"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Julian Zelizer.

On the right, a photo of Julian Zelizer wearing glasses, a dark suit jacket, a white shirt and a tie looking slightly towards the left; on the right, a book cover for Zelizer's new book, "Burning Down The House" with a photo of the Capitol building at the bottom.

Julian Zelizer's latest book, "Burning Down The House," offers one potential theory for why the American political environment has become so toxic: former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich.

Credit: Courtesy of Julian Zelizer; Penguin Randomhouse

Partisan and ideological divisions have hobbled the nation’s response to the pandemic and our sinking economy. For one theory on how American politics became so toxic, Princeton professor and best-selling author Julian Zelizer turns to former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

In his latest book, Burning Down The House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party, Zelizer proposes that Gingrich’s name-calling, win-at-all-costs style turned politics-as-bloodsport into a winning strategy, and changed the rules of congressional warfare for the decades that followed.

Zelizer joined On Second Thought host Virginia Prescott for a virtual author talk sponsored by A Cappella Books to share more.


On Gingrich's initial leanings as a young Republican

He starts to quickly imagine, how could he be the person that does that for Republicans on Capitol Hill, in Washington?

He was a "Rockefeller Republican," which is a term we use to describe moderate Republicans — Rockefeller was from New York, [and] he was pretty progressive on civil rights issues, for example. But what he [Gingrich] really took from both of those, especially from Nixon, was the idea that Republicans had to figure out how to build a grand coalition, the equivalent of what FDR had done in the 1930s. And that's what he loved about Nixon, more than the policies, more than the ideas.

And he comes of age in an era where Republicans are barely a presence in the South. And they're also a minority party in Congress; Democrats have controlled Congress since 1954. And so he's seen what Nixon is doing before the downfall of Watergate. And he starts to quickly imagine, how could he be the person that does that for Republicans on Capitol Hill, in Washington? As well as obviously in his own district, by having a Republican candidate actually win?

On how Gingrich envisioned changing the Republican Party

He's less focused on the traditional poles of politics, especially as the Reagan era starts. He thinks the Democrats are really vulnerable if they are painted as the establishment. And what was remarkable in his archives was how consistent he was on this theme since '74, the first time he ran. That's how he was going to take the Democrats down — he was going to make them seem old, out of touch and basically holding their power through corrupt means. And everyone associated with the power would almost be criminalized.

And so this is his principal argument. And he uses rhetoric — it's hard to capture now, because we're all so familiar with this kind of rhetoric — that's incredibly blistering about his opponents, throwing out all sorts of accusations about Democrats, and just kind of wildly putting out smear, knowing that the media would cover it. And so many Republicans early on, at least rhetorically, they're saying, "This stuff is dangerous." They're not so far away from Democrats, who are calling him the new Joe McCarthy. That's initially what they're saying. And he does a lot of kind of media stunts, on cable television and in front of the print press, that they're not comfortable with. They didn't know that's how the new political game was going to be played.

On what Gingrich understood about the political landscape after Watergate

If you launch attacks revolving around corruption and anti-establishment rhetoric, that would really resonate in a country that was just sick of how all institutions worked.

He really had a good feel for the tenor of the country, and how it had shifted as a result of Watergate, as a result of Vietnam. There were just huge levels of distrust in this country toward all government. And what he understood — while Watergate was about Nixon, that made every part of the political establishment vulnerable and weak. And if you launch attacks revolving around corruption and anti-establishment rhetoric, that would really resonate in a country that was just sick of how all institutions worked.

And he also had a great feel for how the media was changing. Two big things in the book, cable television and investigative journalism, both of which are flourishing in the 1980s — he sees in them not just mechanisms of journalism and communications, but things that could be really weaponized as partisan tools. And Jim Wright [former Speaker of the House] wasn't really getting how much that had changed.

On how Gingrich used C-SPAN — and the media at large — to his advantage

He gave them a controversy. 

C-SPAN is covering the House all the time. As a result of the channel being launched in 1979, House had opened up the floor for the first time as part of the Sunshine reforms. And he sees this, and he says, "So if I speak on the floor at the end of the day, people are going to be watching it."

And at the end of every single day in May of 1984, he and his allies took to the floor and they started to say, "Democrats are weak on defense. Democrats don't care about the country's security. Democrats are just basically stifling Ronald Reagan as he tries to protect us from communism." And it gets even worse — he starts accusing specific Democrats by name of doing this, and he asks them to respond.

And if you're watching on C-SPAN, all you see is — nothing. You see Gingrich or his colleagues, and the Democrats don't have an answer. It looks like they're guilty. But what you couldn't see was the chamber was empty — there was no one there.

And the whole thing blows up. The Democrats pan the chamber to show this is theater. But in the end, this gets him on all three major news networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. They're covering him, they're covering what's called "cam scam." And he understands — that was ultimately what he wanted most. He gave them a controversy. And that controversy gave him national coverage of the attacks against the Democrats, and him as a power broker in Washington. So that's one example of how the media became one of his key tools.

On how Gingrich took down former Speaker of the House Jim Wright

What Gingrich picks up on are investigative journalists who are writing some stories looking into Wright's relationships with a real estate developer in the district, how he [Wright] used to sell a book that he published of speeches in bulk to groups that he spoke with. And none of this was illegal, none of it broke any ethics rules. But Gingrich would take bits and pieces of this story, stitch them together, and he would argue in a slogan, "This is the most corrupt speaker in American history."

And most Democrats initially dismissed this, and they're like, "Come on. That's really blowing up this kind of stuff." But the House Ethics Committee starts an investigation after a while, and they never finish it. They never find anything that actually violates an ethics rule. But it's enough to whip the city up into a frenzy and to pressure Wright into resigning.

On how Gingrich's tactics as a leader delivered success to the Republican Party

When Wright resigns, it legitimizes what Gingrich was doing. In the minds of many Republicans, he was right. He did it; he delivered. And obviously, when this is over, he becomes in 1994, the Speaker of the House — one of the most prominent Republicans in the country. And he delivers in the 1994 midterms what he promised back in 1979. ... There, Republicans finally gained control of both chambers of Congress.

And I think the story continues. I think his style becomes the norm. I think the Republicans embrace this form of partisanship, and it gets more intense with every generation. The Tea Party made it that much more intense. And now, President Trump. 

When Wright resigns, it legitimates what Gingrich was doing. In the minds of many Republicans, he was right. He did it; he delivered.

On the possibility of undoing today's partisan environment

Inherently, the book is arguing this is not simply a product of the last year or so. This is really cooked into how Washington is working, how one party thinks of politics, now for many generations. So it won't be easy. I am not someone who argues that this presidential election, for example, has the potential to transform everything we've been seeing for a long time. Even if Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump, you're still going to see a lot of what you're seeing right now, certainly on Capitol Hill.

So I think really three things are important. One is, it would take a defeat of the Republican Party so grand — the kind of defeat we haven't seen since 1984, a landslide. They lose control of Congress, they lose control of the White House, and they shrink. So Republicans, out of fear, say, "We have to change our ways. We have to expand what we're doing. We have to change the way we're doing [things]."

A second would be leaders. I mean, my book argues individuals do matter. Partisanship is not just this abstract force that bears down on us. There's people like Newt Gingrich who actually change the direction of American history. So we're looking now — who are the young leaders of the GOP, of the Democratic Party? Are they going to have a transformative vision for American politics?

And finally, reform — the kinds of questions that are very tough to get political momentum for. Changing campaign finance, changing the way districts are decided in states that still do old fashioned partisan gerrymandering — those kinds of reforms are also going to be essential. So I'm saying, it's going to be a lot of big things before we reverse what we have right now.

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