Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party, by Julian E. Zelizer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Julian E. Zelizer, and Penguin Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Seeking a hit of good American politics, I turned to this piece by Julian E. Zelizer, which recounts the rise and power change brought on by Newt Gingrich’s time in the US House of Representatives, which culminated in a position as Speaker of the House. Zelizer opens the book with some biographical commentary about Newton ‘Newt’ Gingrich, whose conservative views seemed almost inherent in a household where rules were strict. His formative years saw him push the boundaries and rebel in his own way in rural Georgia, though he was always one to seek out the political side of any argument or group, hoping to imbue his strong opinions. His political leanings were always towards the Republican right, even in the heart of Georgia, which was undergoing a political transformation. With the fallout from Watergate, Gingrich sought to re-invent the GOP and make a difference not only in the grassroots of the party, but from within the walls of power, which for him meant the US House of Representatives. Gritty and determined, Gingrich campaigned to win a seat, which he did in 1978’s mid-term elections, beginning a rabble-rousing career as soon as he was elected. Zelizer shows that Gingrich, even as a new congressman, did not sit quietly and sought attention wherever he could get it. The House was strongly in the Democrats’ hands, but Gingrich knew that his tenacity and cutthroat tactics could turn the tables, even if it took a while. Not always the friend of the Administration—though he strongly supported Reagan in 1980 —Gingrich continued his push to rebrand the House in a more conservative manner, mainly by targeting Democrats who violated some of the more basic rules. As the narrative progresses through some of the more controversial statements and sentiments by Gingrich, he seemed always to know when to speak and how to get the word out, even in times of Republican gaffes, particularly Reagan’s Iran Contra Affair. While the Democrats held onto power through the end of the Reagan Administration, a new Speaker of the House was chosen, one Jim Wright, who became the focus of Gingrich’s attention as he sought to pull apart the Democrats’ control of the House, brick by brick. Through a series of scandals, Gingrich laid the groundwork for the dismantling of Wright—a longtime and well-regarded political figure—in a highly embarrassing way. Gingrich may have set things in motion, but he need not get his hands dirty. Fighting to define himself within the House Republicans, Gingrich secured a key position of power in 1989 when he won the role of Minority Whip, with hopes of ascending from there. He would have to bide his time, but had finally tasted victory and continued to push things to the right, as the House teetered under Democratic leadership into the 1990s. In a flash final chapter, Zelizer describes Gingrich’s rise to power by toppling the Democrats’ control of the House, but also brought down the centre-right George H.W. Bush from winning re-election. His rise to the speakership was a flash in the book, as Gingrich found himself in a scandal all his own. However, his imprint lasted on the Republican Party in the House and helped create the Tea Party movement that emerged in the 2010 mid-term elections. Even though he fared poorly in his 2012 run for president and was not chosen as Trump’s running mate in 2016, Newt Gingrich is not a man soon to be forgotten. Recommended to those who love the inner workings of congressional politics, as well as the reader who loves to see how power and patience can topple any political Goliath.

I was pleasantly surprised with this book and the approach that Julian E. Zelizer took. While one might have expected a piece that pushed Newt Gingrich into the centre of the narrative and used the US political situation as a backdrop, Zelizer did the opposite. Gingrich is present throughout the narrative, but it is more his wheeling and dealing that proves to be a thread and the fallout from it. The narrative is rich with political goings-on in Congress throughout the 1980s and into the 90s, where Gingrich was present, but it was more about how the man could turn the story on its ear and the political machine worked itself out, inevitably to Gingrich’s desired outcomes. Zelizer does a masterful job in exploring the inner workings of the congressional struggles and how both major parties handled things, enriching his narrative with much detail and strong quotes. For the politically curious reader, this gave an almost behind-the-scenes look into how things transpired, as well as the fighting to hold onto power. I was too young to fully appreciate politics of any country in the 1980s and early 90s, but do remember Gingrich when he made it to the Speaker’s chair, so this was all new and highly educational as I learned of things that took place when I was only a lad. This book is not the Newt Gingrich dog and pony show, but highlights the man’s rise to power in reaction to much of what was going on within the House of Representatives and how Gingrich used this to redefine the narrative. With thorough chapters that cover many of the incidents and a keen bird’s eye view of how things progressed in the media and within congressional meeting rooms, the reader can see how power seemed almost to come to Gingrich, who used patience and perseverance to get what he wanted. I loved this approach and thoroughly enjoyed the historical narrative that kept Gingrich as part but not the central character throughout. This subtle approach made the book much more palatable, especially since I am by no means a fan of the right-wing of the GOP. Even mention and discussion about how the eventual Tea Party emerged had me interested and wanting to know more. If I had to offer a criticism, it would be that the final chapter sought to explore too much in too short a time. I am not sure if Zelizer ran out of steam, had an editor who offered a page limitation, or did not want to undertake the research, but Gingrich and his rise to the speakership through to his departure is all packed into a few pages. This does the book and the reader a disservice. Perhaps Zelizer is offering this as a teaser for a follow-up book, but this anti-climactic occurrence makes the premise (Gingrinch’s hunger for power) seem like a discussion that should be shelved. Why climb a mountain and not talk of the view? A man that Zelizer discussed as a potential running mate for Trump in 2016, Newt Gingrich certainly had a strong influence on the move to the right by Congress, though did so in such a way that it seemed almost necessary to rid the country of the nightmares the Democrats left during their long House control.

Kudos, Mr. Zelizer, for this fabulous book that taught me so very much. I loved it and hope to find more of your work in this vein, to educate me even more about the intricacies of the US political system.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons