Newt Gingrich aims to revolutionize American politics
MAN OF THE HOUSE
Newt Gingrich aims to revolutionize American politics
On Day 87 of the Republican revolution, the last day of March, a misdirected reporter in search of the rebellion’s leader spots the quarry hustling out of an office on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol building. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, at first seems vulnerable to a quick corridor interview, the most that a Gingrich aide could suggest in the way of an encounter with his ever-busy boss. But the 51-year-old Georgian was
not to be buttonholed for journalism. Somebody’s family was first. The aptly titled Speaker, talking as he walked, turned from a gaggle of associates to shake all the proffered hands of parents and children. He exchanged 30 seconds of smiling conversation, then broke away at a near trot towards the House side of the building. Fostering family values ranks at least as high on the Gingrich revolution’s list of must-do matters as exercising his lovehate relations with reporters.
“The family is the core of American society. It is the principal mechanism through which values, knowledge, discipline and motivation are passed from one generation to the next.”
—Gingrich in his best-selling paperback, Contract with America, published December, 1994.
The corridor encounter was a fleeting minute in the 18-hour days of fame for Newton Leroy Gingrich. The fame, which has carried him to presidential prominence, is built upon words, words, words. Ideas tumble out at a breathtaking rate of 350 words a minute, according to despairing stenographers who transcribe his almost-daily news conferences. His words helped to persuade voters to elect a Republican majority to Congress for the first time in four decades. They goad his congressional acolytes to action. They provoke questions about the way things are done in government and the way lives are lived across the land. Now, after 100 wordy days of the Gingrich Congress,
the question in America, and for nations under the American cultural spell, is whether the garrulous Gingrich is running a durable rightwing revolution or, instead, is merely a marketer whose partisan sales pitch will ultimately wear as thin as his many critics already perceive it to be.
“I think lama transformational figure. I think I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would he hurt by the change, the liberal machine, have a natural reaction. ”
—Washington Post interview, Dec. 20,1994.
The Smithsonian Institution has already archived the original draft of Contract with
America, the free 24-paragraph version that predated the $14 paperback expansion. The contract outlined the 1994 election platform of Republican House candidates and forms the 1995 congressional agenda. It was composed by Gingrich with the help of Texan Dick Armey, 54, now House Majority Leader. On Sept. 27, exactly six weeks before the 1994 congressional elections, it was signed amid flag-waving ballyhoo by 367 of the 435 Republican candidates on the western steps of the Capitol. The commitment, says Gingrich, placed his party at the cusp of worldwide political upheaval and social change.
“All over the planet you see a tremendous pressure for change. I think that the same thing’s happening in the United States. People want us to move into an information age, they want us to be prepared to compete in a world market, they feel deeply that the welfare state has failed and they’re very bitter about it.”
—Maclean’s interview, Nov. 7,1994.
In oratorical flight, Gingrich seems to leave no passing notion unuttered. He shifts with apparent candor and the speed of thought from the global to the mundane, from the panoramic to the personal—and to borderline weird. According to a perhaps-apocryphal story from his backbench days (suburban Atlanta voters sent him to Congress in 1978), his staffers filled ranks of filing cabinets labelled “Newt’s ideas”—a single folder contained “Newt’s good ideas.” His interests span the gamut from A (American civilization is the subject of his Saturday cable TV history lectures) to Z (zoology: he gives money to the Atlanta zoo). He often draws on military analogies. (His stepfather was a career army man.) He combines his varied interests in metaphor— memorably on the sexes in a recent history lecture.
“We know what personal strength meant in the Neolithic: you carried a big club and you had a rock. What does personal strength mean in the age of the laptop ?
Which, by the way, is a major reason for the rise in the power of women. If upperbody strength matters, men win. They are both biologically stronger and they don’t get pregnant. Pregnancy is a period of male domination in traditional society. On the other hand, if what matters is the speed by which you can move the laptop, women are at least as fast and in some ways better. So you have a radical revolution based on technological change, and you’ve got to think that through.
“If you talk about being in combat, what does combat mean? If combat means living in a ditch, females have problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections and they don’t have upper-body strength. I mean some do, but they’re relatively rare. On the other hand, men are basically little piglets. You drop them in the ditch, they roll around in it—it doesn’t matter, you know? These things are very real. On the other hand, if combat means being on an Aegis-class cruiser managing the computer controls for 12 ships and their rockets, a female may again be dramatically better than a male, who gets very, very frustrated sitting in a chair all the time be-
cause males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.”
—Gingrich’s cable TV history course, Jan. 7,1995.
In his philosophizing, Gingrich occasionally turns to religion. (Bom a Lutheran in Pennsylvania, he became a Baptist in Georgia.) Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, he effectively added yet another item to the contract. He proposed a constitutional amendment to override the Supreme Court’s ban on school prayers. And he sometimes ascribes religious elements to political, even military, decisions.
“There is a spiritual dimension to our existence. The decision, for instance, to risk American lives in Desert Storm was a vote of spiritual
‘All over the planet you see a tremendous pressure for change’
dimensions. These were our children we were risking. We owed it to them, as the fathers and mothers of the country gathered symbolically in the Capitol, to vote on risking the lives of our children.”
—Heritage Foundation speech, Oct. 5,1994.
That Gingrich manages to fit his musings into crowded days is amazing to some, a target of ridicule to others. Even in the thick of the rush to fulfil contract promises within 100 days, he maintained a crushing agenda. Rarely since the November election has Newt Gingrich failed to make news. The thatch of white-grey hair and the chubby pixie’s face have appeared on the covers of periodicals from the trendy to the trashy. Gingrich even played along, through spokesman Tony Blankley, with a Weekly World News report of his meeting a space alien: “I can assure you that no extraterrestrial that comes
to this country from outer space would be eligible for welfare benefits of any kind.”
When Reform party Leader Preston Manning guest-starred on the Speaker’s hour-long weekly TV program The Progress Report (March 14, the revolution’s Day 70), it was the 30th of 31 events on a Gingrich timetable that began after his 7 a.m. swim in the Capitol pool and ended at a broadcast correspondents’ dinner. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau portrays the Speaker in his Doonesbury strip as an anarchist’s black bomb, the fuse burning.
In the face of plaudits and brickbats (opinion polls score his approval rating around a modest 33 per cent), Gingrich persists in his self-made role as a visionary. It is a vision that mingles nostalgia with emphasis on the present generation’s duty to children and the future. It is expressed Gingrich-style, a breathless outpouring of words, words, words.
“If we have a Monday morning in the not-too-distant future, maybe by the year 2000, where you wake up and you turn on the morning news and not a single American child has been killed in the entire weekend, and you look out of your door and you see children going happily to a building where they actually learn, and you know that in your town people who want to get off of welfare and out of poverty have found it surprisingly easy to open their small business and they actually have a tax code and a regulatory code that is encouraging them to be productive, and you know that the last drug dealer was driven from America three months earlier and we haven’t seen one since, and you know that you have representatives who pay attention and there are town hall meetings regularly and that when you want to know what’s going on in the Congress you turn on CSPAN and when a brand-new bill is introduced you just call it up on your home computer because it’s available to you at the same time as the richest, best, Washington lobbyist—when those things have happened, then we can say this revolution has succeeded.”
—Heritage Foundation speech, Nov. 15,1994.
How will history judge historian Gingrich? He answered that 10 years ago in a Washington Post interview: “My enemies will write histories that dismiss me and prove I was unimportant. My friends will write histories that glorify me and prove I was more important than I was. And two or three generations from now, some serious, sober historian will write a history that sort of implies I was whoever I was.” □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.