gingrich: Okay. Well, I can assure the gentleman we all three signed it. It was sent.
Steve Kornacki: This is when Tip O'Neill takes the beat.
William Thomas: We have additional staff to deal with the backlog of --
Tip O’Neill: We're just getting away from -- away from the issue.
William Thomas: All right. Mr. Speaker, may I reclaim my time please.
Tip O’Neill: We're getting away from -- away from the issue.
Newt Gingrich: The gentleman yields --
Tip O’Neill: The issue comes down to one --
William Thomas: Regular order, regular order.
Tip O’Neill: The gentleman from Georgia -- on what happened. You are making accusations. The gentleman from Georgia is recognized. The gentleman yields.
Steve Kornacki: Remember, at this point, O'Neill, the House Speaker, is on the floor with the rest of the members. Now, he is just arguing with Newt.
Newt Gingrich: Okay. I'll be delighted to yield to our distinguished Speaker if he wishes to continue this. Please use the microphone, Mr. Speaker.
Tip O’Neill: There was no question in my mind that the arguments and the statements that I said on this floor came to me by complaint of the members, first, that they had not been notified. I don't believe that they weren't notified. I believe that, truly, that they didn't get the mail in their office, number one. Number two, --
Steve Kornacki: The speaker challenges Gingrich point by point, getting more and more emotional and then winding up here.
Tip O’Neill: My personal opinion is this. You deliberately stood on that well before an emptied House and challenged these people, and you challenged their Americanism. And, it's the lowest thing that I've ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.
Newt Gingrich: Mr. Speaker, if I may reclaim my time. Let me say, first of all, --
Trent Lott: Mr. Speaker, I move that we take the Speaker's words down.
Steve Kornacki: There it is. And, that's Trent Lott, the second ranking Republican who caught it right away. By today's standards, O’Neill's outburst might seem mild. But, in the House of 1984, it was a clear violation of decorum and debate, one of the House rules, he had directly referred to Gingrich, a fellow member of the House, and disparaged his character. Lott was now making a motion to have the Speaker's words taken down, essentially, for the House parliamentarian to reprimand the Speaker.
So, now there is chaos. What Lott is calling for would be a major humiliation for Tip O'Neill, and it would also be the ultimate validation for Newt Gingrich. Finally, the ruling is made.
Tip O’Neill: I would like to --
Trent Lott: The Chair feels that that type of characterization should not be used in the bag. After the Chair's ruling --
Steve Kornacki: Tip O'Neill's words are taken down. They are stricken from the record.
Bob Walker: So, for the first time in the history of the Congress, a speaker was disciplined, and told that he had to sit down and couldn't speak anymore on -- for that day. So, that was, I mean, a major confrontation that was on the floor.
Steve Kornacki: That's Bob Walker. And, Newt Gingrich, well, he didn't speak with us, has also talked about the importance of the Camscam incident. Here he is in a C-SPAN interview telling Brian Lamb about Tip O'Neill's reaction.
Newt Gingrich: I mean, all he did was draw more attention to us.
Brian Lamb: Were you sitting and waiting for him to do this?
Newt Gingrich: Well, we were hoping we'd goad him into something. We had no idea what he’d do, but we're hoping we would -- we would keep agitating until they decided to attack us, because we knew that the minute they attacked us, we become more significant, and more people will pay attention to our debate.
Steve Kornacki: Camscam gave the Conservative Opportunity Society something to really shout about. He'd been railing for years about what they said was a corrupt Democratic machine that ran roughshod over the Republican minority. Now, they could say the Speaker had just done it to them. Here is Bob Walker again.
Bob Walker: It did really raise our profile substantially at that point.
Brian Lamb: When I watched that day, the full session, what I noticed is O'Neill gets disciplined, Gingrich has the floor, keeps the floor then for 20 or 30 minutes afterwards, and when he leaves, he leaves to a standing ovation on the Republican side. Can you talk a little bit more about what that moment did for him, for you, and the Conservative Opportunity Society and you're standing with your fellow Republicans?
Bob Walker: Yeah. I mean, it was the first instance where Newt became seen as a future leader. Now, I'll tell you a post story on that. Some years later, after Tip had retired, I saw him down in the tunnel that connects the House Rayburn Building to the Capitol. And so, we were talking down there and he finally said to me, he says, Walker, you and Gingrich owe me. And, I said, why is that Tip? He said, because until I took you guys on, you were nothing but backbenchers that nobody knew, and I made you into national figures. And, I said, Tip, you're right, thanks. And he left.
