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.
Zelizer is not the first to suggest that Gingrich 'broke politics,' as a recent article in the Atlantic put it, but his book provides an engaging, unsettling and, alas, timely look at the torch that Gingrich took to our system of self-government ... Many readers will know how the story ends, but Zelizer tells it with authority, investing it with tension as Gingrich conjures the storm and wrecks, perhaps permanently, the political landscape.