When American Politics Turned Toxic


[ This book was one of our most anticipated titles of July. See the full list. ]

Gingrich’s adversary, Jim Wright, was a Texan born in 1922, from a political generation between Mills (born in 1909) and Gingrich (born in 1943). A protégé of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, he was sufficiently a part of the old Southern Democratic tradition that he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But he soon regretted that vote and supported the Voting Rights Act the next year.

Zelizer’s portrait of Mills made clear that many of the old Southern Democratic committee chairmen were inclusive dealmakers concerned to reach bipartisan agreements and move legislation forward — with the glaring exception of any issue involving race. Zelizer doesn’t quite spell this out, but while Wright clearly was not a racist of the old stripe, neither was he a dealmaker of the same caliber as they were. That was partly because the post-Watergate reforms prevented the kingpins from negotiating behind closed doors, and partly because of ideological sorting within the parties. But it was also because House Democrats by the 1980s, convinced that Republicans would be permanently in the minority, regularly abused their majority power.

Democrats denied minority legislators adequate staff, excluded them from committee deliberations, gerrymandered their districts and even, Republicans were convinced, stole elections. Wright piously recorded in his diary that Republicans were making it impossible to “rely upon the gentlemen’s rules which have prevailed for all of my 30 years in Congress,” but the speaker broke plenty of norms himself with his parliamentary rule-bending. And despite the Watergate babies’ desire to remove money from politics, the Democrats did little to halt the stream of funds from lobbyists, private money and special interests that flowed principally to the majority party.

Those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Democratic bullying made moderate Republicans willing to empower Gingrich — their support was critical to his election as minority whip in 1989 over a more conciliatory candidate — and to tolerate his scorched-earth tactics. Gingrich insisted that the only way to end the Democrats’ four-decades-long majority was for Republicans to destroy Congress in order to save it. They would have to “put aside their concern for governance until they regained power,” according to Zelizer. They would seek to persuade the public that Congress had become “morally, intellectually and spiritually corrupt,” in Gingrich’s words, and to overthrow Speaker Wright as the embodiment of that illegitimate establishment. In pursuit of these ends all means were permissible, including the shattering of traditional customs, the destruction of opponents’ reputations and the embrace of maneuvers long held to be off-limits, like shutting down the government.

[ Read an excerpt from ”Burning Down the House.” ]

Zelizer argues that Gingrich made the media unwitting accomplices to his partisan crusade, just as the unscrupulous anti-Communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy had done in the 1950s. “The number-one fact about the news media,” Gingrich observed, “is they love fights.” By provoking confrontations with the Democrats, Gingrich would gain media attention — even more so when he succeeded in goading the Democrats into retaliation, which he portrayed as further evidence of their tyranny. The Woodward-and-Bernstein-inspired influx of young investigative reporters into Washington, most of them educated and well intentioned but ignorant of the practical operation of politics, offered a decisive opportunity for Gingrich, who “instinctively grasped the possibilities for taking advantage of their idealism.”



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