Newt Gingrich: Master of Disaster

The New Right celebrity and Republican point man on ethics, says he’s confident he can “shift the planet.” But will he be the next victim of his own paranoid style?

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“When I debated Mondale, they told me to go for the jugular. So I did,” Bob Dole says, his impish grin signaling the Washington ballroom full of listeners that a punch line is coming. “Unfortunately, it was my own!

Dole laughs. His audience laughs along with him, but a bit impatiently, because Bob Dole, Senate minority leader and GOP patriarch, is in an unnatural role here at the mid-June meeting of the Republican National Committee. He’s the warm-up act. The crowd is eager to hear from Newt Gingrich, the new House minority whip who led the politically fatal attack on Speaker Jim Wright, and who just this week made more headlines when the scurrilous rumor that new Speaker Tom Foley is not only gay but a child molester was traced to his office.

Toward the end of his talk, Dole rues the bloodletting in Washington, mentioning the “tragedy for John Tower, Robert Bork, and yes, for Tom Foley. I love politics. I know it’s rough and tough. I know we can have our differences. And I know we want to win. But it’s gotta be based on wanting to win for some good reason.” When Gingrich, the man who once called Bob Dole “the tax collector for the welfare state” mounts the sage and offers his hand, Dole, the man who once called Newt Gingrich and his allies “the young hypocrites,” looks past him, barely acknowledging the gesture.

But by the time Gingrich has had his turn at the microphone, Dole’s concern for Foley seems passe. Gingrich has emerged, after all, as the point man for Republican upstarts who expect their party to become dominant in Congress, and they have used ethics as a potent battering ram against the Democrats. Gingrich mesmerizes the room with his triumphant gloating over the still-fresh resignations of Wright and Democratic whip Tony Coelho. The applause builds as Gingrich neatly segues from ethics to ideology: “The values of the left cripple human beings, weaken cities, make it difficult for us to in fact survive as a country…The left in America is to blame for most of the current, major diseases which have struck this society.” Then Gingrich warns of a left-wing “machine” out to get both him and Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater. “You’re gonna see weird things coming out of this city over the next few years, because you’re watching the death throes of the machine, and you’re watching its power to smear, and its power to intimidate. And the next time you hear anyone say, ‘Let’s fire Lee Atwater,’ the first thing you ought to know is…they are either left-wingers or they have been intimidated by left-wingers.”

Newt Gingrich led the politically fatal attack on Speaker Jim Wright, and  made more headlines when the scurrilous rumor that new Speaker Tom Foley is not only gay but a child molester was traced to his office.

Gingrich’s last words, comparing Bush to Eisenhower and Atwater to Patton, are nearly drowned out by cheers and whoops. Atwater rushes onstage to hug and raise fists with Gingrich. RNC co-chair Jeanie Austin takes the microphone, eyes shining. “Isn’t he something? Maybe we can all get that on videotape!” Gingrich is flushed, soaking up the ovation. Bob Dole is no longer in the room. The hatchet is passed.

The next day Gingrich is addressing a far less friendly crowd on his home turf. Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District wraps around southern Atlanta, encompassing the busy international airport, fast-growing suburbs, textile-mill and farm towns, the state’s richest county (where Gingrich does best in elections), and pockets of black poverty. Though Griffin, Georgia, is no metropolis, the agricultural college’s old brick auditorium is filled with some one hundred constituents, many of them downright hostile toward their congressman. The first question comes from Ed Henderson, a bespectacled Republican college student and former Gingrich campaign worker. He’s upset that Gingrich—who once urged the expulsion of Reps. Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Dan Crane, an Illinois Republican, for having sex with congressional pages—hasn’t gone after Rep. “Buz” Lukens, a Republican from Ohio convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old girl. “Now Newt, I know the two of you are good friends…and very likely he voted for you, giving you the one-vote majority you needed to become Republican whip.” Henderson is then disappointed with Gingrich’s answer that Lukens should be investigated and censured but not expelled because the 16-year-old girl, unlike the pages, wasn’t in the care of Congress.

