Brilliant and ruthless, Newt Gingrich is the most dangerous man in America today. For more than 20 years, Newt has commanded a war to seize the speakership–only recently have troops and lieutenants joined his campaign. Newt isn’t merely a creature of the moment, Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads hooked up with the legislative arms of the religious right. Newt is nobody’s tool.
Mother Jones and Newt know each other well. When the new speaker rails against the counterculture, he sees us in his anti-heart. One dagger he can’t dislodge is David Osborne’s 1984 report in these pages. Osborne described how Newt campaigned on family values and smeared his opponent as a home breaker. Meanwhile, Newt cheated on his wife, ditched her after the election, and appeared at her hospital bedside after she’d had an operation for uterine cancer, to demand that she agree to his terms for a divorce.
Newt used similar grace to sever his relationship with Tom Foley, though at the time Foley was cheating on the American public. Foley’s betrayal and beheading are worth understanding because they led to Newt’s simultaneous decapitation of the most promising young Democrats. The same masterstroke may cost Bill Clinton his political life.
Foley’s deadly folly
As we reported in 1993, Speaker Foley pre-emptively squelched the freshmen in his party who wanted to reform Congress. He gave them a choice: be assigned to lucrative committees or challenge the current rules. One, Eric Fingerhut, stood up to Foley and was promptly punished; most of the rest caved in. Later, in a private Capitol meeting, a courageous few explained to the speaker how deeply disenchanted their constituents were with Congress. Foley replied, “Two years from now the voters won’t care about reform.”
A year and a half later, with the electorate now boiling, Foley realized he had to deliver a faux bill. His team asked the Republican leadership what would be acceptable. Newt offered his support if the Democrats would “strengthen” the language requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they were spending on “grassroots organizing.”
Foley’s lieutenants complied and eventually moved a broadly supported bill out of the House-Senate conference for a final vote. Then Newt called Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh to rally their troops against the very language Newt had sponsored. Their grounds: Big Brother government was trying to monitor their religious and free speech rights. Some progressive groups (the ACLU, Planned Parenthood) bought this disinformation as well. To the press, Gingrich claimed to be surprised by “the grassroots gag rule” buried in the bill.
Because Foley had stalled early on, there was no time left in the term to override a Republican filibuster. The bill was defeated, along with Foley and almost all of the best freshman Democrats, who had nothing to show back home for their previous promises.
Campaign stories about Foley in national newspapers portrayed a gentleman, at home quoting Shakespeare, unfairly beleaguered by the angry natives. But apparently Foley wasn’t up on his “King Lear.” Only a regal fool would cut a deal with the Newt who’d previously red-baited Tip O’Neill on the House floor. With the Newt who personally filed the ethics charges that drove the subsequent speaker, Jim Wright, from office–even though (as David Beers reported in a MoJo follow-up expose in 1989) Newt committed similar sins. With the Newt whose aide spread rumors that Foley was a child molester. As the Fool tells Lear, “Thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing i’ the middle.”
Clinton’s pale resolution
Clinton’s part in this tragedy is more akin to Hamlet’s. He hesitated to clean up Congress because he feared an angered Democratic leadership wouldn’t give him the support he needed to pass legislation and break gridlock. The ghost of Carter hovered. The Clinton team didn’t want to be seen as inept. They’d campaigned and won on change (the correct issue), but then bought into their own success, thinking that the public was excited about change when it was–and is–deeply fearful.
Deservedly so. Postmodern economics and morality are petrifying. A politician expecting to lead voters into the 21st century must create loyalty first by publicly following through on promises to discipline government. (This is how Newt is using his “Contract with America.”)
Why is the history professor who was denied tenure at West Georgia College shrewder than Clinton and his fellow Rhodies? In 1989, we followed Newt to a meeting of doctors and insurers complaining about Medicare. Newt answered their question about red tape with a sarcastic discourse on bureaucracy which concluded that the left is “very smart. They always conceal their greed for power in the language of love.”
Newt doesn’t mind greed, power, or concealment. He urges his staff to read Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Newt’s contempt is for liberals who continue to use the language of love when the American electorate is more attracted to the subliminal slogans of hate.
Newt isn’t a captive of the evangelical nativist hysteria now infecting the country. He began his career as a not particularly religious, social moderate. As L.H. Carter, Newt’s first campaign treasurer, told Mother Jones in 1984, “The important thing you have to understand about Newt Gingrich is that he is amoral. There isn’t any right or wrong, there isn’t any conservative or liberal. There’s only what will work best for Newt Gingrich.” The Baptist Rev. Brantley Harwell seconds this opinion of his former congregant.
Unfortunately, this flexibility has allowed Newt (and the newtoids he has successfully trained) to capitalize shamelessly on the public’s legitimate fears. Our middle class is eroding; our schools have deteriorated; we have an abnormally violent culture.
Liberals have ceded the moral battleground to demagogues by claiming that there is no real evil, only social problems that bigger government can fix. The eager, weak way Democratic elites seek private, bloodless compromise with corporate interests (alas, Hillary’s health care fiasco falls here) has further encouraged populists to look to the right for leadership.
Of course the notion that Newt’s House and the Republican Senate intend to reduce the size of government or the influence of big money is absurd. They simply want to concentrate power and wealth in their own and their allies’ hands. For example, by the time you read this, Newt will probably have made good on his promise to slice congressional staffs (except, of course, his own). Committee consolidation punishes veterans, both Democrat and Republican. Whereas Foley ate his young, Newt is promoting his so that he has a loyal base for the future.
Newt also will pay back certain industries by reducing or even eliminating House oversight. A weakening of the House Interior Committee might match a rise in contributions to Newt’s PACs from timber and mining interests.
And of course don’t expect Newt to slim the $25 billion in subsidies to agribusiness that even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page implies is corporate welfare. With the Journal’s blessing, however, he will build supply-side assumptions into official forecasts so that capital gains cuts for the rich will promise growth for everyone.
Newt and the other Republican leaders know that Americans primarily experience liberty through the freedom to consume. We orient upwards, imagining ourselves rich someday. Although the Founding Fathers hoped that their hard-won system of self-governance would breed citizen philosophers, newly minted Americans wanted to ape aristocracy not in contemplation, but in possessions. As Richard Hofstadter noted, we’re anti-intellectual and more than a tad paranoid when our financial dreams are threatened.
Confronting this paranoia head-on is a frightening task, one the media have historically ducked. Initially, several mainstream outlets critiqued Newt, some reprinting or broadcasting updated versions of Mother Jones’ 1984 profile. But Newt wasn’t cowed. Like most bullies, Newt enjoys confrontations because they feed his worldview and rage.
No heart nourishes Newt. A master of projection, he shook down lobbyists during this past campaign by claiming that the Democrats had tried to impose a “Stalinist” and “punitive” reform bill on them. At the same time he warned them, “For anybody who’s not on board now, it’s going to be the two coldest years in Washington.” While he is promoting daycare for those within his House, it’s orphanages for those outside.
Newt’s own staff describes him, ironically, as a Leninist. The description fits. With his implacable cold will, Newt is certain that history is on his side. Since he is the future, all his acts of destruction must be unquestionably right.