Steve Kornacki: When we're back, another showdown in the House further raises Newt Gingrich's profile, and this time, it starts to win over his party's establishment.
Camscam happened in May of 1984. This is one year later, May 1985.
David Brinkley: In the House, the battle over the Indiana aids ended today finally, ended dramatically by a vote on --
Steve Kornacki: On NBC, Tom Brokaw hands off to reporter Bob Kur.
Bob Kur: Republicans accused the Democrats of stealing the election and worse.
Tom Brokaw: Rapists attempt to humiliate their victims. They attempt to dominate them. And, that is exactly what the Democratic majority has tried to do.
Steve Kornacki: Now, in order to explain where this strong language is coming from, we've got to go back six months, back to election night in November of 1984.
David Brinkley: And, in the Eighth District of Indiana, that's the Evansville and southwest corner of the state, the Democrat --
Steve Kornacki: The Bloody Eighth in Indiana congressional district that already has a reputation for two decades worth of close contests and sharp elbows. But what happens in the wake of the 1984 election takes everything to a brand new level, and it becomes Exhibit A in Newt Gingrich's case to his fellow Republicans that they're being trampled by the Democrats that run the House, and that the only answer is to join his war against them. On election night in Indiana's Eighth District, the race is razor thin.
Tom Brokaw: The freshman Democrat, Frank McCloskey, going for his second term, is trailing the Republican Richard McIntyre. That's a 54% to 46% with about 12% of the precincts in.
Steve Kornacki: But it appears that Frank McCloskey, a first-term Democrat running for re-election, has survived by the skin of his teeth. So, this gets really complicated. Tabulation errors are discovered in two precincts in Gibson County in the Eighth District. And, when those totals are adjusted, the Republican Rick McIntyre suddenly takes the lead by just 34 votes. And, at this point, more than a month after the election, the Indiana Secretary of State, who is a Republican, certifies McIntyre as the winner, and Republicans believe they've picked up a seat, but McCloskey, the Democrat, won't concede. He says there is irregularities in other counties too, and that further recounts are needed. And, he says he is going to take this matter to the full House of Representatives. That's the key here.
The Constitution says the House is the ultimate judge of its elections. And, of course, at this point, the House is controlled overwhelmingly by the Democrats. So, in January of 1985, on the first day of the new session, two men show up for the job, NBC's Jamie Gangel laid out the confusion.
Jamie Gangel: The problem both men claim they want, at first, McCloskey had the numbers. Then it was McIntyre. Then it was McCloskey. Then it was McIntyre again.
Steve Kornacki: On this day, the House doesn't seat either of them. Instead, it says it's going to conduct its own investigation.
Jamie Gangel: Outnumbered Republicans already say it won't be fair.
Republican Congressman: Power is corrupt. You're seeing that happened here today.
Steve Lornacki: A month later, the House sets up a special task force of three members to investigate the election. It'll have two Democrats on it and only one Republican. I spoke with one of those Democrats, Leon Panetta. Back then, he was a Congressman from California.
How did you get roped into the role you played in that one?
Leon Panetta: Well, in addition to the other Committees I was on, I was a member of the House Administration Committee, and the House Administration Committee is the Committee that selects Committees in order to do recounts in close elections.
Steve Kornacki: This sounds incredibly bureaucratic. I know. But, Panetta becomes the head of the task force that's supposed to make a formal recommendation on who the rightful congressman is. And, in the meantime, Indiana is still doing its own recounts.
Connie Chung: Will the real congressman please stand up?
Steve Kornacki: That's NBC's Connie Chung introducing a story from Correspondent Ken Bode.
Ken Bode: Two lawyers and an insurance man drawing the handsome salary of $10 a day to recount the votes in Vanderburgh County.
Steve Kornacki: What Bode is describing is a district-wide recount conducted in January. Each county has its own rules and its own procedures. And, when it's all over and counted, McIntyre's lead has gone up to 418 votes. So, again, he is declared the winner by the Indian Secretary of State, and again, Republicans in the House asked for him to be seated, and again, in a party line vote. Democrats refuse. They want to wait on the task force. And, the task force or at least the two Democrats on it had some real questions about the recount.
NBC Reporter: In Vanderburgh, they are counting votes where the seals were broken and ballots weren't secure, in other counties, they are not. In some counties --
Steve Kornacki: There is a wide discrepancy in how different counties are conducting their recounts.
