Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

Penguin Pr. Sept. 2020. 368p. ISBN 9781594206658. $30. POL SCI
To understand the political strategy of Donald Trump, one should revisit Newt Gingrich’s insurgent takeover of the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s, maintains Zelizer (history, public affairs, Princeton Univ.; co-author, Fault Lines) in this compelling work of political history. The first half of the book covers Gingrich’s arrival in Congress in 1979, as a member of Georgia’s House of Representatives, where the politician became an early proponent of refusing to compromise with Democrats and manipulating media. Zelizer details the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) Gingrich formed with like-minded congressmen, which significantly impacted Republicans’ opposition to Democratic control of the House. The focus of the book then shifts to Texas congressman and House Speaker Jim Wright, who was forced to resign in 1989 after Gingrich conducted an ethics investigation. Meanwhile, Gingrich is elected Minority Whip by two votes, and when Republicans took control of the House after the 1994 midterm election, Gingrich became Speaker; his own ethical problems eventually drove him out of that position.
VERDICT Zelizer’s accessible study of political behavior and leadership directly relates to today’s tumultuous political scene. Anyone interested in American politics will devour this book.
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