Bob Woodward writes in The Washington Post
On the evening of Oct. 4, 1990, Newt Gingrich and his then-wife,
Marianne, were enjoying a VIP reception at a Republican fundraiser when they
were suddenly hustled over to have their picture taken with President George
“I thought it was a bad idea,” Gingrich said in a series of interviews in
1992 that have not been previously published.
Days earlier, Gingrich had dramatically walked out of the White House and was
leading a very public rebellion against a deficit reduction and tax increase
deal that Bush and top congressional leaders of both parties — including, they
thought, Gingrich — had signed off on after months of tedious negotiations. The
House was to vote on the deal the very next day.
“We went over and I said [to Bush], ‘I’m really sorry that this is
happening,’ and he said with as much pain as I’ve heard from a politician,
‘You’re killing us, you are just killing us.’ ”
The photo was snapped, Gingrich and his wife took their seats for dinner,
“and both of us just felt like crying,” he said.
Gingrich’s revolt highlighted a rift that persists to this day within the
Republican Party, between a pragmatic establishment open to dealmaking and a
more rigid conservative base that prefers purity over compromise.
That split has benefited Gingrich at times during his political career,
including in his current bid for president, as he is tied at the top of the
Republican field with Mitt Romney, the establishment choice.
The party divide also played out on Capitol Hill last week, when a group of
conservatives in the House attempted to torpedo a deal struck between Senate
Republicans and the White House over payroll taxes. In that case, House Speaker
John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) backed down in the face of political pressure. In 1990,
Gingrich did not.
Gingrich’s actions both before and after his encounter with Bush showed a man
willing, if not eager, to weaken the president and, as he put it, “to dismantle
the old order.”
Gingrich, then the party whip and No. 2 Republican in the House, and his
followers took down the deal the next day, severely undercutting Bush and
highlighting the betrayal of his famous “Read my lips: no new taxes” pledge. In
some key respects, Gingrich’s revolt set the stage for Bush’s demise and
eventual defeat — as well as the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 that
catapulted Gingrich to the speakership.
Gingrich’s defiance and high-visibility debut as provocateur in 1990 was a
decisive moment for him. It was the first chance he had to exercise real
political power, providing an early glimpse of the complexity and the
contradictions that he has displayed since.
Bush’s budget director, the late Richard
, said that the White House was not given serious notice that
Gingrich would balk at the deal and that his revolt was “an act of political
sabotage.” In one 1992 memo, Darman wrote in capital letters of the “1990
GINGRICH STAB IN THE BACK.”
Gingrich was unrepentant, arguing that he had a higher purpose. “It was
destructive,” he acknowledged, but necessary to stop Bush and others from making
deals with Democrats.
Gingrich said that he was seeking to make such an approach “so unbelievably
expensive that you couldn’t sustain it.”
Warming to his rebel role, he declared, “I am the leader,
insider-revolutionary in this country,” adding that “if you’re writing the
history of modern conservatism, I’m at least in one of the chapters.”
He defined the budget revolt as “a major turning point for the whole society”
because it “deepened people’s anger.”
R.C. Hammond, the Gingrich campaign spokesman, said Saturday that he has
discussed past actions such as the 1990 budget deal with Gingrich. “Don’t think
because he did it one way in the past that is the way he would do it again. He
learned things, and you figure out how to do it better,” Hammond said.
This account of the 1990 budget deal is based on a series of interviews
conducted in 1992 with Gingrich, Darman and Vin Weber, then a House member from
Minnesota who is now a high-profile supporter of Romney.
In the early 1990s, they were three of the most visible men in Washington —
Gingrich, the leader of a bold, new brand of conservatism; Darman, the savvy
insider who shaped tax policy in the Reagan and Bush administrations; and Weber,
a young and trusted Gingrich lieutenant who was eventually called on to try to
repair the fractured relationship between Darman and Gingrich.