A single mother stands up. If Congress is so worried about its own pay raise, why did Gingrich oppose the minimum-wage hike for people like her? “I don’t know of a single economist who disagrees that when you raise the minimum wage you kill jobs for the poor,” Gingrich shoots back, then suggests, over some snickers, that a tax cut for minimum-wage earners would be better policy.

Several Eastern Airlines employees take turns accusing Gingrich of ignoring their plight while he was ranking minority member of the aviation subcommittee of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. Gingrich’s district is reputed to have more aviation workers than any other in the country, and more than a third are striking Eastern workers. That he gave up the committee assignment and became whip has only deepened their skepticism, and the dark rhetoric that worked so well for Gingrich the day before in Washington doesn’t seem to connect here. His railing against the “corrupt liberal welfare state” draws no applause. And Gingrich’s now-patented warning that “over the next six or eight months you will see a fairly serious effort to go after me” elicits only a few chair squeaks.

Gingrich’s problem is that here the most tangible villain at the moment is not some liberal bureaucrat but that symbol of unregulated capitalism run amok: Frank Lorenzo. Most airline pilots are military-trained Republicans, and Gingrich has always been able to count on their votes and money. Now, in addition to the Eastern strikers, much of the local Airline Pilots Association has become wary of Gingrich. Even though he wears a big anti-Lorenzo button pinned to his lapel and has vowed to have Lorenzo investigated, he’s also accepted campaign contributions from Lorenzo’s Texas Air. What irks the strikers most is that Gingrich failed to support a House measure asking President Bush to convene an emergency board to arbitrate the dispute. In early June, a striking Eastern machinist—one of Gingrich’s constituents—killed himself, a drama that seized the local imagination far more than the Wright resignation.

“I supported Newt when he first ran,” says Eastern pilot Pat Broderick after he and colleagues have met privately with Gingrich later in the day. “When we went to him with the Eastern situation he shied away from it because he saw it as an attack on big business.” In the 1990 election, says Broderick, “I’d be very surprised if Gingrich wins.” In a July 1988 poll conducted for Democratic opponent David Worley, there is ample evidence of this sentiment: Less than half the constituents sampled could say, “Newt Gingrich cares about people like me.”

It has been five years since Mother Jones last looked in on Rep. Newton Leroy Gingrich. Then in his third term, he was grabbing attention with tirades delivered to an empty House chamber—but beamed into living rooms nationwide via C-SPAN cable television. When he repeatedly accused the Democrats of being “blind to communism,” an enraged Speaker Tip O’Neill committed his now-legendary miscalculation in 1984. “You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their patriotism,” roared O’Neill, “and it is the lowest thing I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.” It was the Speaker, though, whose remarks were ruled out of order and stricken from the record as too personal an attack, and the confrontation moved Gingrich from cable to network news.

When Mother Jones reporter David Osborne went back to Newt’s roots a short while later, he discovered a politician nothing like the clean crusader image Gingrich had promoted. Friends and former staffers in his own district south of Atlanta told on him as a candidate who ran a “family values” campaign while cheating on his first wife, Jackie, then appeared at her hospital bedside as she recovered from surgery to negotiate a divorce. They described a moderate Republican who relied heavily on moderate friends’ hard work in two failed election tries, but who, in his victorious third attempt, heeled sharply to the right and shoved those friends aside. Osborne’s profile has become a kind of shadow dossier: It was circulated by the Democrats during the Wright scandal, and a recent Washington Post profile drew heavily from it. This summer, in the speech that so excited the Republican National Committee, Gingrich denounced the 1984 article as “truly vicious.” He has never, however, rebutted the piece factually. His former wife, Jackie Gingrich, says today, “All I can say is Mother Jones scooped the world on Newt Gingrich.”

