(Rich Galen, Mullings.com) – While official – and unofficial – Washington, DC is barely able to breathe given the turmoil in the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, it is useful to remember that we have been here before.
Let me relay the story.
It was December 19, 1998. I was in Bangkok, Thailand (which is part of the story) but more importantly the House was voting on the Articles of Impeachment against President Bill Clinton.
November 1998 had marked the second midterm election of Bill Clinton’s Presidency. It was widely expected that the GOP – already in the majority – would pick up an additional 10-12 seats.
We lost five.
And, Newt lost his job as Speaker for the price of it.
Congressman Bob Livingston of Louisiana had declared his candidacy to succeed Newt. Bob was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and, if not beloved by all, was certainly respected by nearly everyone and there was no real competition for the job.
This, even though the Washington Post quoted an unnamed Republican as saying “conservatives worry he will work across the aisle too much, and we won’t have a message that defines us as different.”
The more things change …
On December 16, 1998, President Clinton had ordered a major air attack against targets in Iraq. Although there was dark suspicion regarding the timing of the attack, the Republican-controlled House chose to delay the Impeachment votes that had been scheduled for that day.
The New York Times quoted speaker-presumptive Bob Livingston as saying “We’re going to defer” taking up Impeachment, which is why the votes weren’t taken until the 19th.
As I mentioned, I was in Bangkok. At the latitude of Washington, DC the circumference of the Earth is about 16,800 miles. The distance from Washington to Bangkok is about 8,800 miles.
Thus, I was just about as far away from the Capitol building as I could physically be and still be on the surface of the planet.
While the Members debated the impeachment articles on that Saturday …
Clinton was charged with four counts: Obstruction of justice, lying to a grand jury, another perjury charge and abuse of power.
Impeachment was voted on the first two counts, but not the second two.
He was acquitted by the Senate on the two counts.
… Bob Livingston went to the Well of the House to announce he was withdrawing his name from consideration as speaker.
I just want you to understand the picture: President Clinton had, essentially, gone to war with Iraq, he was in the middle of being only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached, and the man who was a shoo-in for Speaker had just withdrawn.
When I got back from dinner, I turned on CNN-International to be greeted with the studio host talking about “the shocker from Bob Livingston.”
“Yikes,” I might have said to myself. “Did he get run over by a car? Stabbed? What?
Having no second choice for Speaker the current House GOP leadership was in a bind. The House was coming back in only about three weeks for the beginning of the new Congress so the last thing they needed (in what had been a difficult year to begin with) was a fight for leadership seats from Speaker on down.
The phone in my room rang. Remember, this is 1998. The first iPhone would not be announced by Steve Jobs until 2007, so cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous, nor service as available, as we take for granted today.
The familiar voice started the phone call in the familiar way, “This is Newt.”
What he wanted me to do was to call “my guys” to tell them that the GOP leadership had coalesced around a candidate – Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois – who, at the time was Chief Deputy Whip.
My guys were: The late Tim Russert of NBC, the now-retired Dave Espo of the Associated Press, and the then-bureau chief of CNN, Frank Sesno.
They were “my guys” in the context that they would take my phone call, not that I would get any special breaks from any of them.
I asked Newt if he knew where I was. “You’re out of the country.” I told him that business about being as far away from him as I could possibly be. He was unmoved.
“Aren’t there about 20 press staff around you?”
“They won’t get through.”
“What does that tell you about how we got to this position?” I asked.
“Are you going to do this or not?”
Of course I did and the word went forth through NBC, CNN, and the AP to anyone who was thinking about mounting a campaign for Speaker that resistance would be futile.
The President was acquitted. The GOP maintained its majority until the election of 2006.
And, the U.S. House continued to wobble and rattle its way through history getting done what it needs to, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable for the rest of us to watch.
Mr. Galen is a veteran political strategist and communications consultant. He blogs at www.Mullings.com.