There are a lot of stupid things done in politics. There is a lot of stupid legislation. This is because there are a lot of stupid people in politics. There are a lot of exceedingly bright ones. Most politicians are honest and hardworking. But there are the stupid ones.
The most influential politician today in the most powerful country on earth is—not William Jefferson Clinton, but Newton Leroy Gingrich. As Speaker of the House of Representatives, he has seized the political agenda from the wobbling Clinton and with his celebrated Contract with America has pushed through more legislation in the promised first 100 days of Republican rule since Roosevelt’s legendary start to get the United States out of the Depression in the Dirty Thirties.
One piece of Newtie’s grand scheme, however, did not pass. It was the nutty idea of term limits—supposedly reacting to the current public contempt for politicians and all they represent. Under the Gingrich scheme, all Congress members would be restricted to just 12 years in office. After that, out. The shredder. The Dumpster.
Winston Churchill was born in 1874. He was an MP by 1901 at the age of 26. He was in the British cabinet by 1908. He was in Cuba with the Spanish forces; he served in India, in the Sudan. In the Boer War in South Africa he was captured and escaped.
He was first lord of the admiralty in 1911. He was a colonel in the British army in France in 1916 in the First World War. He was minister of munitions by 1917. He was chancellor of the exchequer by 1924.
In a policy difference with his Conservatives, he crossed the Commons floor to sit with the Liberals. He returned to the Tory benches eventually with a typical Churchillian remark: “Anyone can rat, but it takes something to re-rat.”
He became prime minister in 1940, meeting twice with Roosevelt in Quebec City in 1943 and 1944 to plot the war strategy. Defeated in 1945, he returned as PM in 1951 and lasted four more years in the post.
Under the Newt plan, he would have been in the ashcan after 12 years. Too bad.
The current Esquire magazine is having great fun with the new, most powerful man in America. Newt was conceived during his parents’ three-day marriage in 1942. “We were married on a Saturday, and I left him on a Tuesday,” mom told The New York Times. “I got Newtie in those three days.”
William Lyon Mackenzie King was an MP by 1908. He was prime minister from 1921 to 1926, again from 1926 to 1930, again from 1935 to 1948. Under the nutty Newt, he would have been toast while still a pup—with no one to talk to but his dog. Tough.
As a boy, Gingrich used to put snakes in jars on the nightstand next to his grandmother’s bed to scare her.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, elected to the White House in 1932, became the first president ever to serve three terms and was on his
All of this is instructive since the neoconservative nonsense of Newt is creeping across the border, as all American nonsense does, the Reform’s Parson Manning trekking to Washington for a photo-op with the new Mouth from the South. A nervous Mike Harcourt in British California—as if he’d never read Edmund Burke—brings in vague legislation empowering voters to “recall” politicians.
As a member of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson in 1776 penned the Declaration of Independence. In 1783, he devised the decimal system of coinage. In 1801, he became president, serving two terms. If Newt had been in control, he would have been long out to pasture. Great thinking.
Look, on your TV screen, each day as the Commons sits. There in the well beneath the Speaker’s chair sits Stanley Knowles, granted that spot by Pierre Trudeau after the saintly Winnipeg socialist retired from a lifetime of service in politics. Twelve years? He wasn’t even warming up then.
Senator William Fulbright of Arkansas, who died this year, was first elected to Congress in 1942. In 1943, he submitted a resolution urging the establishment of something called the United Nations. He founded the Fulbright Scholarships, which to this day send university kids around the world. If Newt had his way, Fulbright never would have been in Washington to lead the opposition to Joe McCarthy and to fight against the insane Vietnam War.
Newt, while in high school, wooed and then married his math teacher. In 1980, the day after she had had cancer surgery, he visited her in hospital to discuss a divorce. He told a friend: “She’s not young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a president. And besides, she has cancer.”
Term limits? Paul Martin Sr.? Allan MacEachen? What would Lotusland’s highways and dams and ferries have been today without W. A. C. Bennett’s wacky and eccentric and visionary 20 years in power? Would Newfoundland be in Canada today without Joey Smallwood, a lifetime politician? Alberta imaginable without Ernest Manning and the son he spawned? Pierre Trudeau, who first regarded his candidacy as “a joke,” did rather well in exceeding the Newtie injunction.
Gingrich says he will bring back the 12years-and-out legislation next session and is confident it will pass the Republicancontrolled Congress.
“We already have term limits,” says a veteran Washington politician. “They’re called elections.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.