Five years ago, Gingrich was hard to take seriously. He promoted wacky ideas such as statehood for space colonies and replacing Social Security with mandatory IRAs. He headed the Conservative Opportunity Society, a kind of young, rightist, best-and-brightest club in Congress, but didn’t manage to author any significant bills. And Bob Dole wasn’t the only one branding Gingrich a hypocrite. Early on, it surfaced that Gingrich the ultra-hawk used student and parental deferments to avoid Vietnam duty. Then his penchant for pork-barrel and liberal-style spending was discovered by conservative columnists like George Will, who dubbed Gingrich and friends the “Conservative Opportunist Society.” (Gingrich once lobbied for the sale of locally made Lockheed planes—to Libya.) Even fellow Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards dismissed Gingrich as “irrelevant” in 1984.

Bob Dole wasn’t the only one branding Gingrich a hypocrite. It surfaced that Gingrich the ultra-hawk used student and parental deferments to avoid Vietnam duty. Then his penchant for pork-barrel and liberal-style spending was discovered by George Will, who dubbed Gingrich and friends the “Conservative Opportunist Society.”

But now, Lee Atwater tells me he considers Gingrich, who still has authored no significant legislation, one of the “two or three most important” Republicans, a “profile in courage” with an “unlimited” future in the party. Gingrich has become not only the second most powerful Republican in the House, but its self-styled ethics czar as well—personally filing the charges that eventually brought down Speaker Jim Wright. The Wright/Coelho debacle made some ethics-reform legislation inevitable, and Gingrich will be one of its key architects.

Of course, “ethics reform” could mean a serious improvement in how democratically the United States elects and pays its Congress, or it could mean quite a bit less. (See “The Real Ethics Debate,” in this issue.) Gingrich, for one, sees ethics in the starkest of partisan terms. About not only Wright but the entire Democratic leadership in the House, he has asserted: “These people are sick…They are so consumed by their own power, by a Mussolini-like ego, that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.” But direct a few questions about his own ethics Gingrich’s way, asking him about his own suspect book deals or any other of the odd arrangements now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee’s special outside counsel Richard Phelan (who also led the investigation of Jim Wright), and Gingrich is likely to say, “If you’re a whistle-blower in the conservative movement…there are no holds barred in trying to destroy you.” (See “The Cases Against Gingrich,” in this issue.)

This is vintage Gingrich, and it is also a vintage kind of US politics, what Richard Hofstadter over two decades ago named “the paranoid style.” What seems to work some of the time with some of the people, what demagogues like McCarthy have ridden to bold, if ultimately soiled, fame is the practice of positioning oneself as the lone warrior exposing and battling an evil, alien conspiracy within as well as outside the country. It has traditionally been a politics of resentment against power centers and social change that has played especially well in the South. (In 1968, Gingrich’s district voted for George Wallace in the presidential election while surrounding areas voted for Nixon.)

The paranoid style was supposed to play less well in the New South, the more educated, white-collar, postindustrial districts like Gingrich’s own. But Gingrich is expert at converting up-to-date concerns into grist for his conspiracy theory. While he claims to hold out a positive vision—the high-tech, deregulated utopia outlined in his 1984 book Window of Opportunity—for Gingrich, it’s not morning again in America, it’s the twilight before permanent, moonless night.

Take drug abuse. We associate drugs with the “values” of the 60s, do we not? And the children of the sixties are now the Democratic politicians and liberal bureaucrats and “left” media of the 80s, who, Gingrich argues, have spent the last “20 years misleading this country about how destructive drugs are.” Therefore, he continues, the left is to blame for the present crack epidemic and the country’s other drug problems. Now that communism isn’t the credible evil it was even five years ago when Democrats were “blind” to it, “Islamic extremism may well be the greatest threat to Western values and Western security in the world,” Gingrich says. “It’s steadily replacing communism as a threat on an active basis.”

