Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report
written by Newt Gingrich
published by HarperCollins, 1998
213 pages of text; 15 pages of index and notes


A better title for this book would have been Why I've Been Such a Lousy Speaker, and How I've Changed.

Newt Gingrich deserves credit for writing a thorough and impressive mea culpa. Gingrich's ostentatious self-flagellation in Lessons Learned is a sharp contrast to his image as a vain and arrogant windbag. I don't quite believe it, but I am impressed nonetheless.

Lessons Learned is a Speaker's-eye view of the events of the Republican-controlled 104th and 105th Congresses, as well as of previous events in Gingrich's life. Gingrich writes clear, smooth, and often enjoyable prose, though, true to form, he gets sidetracked at times by verbosity and poor organization.

Reflecting its title, the book is divided into chapters based on the lessons Gingrich has (or at least wants to have) learned during his time as Speaker. Some of these lessons are: "Learn to Listen," "Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut," and "Do the Right Thing."

The main merit of this book is that it gives Gingrich's side of the controversies that have engulfed his Speakership. He explains in commendably clear English the variety of interests that a Speaker must balance in order to do his job, and provides in the process interesting insights into how Washington works. Though his accounts do include their share of partisan nonsense ("The Democratic Party, of course, is much more of a political machine than the Republican Party" [pg. 54]), Gingrich does often make a good and valuable case that some of his troubles (such as the Air Force One incident) have been the result of incidents blown out of proportion by the press or by his opponents.

The problem with Lessons Learned is that it is such a blatant image-building exercise for Gingrich. His claims that many of his errors were the result of not realizing what a bunch of lying, cheating bastards his opponents were are unconvincing coming from a man who has spent his entire Congressional career demonizing Democrats. Even when Gingrich does admit genuine errors, his underlying theme in doing so is to brag about how much wiser he is now. And as for the posed photographs (a cover shot of a relaxed Newt in cardigan, brown leather jacket, and worn blue jeans; an inside photo of Newt gazing adoringly at his wife while riding the Washington Metro)...the less said, the better.

Gingrich's apparent aim in writing Lessons Learned is to reassure Republicans who have been disgruntled by his endless tactical errors as Speaker, and to reach out to independents and Democrats who have been repelled by Gingrich's frequent verbal faux pas. If present trends hold up, and a Republican majority is returned to Congress in the November elections, then we will find out in January whether Gingrich succeeded.


Review posted: 19 September 1998