What Happened to the Revolution?

Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House

by Elizabeth Drew
Simon and Schuster, 398 pp., $25.00

Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival

by Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein
Little, Brown, 424 pp., $24.95

Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics

by Larry J. Sabate and Glenn R. Simpson
Times Books, 430 pp., $25.00

How could it have faded so fast—the joyous delirium with which Republicans only last year took charge of the Congress and (they were certain) of the nation? It was announced that Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speech writer, would go back to Washington to do a book on the Revolution. The new Speaker of the House was sworn in with the trappings of a presidential installation. His first Hundred Days were finished with a prime-time address on network TV. First-timers in Congress, unlike their predecessors, came to instruct or to shove aside their elders. The President was reduced to claims that he was—not (like Al Haig) “in charge,” not (like the Supreme Court) important, but (like the weather) “relevant.” A president does not feel the need to inform us that he is not a crook, or not irrelevant, unless appearances are all to the contrary.

There was a nice blend of populism and pedagogy in the ascendancy of professors from out-of-the-way colleges—Dr. Gingrich, Dr. Armey. These were theorists of revolution, who liked to explain what they were doing. Gingrich held daily press conferences before opening House sessions, where he ticked off the items on his legislative agenda. He had brought with him his own chronicler, by the device of appointing the man’s wife as House historian. Beyond merely studying history, these were people come to make it.

Pundits debated whether Gingrich would become president in 1996 or wait till 2000. Others seriously asked if that would not be a demotion, since the election had made Congress the center of government. Young “Newties” like Enid Waldholtz, the new member from Utah, were swept past senior representatives to key places on committees. Democrats looked cowed, because they were. Republicans looked invincible, because they thought they were:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven…

Wordsworth’s poem on the French Revolution might have been written for the heady opening days of the Gingrich Era, when all things seemed possible. The Republicans had

…helpers to their heart’s desire,
And stuff at hand plastic as they could wish.

Hopes beyond hopes would defy the seasons of orderly change, to see

The budding rose above the rose full blown.

The Contract would be passed. The question was not whether, but how soon. The agencies would fall. The question was which ones would be cut, which killed. The President could do little to affect or deter what was happening. Even the veto must yield to the Will of the People, so resoundingly expressed in all the 1994 elections—for Senate, for House, for governors, for legislatures. Rarely, it seemed, had a movement united so large a constituency so unequivocally. Welfare, bureaucracy, regulations, career politicians—for all of these the End had come. Madame Noonan was knitting purple prose beside the guillotine.

The very giddiness, for those who know the gods’ ways, was ominous. But who could have predicted the suddenness of the peripeteia? A…

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