In Washington, where the media lusts for the big quote and political parties can always find a role for a rhetorical pit bull, Gingrich has made a career of this kind of talk. At home, Gingrich fine-tunes the signal for the particular frustration of each interest group. After the town-hall meeting in Griffin, Gingrich allows me to tag along with him to a session with a group of doctors and insurers at the Griffin Hospital. Dr. Alex Jones, the white-haired chief of medicine, asks why Medicare covers less while red tape grows. Could Newt be their advocate, modify the program?

Gingrich listens for a while, then launches into a discourse on the “Harvard[-style] centralized bureaucracy-driven model of health care, which is inherently, catastrophically bad…There are two realities to the current system: One is the government is trying to cheat you. And the second is the government is lying to you about what it’s doing.” Gingrich says his “bias” is to abolish the whole federal health-care bureaucracy. “I’m very seriously thinking about putting a bill in, just a symbolic bill, that says look, you can’t reform that culture…Nobody on the battle line would notice that they were gone if you decapitated the top 12,000 bureaucrats and started over with a new model.”

Instead of Medicaid, he proposes tax credits for doctors whenever they treat card-carrying indigents, a farfetched scheme for dozens of political and practical reasons, not the least of which is that it would force the poor to rely purely on the kindness of health-care strangers. But that, and a “symbolic” attempt at bureaucratic decapitation, is all that is offered today by Gingrich. At one point, while explaining why malpractice suits persist, he tips his hand: “The public has to have a bad person,” he lectures. “It’s the nature of Western culture.”

“The left, which loves socialized medicine, loves coercive centralized bureaucratic power. And they’re very smart,” Newt says, pausing for effect. “They always conceal their greed for power in the language of love.”

This follows the grand overview: “There has been a 50-year-long war between the left, which loves socialized medicine, loves coercive centralized bureaucratic power…and the rest of us. And they’re very smart,” he says, pausing for effect. “They always conceal their greed for power in the language of love.” His listeners are no friends of bureaucrats, yet they seem startled at the distance they’ve traveled in the half hour since Dr. Alex Jones asked the original question. Jones, a confirmed conservative and Gingrich fan, admits later that Gingrich had conjured an appealing, but impossible, dream. “You’ll always have the bureaucracy,” he says, coming back to earth, “but I think it can be reformed so the patient is No 1.”

Newt Gingrich, a former history teacher, clearly imagines himself a historic figure. “I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it,” he declared in 1985. These days he equates his toppling of Wright with the momentous events in Poland, China, and the Soviet Union, and he has already created an archive for his personal papers at West Georgia College, where he was terminated (ironically, for not publishing enough) in 1978 after seven years of teaching, according to Dean Richard Dangle.

Sometimes, apparently, the fine points of congressional ethics can seem an obstacle to history-making, though. Dolores Adamson, Gingrich’s self-assured former aide, is in a position to know. Gingrich asked her to stay on as district assistant when he succeeded Democrat Jack Flynt in 1979; at his request, she took him to the local mall and showed him how to warm up to people, stand in line with kids waiting for Braves autographs, “go up to someone and be a congressman.” Adamson was happy to oblige; at first, she thought Newt was “great.” In the first months, Adamson remembers, “He would always say, ‘If ever I get out of line, call me down.'”

But after the first term, “It’s like he turned a corner,” Adamson says. “There seemed to be a new Newt…He quit being the humble servant.” For one thing, Gingrich began to insist that his every public utterance be taped. “And I asked him, ‘Don’t you think that when we record your voice at every meeting you go to, that you’re looking like a pompous someone who wants to hear themselves talk?”‘ Adamson remembers. “He said, ‘No, it’s important.’…He thought…there’d probably be a museum someday where you could go and check one of those tapes out.” If posterity was slighted because a staffer failed to record him, Gingrich would dock that person’s pay up to $200—and dock Adamson’s as well. Then, for good measure, “He’d cut you down, blast you unmercifully.”

