This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.
Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do.
I'm not talking about the policies of the Contract for America crowd, but the character. I'm confident that 99 percent of the population — if they could see these politicians up close, if they watched their speeches and looked at their biographies — would agree, no matter what their politics or predilections.
I'm confident that if historians ever spend the time on it, they'll confirm my thesis. Same with forensic psychiatrists. I have discussed this with scores of politicians, staffers, consultants and reporters since 1994 and have found few dissenters.
Politicians in this country get a bad rap. For the most part, they are like any high-achieving group in America, with roughly the same distribution of pathologies and virtues. But the leaders of the GOP House didn't fit the personality profile of American politicians, and they didn't deviate in a good way. It was the Chess Club on steroids.
The iconic figures of this era were Newt Gingrich, Richard Armey and Tom Delay. They were zealous advocates of free markets, low taxes and the pursuit of wealth; they were hawks and often bellicose; they were brutal critics of big government.
Yet none of these guys had success in capitalism. None made any real money before coming to Congress. None of them spent a day in uniform. And they all spent the bulk of their adult careers getting paychecks from the big government they claimed to despise. Two resigned in disgrace.
Having these guys in charge of a radical conservative agenda was like, well, putting Mark Foley in charge of the Missing and Exploited Children Caucus. Indeed, Foley was elected in the Class of '94 and is not an inappropriate symbol of their regime.
More than the others, Newton Leroy Gingrich lived out a very special hypocrisy. In addition to the above biographical dissonance, Gingrich was one of the most sharp-tongued, articulate and persuasive attack dogs in modern politics. His favorite target was the supposed immorality and corruption of the Democratic Party. With soaring rhetoric, he condemned his opponents as anti-American and dangerous to our country's family values — "grotesque" was a favorite word.
Yet this was a man who was divorced twice — the first time when his wife was hospitalized for cancer treatment, the second time after an affair was revealed.
Gingrich made his bones in the party by relentlessly attacking Democratic corruption, yet he was hounded from office because of a series of serious ethics questions. He posed as a reformer of the House, yet championed a series of deforms that made the legislative process more closed, more conducive to hiding special interest favors and less a forum for genuine debate.
And he did it all with epic sanctimony.
These squirrelly guys attracted and promoted to power similarly odd colleagues: birds of a feather, you know, stick together. Bill Clinton of Monica Lewinsky fame had no more zealous and moralistic critic than Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who ran a then-powerful committee. In the course of his crusade, Burton was forced to admit he had actually fathered a child in an extramarital affair.
The man who led the House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearings with equal, if saner, bloodlust was Rep. Henry Hyde. In the midst of this, Hyde was forced to admit to a five-year affair.
When Gingrich stepped down, Republicans turned to a master Louisiana pork-barreller, Robert Livingston. That lasted a day or so, until Livingston (you guessed it) admitted to having extramarital affairs.
Livingston was succeeded by Dennis Hastert, perhaps the most, well, conventional of the GOP leaders of his era. Still, Hastert was a hawk with no military service and a defender of the rich with no money or experience in business.
In this year's election cycle, House Republicans were justly vilified for their subservience to the corruptions of Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay's entire K Street project. While extreme, there have been many other periods of extreme corruption in Congress.
What marked this Republican cadre was not their corruption, but the chips on their shoulders.
It was a localized condition. It didn't spread to the Senate. The Republican leaders there — again, suspend your ideology and just look at biography — were pretty typical American politicians.
Bob Dole, Trent Lott and Bill Frist were not acting out in office. They were not ideologues and did not use the rhetoric of the righteous. The colleagues that wielded the most power — like McCain, Simpson, Lugar, Specter, Stevens, Warner — have had long runs of service in several arenas relatively free of public and private embarrassment and hypocrisy — and even some substantial accomplishments pre-Senate.
History reveals that great leaders and intellectuals often appear in clusters, inspiring and motivating each other to extraordinary achievement. American historians have focused on this in recent books looking at the "founding brothers," Lincoln's "team of rivals," the 19th-century pragmatist philosophers called "the metaphysical club," Roosevelt's New Dealers and Kennedy's "best and the brightest."
The opposite is also true.
What's next for the House is of course uncertain, but an undistinguished chapter has come to a close. Good riddance.
Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones, sometimes in edited form.
By Dick Meyer