In the deep dark days of 1994, I was out of politics. I was actually running the Middle East for the company then known as EDS out of Dallas.
In the Fall of that year, I got a call from my good friend Joe Gaylord – Newt Gingrich’s political guru – asking me to fly into Atlanta for election night because they were certain they were going to take control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years and Newt wanted me to come in and help oversee the press operation.
I was in Abu Dhabi or Qatar or somewhere, but flew in and, indeed I was there for election night.
It was well after midnight when the 218th Congressional District was officially called for the GOP and Republicans would, for the first time since Eisenhower’s first election, be in the majority in the U.S. House.
Shift forward a couple of months to January 4, 1995 – 18 years ago today. It was swearing-in day in the House and Senate. Gingrich was going to be elected Speaker of the House and I, sort of, invited myself to Washington to enjoy the scene.
As we saw yesterday, there is a long history of mundane activity that goes along with the opening of a new Congress – this is the 113th. Many of the procedures are not written into law, or even the rules, but are part of the precedents that have evolved over the 216 years since the first Congress convened under the then-new Constitution that had replaced the failed Articles of Confederation.
I did what I do best: Hung around and chatted with people. I had been Newt’s press secretary when he was Republican Whip, so I knew my way around the Capitol pretty well.
Many years ago The Lad and I were in an elevator when a man got on. I struck up a conversation with him and after we got off, Reed looked at me and asked if I knew him.
“Nope,” I said.
“You know,” he said, “Just because you can talk to anybody in the world, it doesn’t mean you have to.”
Words he has repeated many times since.
As the Members were declaring their presence in the Chamber and the Clerk of the House was going though the checklist of activities, I wandered into what is known as the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office, right off the House Floor.
Newt was there, alone, sitting at the desk, making notes for his inaugural speech as Speaker (which sounds redundant now that I look at it).
“As you look down to your left [the GOP side of the House from the Speaker’s position] today, how many of those guys will be saying to themselves, "If I would have killed his political career 10 years that could have been me'?”
Newt said, in classic Newt fashion:
“None of them. This is a meritocracy and they know I’m the only one that could have gotten them here.”
As Newtonian as that sounds, he said it without rancor and, truth to tell, he was correct. In fact, Newt hadn’t just led the House Republicans to the majority; he had to all but drag them kicking and screaming into the majority.
Watching the House Floor activity on C-SPAN yesterday brought that all back to me. It was a reminder that, while many nations pretend to be open to upward mobility, America is not only open to it, we almost require it.
Note the most recent election for President. Which candidate was on the defensive about his background: The product of a broken, mixed-race relationship? Or the product of privilege?
See what I mean?
In his opening remarks that day, Newt reached across the aisle to the Democrats when he said, “The fact is that it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who gave hope to a Nation that was in distress and could have slid into dictatorship. Every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right.”
He went on to urge Democrats, similarly, to learn from “what Ronald Reagan was trying to get done.”
Turns out that running the House, the Senate or the Nation is a lot like raising your kids: You don’t know if you’ve done it right until after you’ve finished doing it.
As Newt started to go back to making his notes he looked up at me and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“It’s a meritocracy,” I said.
And I wandered out.
On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: A link to Newt’s remarkable opening address from 1995 and another holiday Mullfoto – this one by me – from Christmas Eve.
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