Adamson remembers tussling with Gingrich most, though, over matters of ethics. “Dolores was his conscience when it came to ethical things. She was all our conscience,” says Dot Crews, a veteran Republican activist who worked in the office then. “She was a real stickler about keeping congressional and campaign stuff separate, very, very tough.” But Gingrich wasn’t conscientious, Adamson says. Though the rules prohibit it, Gingrich many times tried to use tax-paid staff and office space for campaign work, according to Adamson. “I would say no, you can’t do that. You’ll have to go to someone’s home. We went to a [Congress-sponsored seminar] for ethics. We had a manual this high. So why were we arguing about it?…It always would amaze me how insignificant Newt thought all of that was. Because to me, it was significant.” Adamson neared the breaking point when, after returning from a week-long vacation, she found out that against her wishes Gingrich had put the district office staff to work editing and copying early drafts of Window of Opportunity. “In my mind, it was illegal,” Adamson says, and by strict interpretation of the law and House rules, she may be correct. Not long after that confrontation with Gingrich, Adamson quit.

Gingrich has said that only one staffer helped with the book. But Dot Crews, who along with Adamson has not discussed her relationship with Gingrich publicly before, confirms Adamson’s version. She remembers working on the book, though one higher-up tried to convince her it was just a government-related policy statement, not “strictly a business venture,” as Gingrich has since proclaimed. Crews, who worked in Gingrich’s office until she resigned in 1984, says that after Adamson left, Gingrich and his staff began to “blur the line of separation between congressional and campaign work.”

After the first term, Gingrich began to insist that his every public utterance be taped.  If posterity was slighted because a staffer failed to record him, Gingrich would dock that person’s pay up to $200 and “blast you unmercifully.”

That line has apparently continued to blur at taxpayers’ expense. Records show that Gingrich took members of his congressional staff off the payroll to work on his campaigns in 1986 and 1988 and then gave them big, temporary raises when they returned to congressional work. If the money was meant to compensate for campaign work, Gingrich violated federal law. “We weren’t trying to avoid campaign laws,” Gingrich declared when his practice came to light this summer. “We weren’t doing anything that isn’t done widely by many members.”

Dot Crews, still a Republican Party booster, came to her own conclusion about her former boss. “He never had a philosophy, he always had an agenda: to get where he is right now. He’s not interested in ethics as an issue, he’s interested in ethics as a tool to complete his agenda.”

At home on the campaign trail, Mr. Ethics has developed a reputation as Mr. Hardball. Gingrich, who once told a roomful of college students that “one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” has worked especially hard at recruiting young people to his cause. In Gingrich’s 1986 re-election campaign, a meeting of young Democrats was interrupted by an uninvited, self-styled “truth squad” of Republican teenagers, led by an adult Gingrich campaign aide who demanded to tape-record the proceedings.

This kind of aggressiveness fairly characterizes Republican party-building at the local level, say insiders. At a recent state convention, one of Gingrich’s closest aides, Met Steely, grabbed and dragged a precinct chairman several feet in an attempt to convince him to support a Gingrich favorite. The man suffers from cerebral palsy and was badly shaken, according to two eyewitnesses, and Gingrich later apologized for the incident. (Steely refused to talk to Mother Jones.)

Then there is Bob Cooley’s story, which, if nothing else, demonstrates just how much paranoia the Gingrich style can breed. The Republican aircraft mechanic worked on the 1986 re-election campaign and hosted organizing meetings in his large home. Two weeks before the election, someone broke in, strewed garbage all over the floors, and wrote “Newt Sucks” in toothpaste on the mirrors. At the time, Cooley, and lots of voters, assumed Gingrich’s Democratic enemies were to blame. Gingrich won by a healthy margin. The crime remains unsolved, but Cooley—who has since soured on Gingrich—today is convinced that unbeknownst to Gingrich, some of his own people staged the break-in to taint the opposition.

