Theatrics in the House, Captured on Camera

By Matthew Spolar
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1979 Newt Gingrich, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1978, quickly moved to use C-SPAN to his advantage. During the recent election of a new speaker, the cable service gained wider access to House proceedings.

As the process of electing a new speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives descended into chaos this month, one man was more attuned to the unwieldiness of America’s largest legislative body than most: Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, who rose to power in 1994 on a wave of conservative enthusiasm, had a tumultuous run as the first Republican speaker in 40 years, eventually resigning four years later in the face of ethics complaints and rebellion within his own party. Observing Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to consolidate the support of his fellow Republicans over the course of five days and 15 votes, Gingrich vacillated between comparing McCarthy’s dissenters to “watching someone burn down their own home so they can enjoy the fire” to touting the process as a “celebration of freedom,” a swipe at the “dictatorial system” of outgoing Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But the very ability of the American people to witness the theatrics in the House was its own throwback to the Gingrich era. Because the rules governing where and how C-SPAN can film were suspended during the speaker election, last week the network was able to cover the unfolding drama in up-close detail, as opposed to the more sterile, wide-angle coverage to which Americans are accustomed.

For Gingrich, who was first elected to the U.S. House in 1978, C-SPAN was an integral part of his political story. When the nonprofit cable service debuted in 1979, the young Georgia congressman quickly recognized its utility. After Congress was done for the day, the cameras would keep rolling for after-hours “special orders,” allowing Gingrich to speak directly to the American people from the floor of an empty House. His skillful use of the nascent television outlet to antagonize Democrats earned the ire of Speaker Tip O’Neill, who called one of Gingrich’s attacks “the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”

While O’Neill may not have appreciated Gingrich’s antics, the American people took notice. After the drama of the past week, conservative Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz — who garnered ample camera attention during his holdout against McCarthy, including a physical confrontation — introduced an amendment to the House rules that would allow C-SPAN to film freely on the House floor from now on. Democrats have also called for the change. But not everyone is on board: Adam Kinzinger, a moderate Republican from Illinois who is retiring, tweeted “honestly Congress is already too much of a performance.”

As for Gingrich, reflecting on the congressional spectacle, he wrote: “We should all revel in it and rejoice that we are a free people openly arguing over who gets to lead.”

MATT SPOLAR is a Retro Report producer behind “Midterm Elections: How the 1994 Midterms Set Off a Divisive Era of Politics.” This article first appeared in Retro Report’s newsletter. You can subscribe here and view past newsletters here.

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