NBC Reporter: Democratic Judge Redwine told his commissioners not to worry if the ballots weren't initialed. If the intent of the voter is clear, he said, count them and count them all by hand.
Steve Kornacki: So now, it's up to the task force, again, Democrat Leon Panetta is the Chair and Bill Clay of Missouri is the other Democrat. The Republican is Bill Thomas from California. They set up shop in Indiana. They bring in a team of auditors and get to work for months. The process drags on through the winter, all the way into the spring. And, back in Washington, as you might imagine, Republicans are growing impatient and angry. And, there is no louder or more persistent voice encouraging these feelings than Newt Gingrich.
He is in his fourth term now, and he goes on "Meet the Press" to make his case that Democrats are playing dirty here.
Tony Coelho: The question is not, frankly, how do you recount, or should you recount? The question is, first of all, historically, we always seek the man who has a certificate. When we had close elections with Democrats, including this year, where there is an election contest in Idaho, we seated the man who has a certificate. Second, --
NBC Reporter: Why not see the man with the certificate and then --
Tony Coelho: First, constitutionally, we're supposed to seat the person who won the seat. There is a question as to who won the seat.
Steve Kornacki: That's Tony Coelho, a Democratic Congressman from California. The Bloody Eighth is becoming a rallying cry for Newt. To his fellow Republicans in Congress, he offers it as more proof of what he has been saying for years now that the Democratic majority is trampling all over them and that it's time to fight back.
Newt Gingrich: I'm perfectly on a recount. I am not willing to have the people of Indiana deprived of voice now for over two months. And, I think it's a very dangerous precedent to set this up.
Steve Kornacki: In April, it was 1985, things finally come to a head and it comes down to Vanderburgh County. That's the largest county in the district. It's where the City of Evansville is. Vanderburgh uses punch-card ballots and a lot of them, nearly 4,000, in fact, have been tossed out in the County's recount, and a fair number of them are from heavily black precincts, and many of the ballots have markings on them, holes that are partially punched or dents, offering some clue, may be, of the voter's intent. The whole country would learn all about this after the 2000 presidential election in Florida.
The task force holds a public hearing in Evansville. The room is packed. Emotions are high. They go through the disputed ballots, voting what to count and what not to count. It takes hours, but almost without fail every vote is two to one, the two Democrats, Panetta and Clay on one side and the Republican Bill Thomas on the other, and the end result, by a total margin of four votes, let me repeat that, four votes, the taskforce calls Frank McCloskey, the Democrat, the winner of the election. Here is how Panetta reflected on the whole process in our interview.
Leon Panetta: I really thought it was important that we try to approach it in a bipartisan way, and we did. We actually worked out standards for counting the votes. I have to tell you that the biggest problem in that vote is that it came down to four votes. So, I wish it came down to 400 or 4,000 votes, but it came down to four votes.
Steve Kornacki: So, the task force recommends that McCloskey be declared the winner and seated. Now, the action returns to D.C. and it's up to the full House to accept or to reject that recommendation. And, the floor debate is memorable. Here is Bill Thomas. Remember, he was the only Republican on the task force.
Bill Thomas: This entire sorted affair started on January 3 with the big lie that there was a question over who the people had chosen in Indiana's Eighth Congressional District election night.
Steve Kornacki: And he goes on.
Bill Thomas: Much has been said about black voters not being counted. But, when the task force on a two-to-one partisan vote said it was ready to quit counting, it was white votes that remained on the table. Honorable men and women are colorblind. They do not defend the rights of blacks, and then remain silent when others are disenfranchised.
Steve Kornacki: Thomas is white, and Bill Clay, the other Democrat on the task force, is black, and he is the next member to be recognized.
Bill Clay: For him to stand in this Evansville and talk about the concern of the task force or the Democrats on the task force, at first it was for black voters not being denied the right to have their votes cast, and then they talk about now we're denying white voters the right to have their votes counted, I think raises some very serious questions. What we're talking about here is the right of every voter in the Eighth District of Indiana to have his votes counted.
Steve Kornacki: The debate continues. In about an hour later, the Republican leader Bob Michel, Mr. Nice Guy himself, rises to speak.
Bob Michel: Raw power alone does not or should not decide this or any other case. The McIntyre case is but one example of a consistent abuse
Steve Kornacki: His outrage, the sense of victimhood, is exactly what Newt Gingrich has been going for all along. And now, Bob Michel lays the blame for anything that might happen next at the feet of the Democrats.