The 1990 budget deal has also reemerged as a point of contention in this
year’s presidential campaign after one of the key players involved, former White
House chief of staff John H. Sununu, said earlier this month that Gingrich’s
erratic actions back then were disqualifying now.
Bush himself raised Gingrich’s role in the budget deal when he announced his
backing last week for Romney, whom he described as “mature and reasonable — not
a bomb thrower.”
“I met with all the Republican leaders, all the Democratic leaders,” Bush
told the Houston Chronicle about that day in 1990. “The plan was we were all
going to walk out into the Rose Garden and announce this deal. Newt was right
there. Got ready to go out in the Rose Garden, and I said, ‘Where’s Gingrich?’
Went up to Capitol Hill. He was here a minute ago. Went up there and started
lobbying against the thing.”
“I’m not his biggest advocate,” Bush added.
Gingrich insisted in 1992 that the real problem wasn’t his revolt, but that
the Bush White House was not tough enough and did not know how to negotiate.
“I believe there are a lot of things you can make work if you’re always
willing to walk out of the room,” Gingrich said. “You can’t make anything work
negotiating with your opponents if you have to have a deal.”
After a lengthy interview on Dec. 11, 1992, he sent a reporter a memo trying
to explain the budget communications problem. It is a classic of Gingrich
“I was telling precisely the truth but by Washington standards I was lying,”
he wrote. “They were lying but by Washington standards they were telling the
truth. I thought I was being very precise in setting standards, they thought I
was outlining a negotiating position. I knew I could and would walk. They knew I
had to stay.”
In 1990, the country faced many of the same problems it faces
now — a declining economy, rising deficits and a Washington at odds over what to
do about it.
Then as now, Republicans wanted to make major spending cuts, particularly in
entitlement programs. And, then as now, Democrats, who at the time controlled
both the House and Senate, refused to do so without also raising taxes.
Darman, among others, pushed Bush to seek a compromise, even at the cost of
breaking his 1988 no-new-taxes pledge, and in June the president announced that
he was willing to raise taxes.
The initial deal included nearly $300 billion in Medicare and other spending
cuts along with increases in gasoline, alcohol and other taxes that totaled
$133 billion. Significantly, it did not include an income tax rate increase,
often the red line for conservative Republicans.
Gingrich even agreed with this, saying, “I thought what the president’s
pledge clearly meant in the end was [an] income tax rate increase.”
Darman believed that the impact of Gingrich’s revolt could barely be
overstated, offering several reasons why it had an immense impact on Bush, the
Republican Party and the broader spectrum of American politics.
First, after Gingrich’s opposition but before the House vote, Bush made a
nationally televised appeal for support, citing “fears of economic chaos that
would follow if we fail to reduce the deficit.” Nonetheless, the House rejected
the deal, the federal government shut down briefly and a state of political
The defeat gave the Democrats significantly more leverage, and a second
version was negotiated between Congress and the White House, again over
Gingrich’s opposition. This time it included an income tax rate increase in the
top bracket from 28 percent to 31 percent. It passed, and Bush signed it into
According to Darman, the whole psychology changed,
with “the president
not only presiding over a failure, but a revolt in his own party.” The White
House strategy had been to make Bush seem like former president Ronald Reagan.
Although Reagan had gone along with raising business taxes in 1982 and several
other times, he was able to protest that he had been dragged kicking and
screaming by Democrats. Instead, Bush was now exposed as a tax-increasing
Darman also said that the Gingrich revolt helped launch the primary challenge
of former Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan in 1992. With the economy stalled,
Buchanan jumped into the race, aiming his harshest rhetoric at Bush for
abandoning his no-new-taxes pledge.
Robert Teeter, Bush’s pollster, produced data showing that the 1990 deal had
dramatically damaged Bush’s credibility with voters. In March 1992, while
running for reelection, Bush declared publicly that the deal had been a
“mistake.” Darman, as much as anyone the author of the deal, was upset and
offered to resign, an offer Bush refused.
