As Julian Zelizer shows in his briskly entertaining (if politically dispiriting) new book, Burning Down the House, an ambitious and impatient Republican from Georgia by the name of Newton Leroy Gingrich long ago figured out that corruption was a useful charge for a young upstart to deploy against establishment politicians — a way of turning their vaunted experience against them ... Zelizer writes about all of this with aplomb, teasing out the ironies and the themes, showing that what made Gingrich exceptional wasn’t so much his talent as his timing. He happened to seize power at a moment when a post-Watergate ecosystem paradoxically selected for politicians like him — legislatively useless, for the most part, but freakishly talented at political warfare and self-promotion, wielding idealism as a cudgel while never deigning to be idealistic themselves. You don’t have to be nostalgic for the old political era of smoke-filled back rooms to wonder if the public was better served by an arsonist bearing a blowtorch and a Cheshire cat grin.
Although Burning Down the House is not the first history to cast Gingrich as lead assassin in the murder of bipartisanship and effective governance, it is an insightful if deeply unflattering portrait of Gingrich himself, highlighting his signature traits of arrogance, ferocity, amorality and shoulder-shrugging indifference to truth. It’s not surprising that Gingrich declined the author’s interview request. And the book’s narrow time frame, which stops well short of Gingrich’s leading the House Republicans to their 1994 electoral triumph and his subsequent elevation as speaker, supplies a detailed and nuanced historical context that makes Gingrich’s actions more understandable if not excusable ... Zelizer provides a moving description of Wright’s farewell address, in which the resigning speaker decried the 'mindless cannibalism' that had overtaken politics, and he delivers an eloquent indictment of all those responsible for Wright’s downfall.
... stops short of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution when Republicans overwhelmingly won the midterms, and also does not analyze how his time as speaker changed the norms of American politics. But by plunging into this early crusade against Wright, Zelizer unfurls how the congressman managed to gain enough power to claim the speakership for himself only five years later ... Zelizer writes this tragic story with authority. The historian has again proved his ability to make a dismal juncture in American politics into a lively and exceptional read. Zelizer gives Wright equal weight in the book, emphasizing just how impressive — and unnerving — it was that Gingrich successfully impugned the Democrats’ leader on thin evidence and set a precedent of governance that emphasized no-quarter blood sport over cooperation. Four decades later, the House still plays by the same rules.