Bob Michel: If a majority persists in this folly, they'll have poisoned the wells of civility in this House. Things will never be the same. Let it be upon your heads if this is the case.
Steve Kornacki: Leon Panetta was part of this debate too, and he told me that in that moment, he saw something big happening.
The level of rhetoric coming from Republicans --
Leon Panetta: Yeah. That was one of the beginnings, and you know, I guess what I regret from all of that is that it really did hurt the institution of the House. And, the fact is, Republicans suffered from that, just like Democrats, but by undermining trust in the House of Representatives, it was the beginning of what we've seen more recently, which is undermining the institutions of our democracy, and that's dangerous.
Steve Kornacki: One day after that floor debate, on May 1, 1985, it's time for the full House to vote. The moment itself is anticlimactic. With a large Democratic majority, the House approves the task force's report which means that six months after the election the Democrat Frank McCloskey will finally take his seat. But, in this moment, Bob Michel does something different, something that might not fit with the old gentleman's code of the House. He asks to end the day's session on the spot before O'Neill can swear in McCloskey.
Bob Michel: Mr. Speaker, in view of that vote, the last vote, I move we adjourn.
Tip O’Neill: Would the gentleman withhold until I have an opportunity to swear in Mr. Frank McCloskey?
Bob Michel: No, Mr. Speaker. The purpose --
Tip O’Neill: No, I understand.
Bob Michel: Our purpose is to --
Tip O’Neill: I ask the gentleman to return immediately.
Steve Kornacki: O'Neill looks bemused, but he moves forward with a recorded vote at Michel's request, and as they cast their votes, Republicans then head for the exits. The old gentleman's code is being tossed right out the window here. They're staging a walkout. And that includes Bob Michel. At one point, O'Neill even calls out to his old friend and asks him to stay. But Michel says no. On this one, even he is with Newt. So, McCloskey gets sworn in.
Congressman: Mr. Frank McCloskey will raise his right hand. Do you solemnly swear that you'll support and defend the --
Steve Kornacki: And the Democrats gather around to congratulate him. But, later that day, Republicans make clear that this is not a matter that they will be letting go of anytime soon.
Pat Roberts: On this issue, you have torn that special fabric that holds us together as a House of Representatives.
Steve Kornacki: That's Pat Roberts from Kansas. He is an establishment Republican, not a disrupter like Gingrich in the Conservative Opportunity Society.
Pat Roberts: It would appear, Mr. Speaker, that we have two kinds of folks in the majority, those who listen and work with the Republican minority and those who do not believe we are full-fledged partners in this House. In baseball times, those are --
Steve Kornacki: Roberts is exactly the kind of Republican Gingrich has been trying to win over, and the Bloody Eighth seems to have done it.
Pat Roberts: You people dish it out every day. But you sure can't take it.
Bob Walker: The situation with the Bloody Eighth established the Conservative Opportunity Society as people who are -- who may just be doing the right thing.
Steve Kornacki: This is Gingrich's ally, Bob Walker again, who was there that day.
Bob Walker: Maybe we haven't been activist enough. Maybe we've become too passive. Maybe they are running over. It's like a Mack truck.
Steve Kornacki: So, the Democrats get their seat from Indiana's Eighth District. But Newt gets something bigger. Republicans who had been skeptical of him, wary of him, suspicious of him, are starting to come around. The Bloody Eighth wins him converts. And, for years to come, House Republicans will feel like they have something to avenge. When I spoke with Leon Panetta, I asked him to reflect on that moment.
When the vote to seat McCloskey took place and all of the Republicans including Bob Michel walked out of the Chamber. What was going through your mind?
Leon Panetta: Thinking back on it, I obviously thought it would be a hell of a lot better if we were able to come to a consensus as to what happened. But I also recognized that once it became a strategy to undermine the House, I thought we are now in a very different world.
Steve Kornacki: The Bloody Eighth leaves Republicans in a fighting mood. They may have lost this round. But soon, Gingrich would set his sights on the biggest target imaginable in the House, the Democratic Speaker, and he would convince his fellow Republicans that they could actually topple him. That's next on "The Revolution". We made multiple requests to speak with Newt Gingrich for this podcast, but he was never made available. And then, after this series was released, we did hear from him. You’ll hear that conversation in episode 7.
From MSNBC, this is the second of six episodes of "The Revolution". If you like what you've heard, please give us a five-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. Special thanks to Lacey Roberts. 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.