MotherJones MA95: The Poundstone Report

I like to be a part of America’s latest crazes. I owned a hula hoop and bell-bottoms and, now, Newtie’s videotapes.

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Newtmania is sweeping the country. It’s incredible, considering that most people had never even heard of our new speaker of the House until a few months ago. Now it’s as if he’s Bobby Sherman. We want to know what he eats, who dresses him, what sports he likes, and what his mom thinks he thinks of the First Lady. I saw an interview with him at the Atlanta Zoo where they asked him why he likes rhinos–not even Tiger Beat magazine asked Bobby Sherman that.

I like to be a part of America’s latest crazes. I owned a hula hoop and bell-bottoms, and I played Pac-Man. But, like many Americans, I was shamefully unfamiliar with Newt Gingrich. Therefore, before I embarrassed myself at too many more parties, I boned up on Speaker Gingrich.

My first memory of Newt is of seeing him give some speech on C-SPAN a few years ago. I only watched for a few seconds, during which he didn’t say anything political. He just talked about getting organized. He said something about how the work you plan to do each day gets squeezed aside by those tasks that arise unplanned. He articulated it as clear as a bell.

I am a single, working, foster parent of an infant and I live with six cats who throw up every day. Getting organized is my fondest dream. For my birthday I hang my shoes in a shoe rack. I become overwhelmed with desire in an office supply store. During that speech on C-SPAN, Newt spoke to me. Later I mentioned this to a White House correspondent friend of mine. He told me Newt was a bad guy. Of course, I felt stupid and ashamed.

Recently, I watched videotapes of Newt teaching a course called “Renewing American Civilization” at Georgia’s Kennesaw State College in 1993. If, as when I saw him a few years ago, I’d read nothing of his right-wing stands and attack-dog style, Newt could have sold me a time-share deal on a swamp in Florida using a 1-800 number at the end of the tape. He is very good.

He is boyish and energetic. He looks like a cross between Phil Donahue and David Letterman. He has a swaggering “been there, done that” attitude, so that in one breath he can declare he’s just like us but in the next insinuate he’s just a smidgen better. He says “frankly” enough to make you wonder what he’s being when he doesn’t declare he’s being frank.

Of course, the course is just Newt’s ideology cloaked in historical references and quotes. In the opening tape of the series Gingrich encouraged the students to be “bold” when given the opportunity to ask questions, but most of the questions, perhaps scripted, weren’t really questions. Usually the students raised their hands to sing a verse of the Song of Newt. Newt would jam on it, then turn to another question before anyone could challenge what he’d said. It was an unnecessary technique with that roomful of disciples, but it’s probably a habit.

One ex-Marine asked Newt if he really believed that “prohibiting prayer in school is our single largest problem with public education policy today?” Of course, Newt didn’t take a moment to explain to the young man that prayer is not prohibited in our schools. Instead, he said: that God has been driven from the classroom; that he’d been a college student in the ’60s and understood the breakdown of civilization; and that it was an experiment that hadn’t worked. He explained that there had been a breakdown of “hierarchical authority” which went from “Our Creator” to the state to his sixth-grade teacher who could say, “Diagram sentences or die,” and little Newt actually believed death was coming. At this point I realized that Newt hadn’t really answered the questions and that if I had been a good Christian I would know how to punctuate.

Newt doesn’t come right out and say exactly how to get where he wants to go, only that his vision is of a better America and that, at this time, we are in some trouble. Thoughts like these will hardly divide a room. Newt speaks passionately about the contributions of immigrants and the strength of our multiethnic weave. It sounds so obvious, so great. Then he says something about how we cannot be multicultural–Bosnia is an example of the dangers of multiculturalism. Wait, what did he say? I rewind. He said it, all right. Newt should always be videotaped.

Having been a history teacher, Newt has developed a style where he is probably not often challenged. He enumerates everything. No one likes to interrupt a guy when he’s counting. Newt often says the same thing over and over again, but when he numbers it, it still sounds good. He’ll say something like, “We’re gonna look at the lessons of history for four reasons. One: History has much to teach us. Two: History can help you solve your problems today. Three: We can learn a lot from history. Four: I did not divorce my wife right after her surgery.” (OK, that last one may be an exaggeration on my part.)

Newt’s mother said on a C-SPAN interview that “Newtie” loved to read. (If I were Newt, I’d much rather she say I called Hillary Clinton a bitch than call me “Newtie” on TV.) Almost everything Newt says he corroborates with a quote from some book he’s read–and he has read many. Of course, not every (Continued from page 80) author is correct (Hitler wrote books), but when a guy quotes from a book and I’m armed only with a memory full of what happened on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I tend to cave in and defer to the book quoter.

Throughout his classes, Newt also shows video clips of speeches. For example, there is a bit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This creates the illusion that if King were alive today, he and Newt would be high-fiving and strategizing together to achieve that dream. Dr. King must be turning on a spit in his grave.

As I watched the tapes, part of me wished the Democrats had someone like Newt. Then, at the close of the tape, he has a guy on a tractor singing “God Bless the U.S.A.” The guy goes into his house, still singing. He sits at a dinner table, holds hands and prays with a very white family whose female members appear to be wearing doilies–still singing. They hug. The credits roll. I felt like I’d been slimed. I changed my mind about want-ing a Democrat with those skills.

Soon, of course, there’ll be Newt posters, Newt “I’m in charge of the House” barbecue aprons, and Newt POGS. Most people won’t see through him.

The good news is that a couple of years ago you couldn’t get away from the “Achey Breaky Heart” song. Now I talk to audiences of thousands who deny ever having liked it at all.

Letters to Paula

Kristi K. Boushele, Oshkosh, Wis.: Why are there no blue M&Ms in your standard everyday bag of melt-in-your-mouth-not-in-your-hand candies? There are pastel blue ones at Easter, but it’s not the same!

A: Kristi, I called M&M Mars and was surprised to find that, not only do they have someone whose job it is to answer questions about M&Ms, but that she has a form letter about the absence of blue M&Ms, due to the high volume of requests for that information.

Ms. M&M told me that the letter says, “Blue is generally not associated with food and therefore not used in our blend.” I guess blueberries can just go shoot themselves in the head.

However, I just read an article in the paper saying M&M Mars is kicking off a campaign allowing candy buyers to vote their conscience on this color issue. They’ll announce the winner April 18th. You can vote for purple, pink, blue, or “leave colors alone.” The color purple is already spending millions of dollars to run ads claiming blue slept with yellow.

I have had some experience with this kind of voting. A woman with a clipboard in a Arizona mall once asked me if I would try a new kind of cookie and answer some questions. I can’t believe I ever had this much free time, but I said “yes.” She took me into the bowels of the mall and handed me a 50-page questionnaire with questions like, “How much do you enjoy the shape of the cookie? (a) very much; (b) some; (c) I am offended by it, get it away.” After 20 pages or so I did what I did on my SATs–answered all bs and left.


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