And Darman concluded that the entire debate undermined Bush, creating a
public confidence problem, and a sense that the institutions of government had
“I don’t know if [Bush] thought I’d betrayed him or not . . .
others have said he does not trust me,” Gingrich said in 1992, while Bush was
still president. “But I think that’s reasonable. I think in their world it was
so inconceivable (a) that I would walk, and (b) that I would fight actively and
(c) that I would fight publicly. . . . they [the Bush White House] just go,
‘That son of a bitch.’ ”
In a long interview on May 4, 1992, devoted almost exclusively to the topic
of Gingrich, Darman concluded that Gingrich was “an unstable personality” who
talks about four or five great people in history, including Pericles and
himself. “Psychologically, he has got to go against the reigning establishment .
. . . The establishment has to fail visibly.
“No matter what you’re going to do, he’s going to bomb it,” Darman said. “He
will find his way to the most inflammatory part of anything.”
In 1992, Darman said that Gingrich’s ambition was limitless. “Newt is on a
path for himself to be president of the United States, not just speaker of the
years later, after the
Gingrich-planned and led Republican takeover of the House succeeded, he was
elected speaker. And now, nearly two decades later, he is trying to become the
Republican nominee for president.
Gingrich was elected minority whip just a year before he took on
Bush, winning an 87 to 85 vote on his promise to undertake a more
confrontational brand of conservatism.
“I’d been whip for about a year,” he said, “and it was a heady experience and
this was my first chance to see how it worked.”
In hindsight, he acknowledged, “I may have been too passive all the way
through, again because I was still learning.” He said that when Bush first
agreed publicly to renege on the no-new-taxes pledge, “at that point I should
have blown up. I should have walked.”
Instead he sent memos indicating he would go along. Three months before he
bolted, in a July 20, 1990, memo to his Republican colleagues, he said, “I
believe House Republicans will consider appropriate revenue increases.” He also
went further, telling budget negotiators that he was “prepared to sponsor and
support” modest tax increases, according to news accounts at the time. (“Rep.
Gingrich ‘Prepared’ to Back Increase in Taxes” was the headline in The
Washington Post on July 20, 1990.)
Gingrich said he made one thing clear, telling the White House that he would
go along only with a deal that included a cut in the capital gains tax.
On Sept. 28, just two days before the initial version of a budget deal had
been worked out, Gingrich wrote the White House asking for a commitment that
House Republicans would get “a detailed summary of the agreement at least 12
hours before you expect a public commitment from the Republican leadership to
support a package.”
He added, “With a good agreement, and full partnership in the decision
process on the other items, the Republican leadership and membership will work
On the eve of a deal, the clear implication was that Gingrich was going to
Gingrich had been warned about this moment. He said that a group of senior
Republicans who had served in previous administrations told him he would have to
cave in when a deal was struck.
“They all said, ‘Well [the White House and the congressional Democrats] will
in the end cut a deal and they will in the end call you in a room and they will
tell you, you have to agree.’ And I said, ‘Boys, there’s not a chance in hell
I’m going to agree . . .’ And they all said, ‘Yes, you will, you
just don’t understand, yes, you will.’ ”
But Gingrich was moving in another direction — his own. He said he checked
out a copy of “Advise and Consent,” the novel by Allen Drury about a Senate
confirmation battle with a president. “I thought the odds were better than even
money I was going to end up fighting the president, and I wanted to go through
the drill of thinking about what it’s like to fight a president who you like a
lot and who’s very powerful.”
Gingrich said that on Sept. 29, he was told that an agreement had been
reached. “They told me the deal they’d cut. I called my daughter, and my wife
talked to her mother. Both my daughter and mother-in-law thought it was
The next day he went to the White House, where the deal was laid out to
Republican leaders. Everyone went along except Gingrich. “They walked into the
Rose Garden, I walked the other way” — a public act of defiance that was
captured live on CNN.
Weber said that Bush later said that it was Gingrich’s revolt, and not the
deal itself, that cost him. Without the high-profile rebellion, Bush concluded,
“he would have paid no political price for it.”
