The men who almost became Speaker of the House


The Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.


Thursday's announcement from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, that he would not seek election as Speaker of the House came as a shock to nearly everyone - political watchers, the press, even most of McCarthy's Republican colleagues.

McCarthy, who's currently second-in-command under Speaker John Boehner, was widely expected to assume the top job after Boehner announced he would step down at the end of the month. But that plan hit a speedbump last week after McCarthy credited the House Select Committee on Benghazi with driving down the poll numbers of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, providing fodder for Democrats who have long argued the committee is more interested in politics than fact-finding.

After a chorus of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, McCarthy took himself out of the running, saying he wanted to spare his members a tough vote and he wanted the GOP conference to unify.

It was a surprising turn of events, but not one without precedent: In 1998, House Republicans forced the ouster of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich because they were dissatisfied with the party's poor showing in the 1998 midterms. Gingrich's likely replacement, Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston, was actually elected Speaker-designate by a majority of the House after Gingrich announced he would step down. But at the end of 1998, just weeks before he was set to assume control of the chamber in a new Congress, Livingston announced that he would not become Speaker and that he would resign from Congress altogether.

Then-Rep. Bob Livingston, R-Louisiana, announces he will not serve as Speaker of the House on December 19, 1998. C-SPAN

The reason? A risque magazine was preparing a story on the extramarital affairs of several politicians, including Livingston, and the congressman did not want to put his family or his colleagues through the stress such a report about a newly-installed speaker would cause. (Remember, this was all happening in the midst of the debate over impeaching then-President Bill Clinton, whom Republicans accused of lying under oath to cover up his own extramarital affair with a White House intern.)

Livingston acknowledged the truth behind the rumors, telling his Republican colleagues that he had occasionally "strayed from my marriage."

"I believe I had it in me to do a fine job," Livingston said in a floor speech. "But I cannot do that job or be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances." He then walked off the floor, leaving a chamber full of stunned colleagues in his wake.

After Livingston's exit, the fractured GOP turned instead to Illinois Rep. Dennis Hastert - a senior member of the conference who enjoyed a squeaky clean reputation and was well-liked by the party's various factions.

Some speculated at the time that Hastert would be a mere "caretaker" speaker, shepherding the GOP caucus through a transitional period while the rank-and-file settled on a new leader.

With McCarthy's decision to bow out, we're seeing similar calls for an interim speaker this time around - some Republicans have suggested such Capitol Hill veterans as Rep. Candice Miller, Rep. John Kline, or Rep. Hal Rogers could steer the GOP through the turbulent next few months before eventually handing over the reins of power.

Of course, anyone who accepts the job with the understanding that it comes with a built-in expiration date should consider Hastert's experience: Despite the chaos that preceded his elevation to the top job, Hastert held the post for seven years and eleven months, becoming the longest-serving Republican House Speaker in U.S. history.