For L.H. “Kip” Carter, another former Gingrich ally, the smearing of Speaker Foley has a familiar ring. He was Gingrich’s first campaign treasurer and one of his closest friends and advisers until becoming disillusioned with the young congressman in 1979. “We created a monster, and I’ll never be able to do enough good things in my lifetime to balance the scale,” the businessman now tells the press whenever he gets a chance. But he’s paid a price for his conversion. After Carter blasted Gingrich publicly, a rumor began circulating that Carter was a homosexual, eventually working its way into the local Carrollton paper. Carter was forced to deny the rumor in print.

Most jaded of all among Gingrich’s former supporters, though, might be Lee Howell, Gingrich’s first press aide. Howell, along with Carter, provided a lot of information in the first Mother Jones profile. Nothing since has changed his mind, says Howell today. “Newt’s like a bully. Remember when you’re kids and there’s always some, tough-talking little kid, and when somebody stands up to him he caves in? Newt’s never had anybody stand up to him. Newt’s scenario is always: We’re talking the truth, and you’re playing dirty.”

L.H. “Kip” Carter was Gingrich’s first campaign treasurer and one of his closest friends until becoming disillusioned in 1979: “We created a monster, and I’ll never be able to do enough good things in my lifetime to balance the scale.” After Carter blasted Gingrich publicly, a rumor began circulating that Carter was a homosexual.

A young, clean-shaven aide is driving. Press secretary Sheila Ward sits beside me in the backseat. Gingrich is in the front passenger seat, staring ahead, saying, “The thing that shocks people…is that I mean what I say. I don’t use hyperbole.” I ask why he didn’t fire Karen Van Brocklin, the aide who spread the lie about Foley, and Gingrich doesn’t miss a beat, calmly explaining that Van Brocklin had done a great job leaking damaging information about Wright to the press, “and she was never burned…I would have given any person with that track record one major mistake.” He goes on to blame the New York Daily News columnist who linked Van Brocklin with the rumor: “He called her…She answered him honestly, she told him flatly we were not investigating Foley…He then turned that into a viciously dishonest column.”

The week before, openly gay Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank had called Van Brocklin “Madame Defarge,” telling me in an interview that she “was not only passing the rumor along, but in the most despicable fashion saying Foley likes little boys. When people use these smarmy, smearing methods, use it as a weapon, it reinforces the idea there is something wrong with being gay.”

But Gingrich doesn’t yield an inch. “It’s a disgustingly dishonest column,” he finishes, as the car comes to a stop for the day’s next meeting.

“And what your aide did wasn’t disgusting?” I ask.

“No…” pipes up Ward, but Gingrich shuts her down with a sharp, angry, “Let me talk!” His big silver head comes wheeling around, and he fixes his suddenly fierce eyes on me. “Mother Jones smeared me. All right? You are lucky that I believe you guys are trying something different. No Democrat defended me. No Democrat said Tony Coelho shouldn’t have sent out hundreds of copies of that article. And no newspaper said it was dishonest, demeaning, or wrong, and nobody was fired. Now, Karen Van Brocklin made a mistake. But a number of hypocritical left-wing news media people and hypocritical Democratic politicians…none of whom ever minded when John Tower was being smeared, none of whom ever minded when Bob Bork was being smeared, suddenly found religion because it was one of theirs. Now I apologized personally to Foley…All I ask for is a fair shake, and I feel very deeply and very vehemently that the press ought to adopt the same standard for conservatives and liberals…and in Washington, DC, in 1989, they don’t. And that’s why I wouldn’t fire Karen Van Brocklin.”

Gingrich throws open the car door, leaving me to sort out these ethical standards. The rules of guerrilla warfare would seem the best guide. Karen Van Brocklin, a very useful person, made a “mistake” and finally got “burned.” The verified facts of Gingrich’s record are no different from the most personal falsehoods spread by Van Brocklin, because all are damaging “smears.” Gingrich will crack down on his own smear artist when the enemy cracks down on its. Victory is paramount.

I ask Sheila Ward if Gingrich’s burst of belligerence toward her is common. “You were here. You saw,” is all she will say.

