Reflecting on previous work with presidential candidate, Thornberry stays neutral on Newt

Big Country congressman says 'ideas' led to complaints

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry became a congressman at the same time Newt Gingrich started what many consider a contentious, controversial stint as U.S. House speaker.

Thornberry, who has served for almost 20 years and whose district covers a portion of the Big Country, said today's political observers are seeing the same qualities in Gingrich that members of Congress saw from 1995-1998.

"His tone and his style tend to aggravate the other side, no question about that, but some of that comes with anybody who is successful," said Thornberry, a Republican from Clarendon in the Texas Panhandle.

The candidate for the GOP presidential nomination is "a man with tremendous capabilities, a very strong intellect, somebody who has lots of ideas," Thornberry said.

That wealth of ideas led to the most common complaint — "that he would go off in so many different directions" — during Gingrich's leadership in the House, Thornberry said.

Thornberry isn't endorsing Gingrich or any other candidate. He plans to support the winner of the race for the Republican nomination.

Gingrich began his tenure as House speaker on a high note, but he ended it by resigning and agreeing to pay a $300,000 fine for an ethics violation, McMurry University political science professor Paul Fabrizio said.

Support among his fellow Republicans had plummeted by November 1998, when Gingrich stepped down.

"The more members of Congress dealt with him as speaker, the less even members of his own party supported him," Fabrizio said.

Gingrich typically inspires a strong reaction, Fabrizio said. People either like him or they don't.

The 1998 Almanac of American Politics, a nonpartisan publication of the National Journal, characterized Gingrich as a "highly unpopular" leader who came across cocksure, professorial, petulant and conceited.

When Thornberry was first elected, he was a 36-year-old lawyer and Texas rancher, part of a Republican wave that swept into office in 1994 elections.

"It was the first Republican majority in 40 years, and the agenda was defined before the election with the Contract with America," Thornberry said.

The Contract with America outlined Republicans' election promises to voters.

Gingrich successfully sought to nationalize the election with the Contract with America, bucking common political wisdom that all politics are local, Fabrizio said.

"Newt was a real visionary," Fabrizio said.

Gingrich recruited young Republicans who would serve in a new, better way, outlined by the Contract with America. He painted Democrats as the corrupt old guard.

Thornberry said he signed the Contract with America, but Gingrich didn't recruit him.

The thought made Thornberry laugh.

"Nobody from Washington paid any attention to me until about a month before the election," Thornberry said. "They decided I might have a chance to win."

Thornberry defeated former Democratic Congressman Bill Sarpalius, who represented the 13th Congressional District from 1989-1994.

During Gingrich's time as House speaker, Republicans sought to oust him, and when the GOP lost some seats in 1998 elections, Republican sentiment really turned against him, Fabrizio said.

"What I remember is that the 1998 election results were disappointing," Thornberry said. "Newt was calling around to gauge his support after the election to return as speaker, and then he decided to resign."

Thornberry said he was neither part of efforts to oust Gingrich as speaker nor part of his inner circle.

Others who served in Congress at the same time as Gingrich, who was a representative from Georgia, have become outspoken about their opposition to Gingrich's bid for the White House.

Former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole said that with Gingrich, "It was his way or the highway," and most of his ideas were "off the wall."

Republicans had better nominate Mitt Romney or face a landslide for President Barack Obama, said Dole, a former senator from Kansas. His statement was released by the Romney campaign.

Big Country U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway isn't so much against Gingrich as for Romney.

But when Gingrich was speaker of the House, "the folks who knew him the best fired him," said Conaway, a Republican from Midland who has served in Congress since 2005.

Gingrich — unlike Romney — always has been in government, even when as a professor, Conaway said.

Texas regional reporter Trish Choate can be reached at 202-408-2709 or choatet@shns.com.