If Gingrich Wants to Go Straight to White House, He's Bucking History


Newt Gingrich says he's too busy leading the Republican revolution in the House to seriously consider a presidential bid. But the moment he announced this weekend's New Hampshire visit, he rekindled speculation that he's testing the waters.

If Mr. Gingrich takes the plunge, he'll find himself swimming against an historical riptide. No House speaker has ever gone directly from that post to the White House.

To be sure, James K. Polk, the nation's 11th president, was speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839. But he left the House to run for governor of Tennessee, served one term, then was unsuccessful in re-election in 1841 and again in 1843. At the Democratic convention in 1844, Polk was the first "dark horse" candidate to be nominated as well as to win the White House -- a feat largely attributable to his vigorous support for United States annexation of Oregon and Texas.

Unlike Polk, Henry Clay of Kentucky was speaker of the House while harboring presidential ambitions.

Clay was one of the few congressmen to serve in the Senate before being elected to the House. He served as House speaker from 1811 to 1814 and again from 1815 to 1820, and finally from 1823 to 1825. In 1824, he ran for the presidency in a four-way race in which no candidate won a majority of electoral votes.

In accordance with the Constitution, the election was thus decided in the House of Representatives, with a congressional delegation from each state casting one vote. John Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson, who had actually garnered the most popular and electoral votes. Clay was accused of rallying support for Adams in the House vote in return for an appointment as secretary of state.

From 1825 to 1829, Clay served as secretary of state in the Adams administration. He retired to Kentucky until 1831, when he was elected to the Senate. A year later, he ran for president against Jackson and lost in a landslide.

Like Clay, James G. Blaine was haunted by allegations of impropriety throughout a long political career that took him from leadership in forming the Republican Party in Maine to an unsuccessful GOP candidacy for the presidency in 1884. Elected speaker of the House in 1869, Blaine led a charmed life until the Credit Mobilier scandal rocked Washington in 1873. The crisis involved various congressmen's receiving stock in a construction company called Credit Mobilier that was building the Union Pacific Railroad. In return, recipients were to vote favorably on subsidies for the rail line.

Blaine, who lost the speakership in 1875 when the Democrats took over the House, was cleared of involvement by a House committee. But in 1876, during Blaine's bid for his party's presidential nomination, another investigation resulted after a director of the Union Pacific implicated the former speaker. The House Judiciary Committee requested Blaine to submit certain letters pertaining to the alleged involvement. In a dramatic move, Blaine read the letters on the floor of the House.

"I am not afraid to show the letters," said Blaine. "Thank God Almighty, I am not ashamed to show them. There they are. There is the very original package. And with some sense of humiliation, with a mortification I do not pretend to conceal, with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of 40,000,000 of my countrymen while I read these letters at my desk."

By day's end, Blaine had exonerated himself, but the charges cost him the presidential nomination, which went instead to Rutherford B. Hayes, an obscure politician from Ohio whose unblemished record took him to the White House. And although Blaine captured the Republican nomination in 1884, nine years after he left the speakership, he was narrowly defeated by Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Democrat John Nance Garner of Texas, who served as speaker for only two years (1931-1933), wanted to be president of the United States during the depths of the Great Depression. After three ballots at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, he ran third to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Alfred E. Smith, the party's 1928 unsuccessful presidential candidate. So Garner swung his support to FDR, who won the nod on the fourth ballot. The Texan's reward for his magnanimous gesture was the vice presidency -- a post he later said "isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."

If ever there was a speaker of the House who deserved to be president, it was Democrat Champ Clark of Missouri. He served in the House of Representatives continuously from 1893 to 1921, save for an interim of two years (1895-1997). He was the chamber's most popular member, the only one who could take on, and eventually unseat, controversial Speaker Joseph Gurney "Uncle Joe" Cannon (1903-1911).

Cannon, an Illinois Republican who had served almost continuously in the House from 1873, controlled virtually every facet of the rules -- from recognizing floor speakers to appointing members to committees. In what was called the "Revolution of 1910," House Democrats were able to strip Cannon of much of his power, but they failed to oust him from the speakership. The vote was 155-192 in Cannon's favor. But the Democrats won control of the House in 1910, and Clark became speaker a year later, serving until 1919.

At the Democratic convention in 1912, Clark was the leading presidential candidate. After two days of voting, he had a majority of votes but not the two-thirds required by convention rules. William Jennings Bryan, three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate, still had some clout, however, giving his support to Gov. Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. After 46 ballots, Wilson won the nomination, then the White House, and Champ Clark was history as a presidential candidate. As for Bryan, he became Wilson's secretary of state.

But if the road to the White House has been rocky for House speakers, it's been just as tough for vice presidents. Since the time of popular campaigning for the presidency, which began in the 1820s, only two vice presidents have ascended via election directly to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They were Martin Van Buren and George Bush -- and as fate would have it, their triumphs were short-lived. Both were defeated in their re-election bids.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington.

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