Even if Newt Gingrich is stripped of his power by the ongoing ethics investigation this winter, or turned out by dissatisfied voters in Georgia next year, it is his wing of the party, representing younger, more aggressive conservatives, that is on the ascendancy now. And so his approach to party-building, the deft use of fear—of drugs, crime, terrorism—is bound to be honed sharper still by an entire new class of conservative politicians in electoral contests ahead, no matter what happens to Newt Gingrich.

But if Gingrich wins his guerrilla war, what would a “reformed” Congress full of Gingrich types be like? Hardly a kinder and gender place. Would it be more democratic and responsive to constituents’ needs? Not likely, would say the thousands of airline employees in Gingrich’s district who find him too interested in the party fine to make their needs a top priority. A Congress less beholden to corporate wealth? Gingrich happens to be among the top earners of honoraria and a major recipient of PAC money, most of it from corporations and pro-business lobbies, which have allowed him to build a powerful base of support independent of voters in his district. A Congress in which members are less prone to abuse their office budgets in order to promote their own re-election? Dolores Adamson and others who’ve worked for Gingrich wouldn’t put any money on it. A Congress, then, whose members refuse to exploit their position of power by trading access for money? When Newt Gingrich needed money in 1977 to tide him over until his next run for Congress, and again in 1984 to help promote a book he hoped would become a bestseller, he didn’t hesitate to solicit contributions from those he knew had an interest in legislation.

It is the end of the day, and Gingrich is resting at his Griffin district office. He is on his favorite subject, how the Democrats have “usurped” power and why Republicans will soon be the majority party in the country and in the House. He draws a diagram on a napkin, placing the names Buckley, Goldwater, and Nixon on a rising line until “Watergate” plummets the curve. Then the line moves up again, through Reagan and now Bush, pulling finally above where Nixon was. This is how he tracks the US public’s natural affinity for Republican versus Democratic values, and one is only to conclude that Newt Gingrich believes he will be the next champion on the curve, higher even than Reagan and all the rest.

I ask Gingrich about his “new ideas” that he keeps predicting will seize the voters’ imagination. What new and positive, for example, can he offer regarding the crack epidemic? Eventually he acknowledges that his prescription—more prisons, police, prosecutors, paid informants, border guards, and executions—”is very old-fashioned, because it works.”

Gingrich talks vaguely of the need for “much more empowerment, much more self-control,” and programs that promote “self-ownership and self-management” among “what the Victorians would call ‘the deserving poor.”‘ I ask why, if Republicans can offer those things, aren’t more of the poor Republicans? His answer: “Reagan was literally unknowing in the whole zone of race relations. It wasn’t part of his world, and he was very, very insensitive to it. For eight years we communicated a symbol of insensitivity.” With Reagan gone, Gingrich predicts Republicans can organize up to half the black community within a decade. Jesse Jackson will be a competitor for their allegiance only because “he’s an ethnic symbol,” Gingrich says.

I point out that the rise of the “liberal welfare state” came in response to some old-fashioned ideas that clearly weren’t working sometime around 1929. Don’t the Democrats continue to win congressional elections because they’ve forged a coalition of working class and poor, the very people who get hurt in an unregulated economy? “That’s not a very accurate history lesson,” Gingrich says. “The rise of the liberal welfare state prior to Lyndon Johnson tended to be centrist liberals who were very tough on law and order, very tough on anticommunism.”

Since then, something has happened to the Democrats, something most people don’t realize, or they certainly wouldn’t keep voting in a Democratic Congress. The Democratic party has been infected by “destructive values,” and Newt Gingrich knows just about when it happened, because he has a name for this new, alien Democratic party. He calls it “post-McGovern.” And as the man says, the public has to have a bad person. It’s the nature of Western culture.

Also read The Real Ethics Debate and The Cases Against Gingrich

David Beers was senior editor of Mother Jones. Research for this story was supported by the Mother Jones Investigative Fund.


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