Gingrich said that immediately after he walked out, key anti-tax conservative
Republicans who had served in the House and were then holding some of the
highest positions in the Bush administration called him with private words of
encouragement, secretly cheering him on.
According to Gingrich, the first call was from Dick Cheney, then secretary of
defense. “ ‘Richard,’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you how much it helped me to go back
and look at the courage you showed in 1982 when you opposed [Reagan’s business
tax increase]. And that one of the things that strengthened me in this decision
was knowing that I’d have your firm moral leadership.’ ”
Cheney chuckled and said he had promised Bush he would make a pro forma call
to criticize Gingrich, but he indicated that his heart was not in it. “I’ve made
the phone call,” Gingrich quoted Cheney as saying, “how are you doing?”
Jack Kemp, Bush’s housing secretary, also called. According to Gingrich, Kemp
said, he was “calling to say that you really shouldn’t be doing the heroic and
exactly correct thing you’re doing, which I’m very proud of you for doing, but
as a member of the Cabinet I do want to check in with you and say I hope you’ll
do it in a positive way and not be too hostile.”
Then it was Vice President Dan Quayle’s turn: “Newter, just sort of thought
I’d check in here. . . . I want to keep the bridges open, when this
thing’s over, we’re all on the same side.”
Quayle later said that he also told Gingrich he didn’t have to vote with
Bush, “but I do think it’s an act of irresponsibility to openly criticize and
lead the revolt against the president on something this fundamental.”
Gingrich and Darman, two of the most cerebral, outspoken and
ego-driven figures in Washington at the time, had a deeply complicated
relationship, particularly after the Gingrich revolt.
In November 1990, after Bush signed the second budget deal, Gingrich called
for Darman’s resignation if he didn’t recant an attack on some new conservative
The next morning, Darman called Gingrich. Darman made notes of the
conversation, in which Gingrich told Darman “you’ve got to go” and said that he
wanted Bush to be defeated.
Gingrich did not dispute Darman’s version of the conversation, but he said he
later told him that he had changed his position and did not want to knock off
Bush. “I am a loyalist,” Gingrich said, adding that he worked hard for Bush’s
reelection in 1992.
Darman was not impressed. He called Gingrich a “neo-media-pop-opportunist”
who is “interested in personal power, media attention, aggrandizement.”
The split between the two was so great that Darman asked Weber to mediate. At
about 3 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 3, 1990, Gingrich and Darman were sitting on
separate couches in Weber’s office in the Cannon House Office Building.
“It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life,” Weber said, “because
I never intended to be either a psychiatrist or marriage counselor. And the
sessions were very much of that magnitude. They both should have been laying
“I had this very strong sense that I was dealing with a couple of people that
had grown up without any friends . . . a couple of kids that were
the smartest kids in their school class but nobody liked them.”
Weber said the two did not have real discussions or disagreements about
policy. Instead, Gingrich and Darman spent the whole session, along with other
meetings, talking about their personal relationship. “I got pretty bored with it
all, to be candid, sitting there listening to these guys talk about, you know,
‘Well I thought you liked me, if you liked me, why did you say that about me?’ ”
The meeting ended just as he knew it would, Weber said, with the two agreeing
to more meetings and a closer relationship.
“I know Newt didn’t want Dick Darman to resign,” Weber said. “Newt wanted
Dick Darman to sit down and spend hours and hours talking with him. And set up a
process of communication that would make sure that everybody knew that, you
know, Newt had Darman on the phone any time he wanted him and had his ear on
anything he wanted to.”
Weber portrayed Gingrich in various ways throughout the 1992 interview, at
one point calling him “a high-maintenance friend and ally, needy” and at another
saying that “Newt, as you know, views himself as the leader of a vast, national
But, in the end, Weber concluded that Gingrich was not as he often appeared.
“Gingrich is viewed as this hard, tough ideologue, and he’s not an ideologue,
but beyond that he’s the easiest guy in the world, if you understand him, for
people to buy off.”