Washington: "Conservative Opportunity Society"
Newt Gingrich and other Republicans win votes by talking like conservatives and spending like liberals
NEWT GINGRICH, a fourth-term congressman from the suburbs of Atlanta, has built a reputation for two things. One is his penchant for self-righteous public attacks on his colleagues. In 1979, during his first term in the House, he called on the members to expel Representative Charles Diggs, of Michigan, who had been convicted of embezzling office funds. In 1983, when a House investigating committee reported that Representatives Gerry Studds, of Massachusetts, and Daniel Crane, of Illinois, had had sexual relations with teenagers who were working as House pages, Gingrich said that they should be expelled too. In 1984 Gingrich made frequent speeches railing against the House Democrats for being soft on communism. These were delivered during sleepy afternoon sessions and broadcast to the nation on cable television. Eventually they provoked an outburst from the speaker, Thomas P. O’Neill, who called them “the lowest thing I have ever seen in my thirty-two years in the House.”
Second, Gingrich is known for his invention of the phrase “Conservative Opportunity Society.” Trailed by a phalanx of reporters, he turned preliminary sessions of last year’s Republican national convention into a battleground until “Conservative Opportunity Society” was inserted into the platform. President Reagan used the phrase “American opportunity society” in his second inaugural address. The number of congressmen who have adopted the COS banner (now that the phrase is taking off, Gingrich has begun to use the acronym almost exclusively) has swelled from fewer than a dozen two years ago to more than forty today. In national politics, and especially national Republican politics, catchphrases that seem to stand for new ideas have been incredibly potent of late, both as lures for voters and as ways to effect major changes in the direction of government—look at “supply-side economics” and “the window of vulnerability.” Now that politicians are preparing for the 1986 and 1988 elections, “Conservative Opportunity Society” seems to be the next important phrase.
The COS is usually taken for hype, and Gingrich for just an especially fasttalking member of the hard-line New Right. He does not make much of an effort to dispel this impression, for it gets him a political base and attention from the press. The COS, as set forth in Gingrich’s book, Window of Opportunity, is more systematic than Gingrich’s critics might expect, however. It is a hawkish, limited-government, growthand future-oriented, traditional-values American utopia, which can come into being only if the forces of the “Liberal Welfare State” (an innocuous term from political science, which Gingrich has elevated to capital letters and arch-villain status) can be defeated. I spent a few days with Gingrich this past winter to see how he translates his theory into political practice. At the end of that time I felt that I had a much better understanding of what the strain of conservatism that’s so strong in this country right now really is.
I thought I knew, too, why it’s likely to become even more powerful, and why it can’t last.
AT NINE ON A Wednesday morning late in January the COS congressmen met, as they do every Wednesday when Congress is in session, in a bare room in one of the House office buildings. A little after ten Gingrich bustled out and headed for his office. He is a chunky man of forty-one, with a mop of gray hair, a high voice, and the air of Dennis the Menace—exasperating but charming. He was walking with one of his protégés, Joe Barton, a freshman Republican representative from Texas. If there were a set of specifications for the model COS congressman, both Gingrich and Barton would fit it pretty well: they’re very junior members from new, booming districts. They are impatient with the deals by which both the House of Representatives and the country are run. Righteous outrage is their basic emotion, and it is summoned by a variety of provocations. What was provoking Gingrich, Barton, and other COS congressmen that Wednesday was the fact that Richard McIntyre, the Republican candidate in a close, disputed congressional race in Indiana, hadn’t been seated, though he’d been declared the winner (by a hair). Some members of the COS group had wanted to drape a chair on the House floor in black—or if not that, to do something. Gingrich was giving Barton some advice in that line.
“Look up the Wilkes case in the 1770s,” Gingrich said. (John Wilkes was a member of Parliament who was expelled because he had been convicted of seditious libel, re-elected, and then forbidden to take his seat.) Barton, at thirty-five as eager and fresh-faced as a choirboy, nodded dutifully and took notes. Gingrich continued, “This is a constitutional issue! It’s not a political issue! We have to make the press understand that. Now, when you deal with these people, you have to remember two things: absolute certainty and knowledge of detail. That’s what these reporters and editors want.”
Barton turned off toward his office.
When Gingrich got to his, he spotted Greg McDonald, a reporter for the Cox newspaper chain’s Washington bureau, who covers Gingrich for the Atlanta papers. In a story in that morning’s Atlanta Journal about Gingrich’s plans to participate in a debate about Nicaragua at Oxford University, McDonald had written that Gingrich has “little experience in foreign affairs.”
“Who has little experience in foreign affairs?” Gingrich said.
“Well, that’s true,” McDonald said.
“No! It’s not true! I have a Ph.D. in foreign affairs.” (Gingrich has a doctorate in modern European history from Tulane University.)
McDonald wasn’t going to go down without a fight. “What about active experience? What about committees?”
“Jack Kemp’s not on Ways and Means. I spoke in Salzburg last year. I’m one of the leading speakers on Nicaragua.” Gingrich paused for breath. “I am not a gadfly. This makes me look like a gadfly. I am one of actually few congressmen who systematically learns these things.”
He walked into his office (a room with a large bookcase and a circle of chairs and sofas but no desk), picked up the phone, and placed a call. In the middle of talking he interrupted himself to call out to Laurie James, his scheduler, in the next room, “Laurie, tell McDonald not to leave. Tell him I want to see him in a minute.” Back to the phone: “What time do you get up? Seven? Call me at home, any time after six-thirty.” He hung up and walked out of his office. “Where’s Greg? Did he leave? What I want to arrange is for me and him to go to dinner.”
But McDonald was gone. In the outer office were two men wearing name tags that said “Balanced Budget Brigade” — drop-ins, a part of every congressman’s life. Gingrich chatted with them until his next visitor, a former staff member who wanted to say good-bye before leaving town, arrived. When she left, three of Gingrich’s assistants came in, each bearing a mountain of paper. One of the three, Greg Waddell, stepped forward, handed Gingrich a stack, and stood by as Gingrich riffled through it. “No,” he said. “Sure . . . yes . . . yes . . . no . . . yes, yes. Send a copy of this over to Burt Pines [an executive at the Heritage Foundation] and put on it: ‘Example of bureaucratic undermining of Reagan policy.’ Anything else?”
“That’s it,” Waddell said. Gingrich turned to his assistant Robert Lamutt.
“Robert? What you got?”
“All I’ve got is a question on taxing veterans’ benefits,” Lamutt said. In these times of concern about the federal deficit such schemes to increase revenues come up frequently. Because they usually offend some organized group, Gingrich usually opposes them.
Gingrich glanced at the piece of paper that Lamutt handed him. “Yes, I think we’re against taxing veterans’ benefits,” he said. “Whose idea is that?”
“Stockman’s,” Lamutt replied. Both men chuckled. In November, Gingrich had written a letter, later published by The Washington Post, to David Stockman, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, in which he accused Stockman of being “the greatest obstacle to a successful revolution from the Liberal Welfare State to an Opportunity Society.”
“My instinct is that’s not an issue you want to handle in isolation.” Gingrich, who likes to make Jerry Brown—style comparisons of politics to Zen philosophy, says that opposing cuts in what to the naked eye look like Liberal Welfare State programs is the best way to promote the Conservative Opportunity Society, because it makes conservatives appear humane. Cutting such programs, as Stockman wants to do, helps the Liberal Welfare State, by winning it converts among the victims, most of whom (like many veterans) want federal money but nevertheless think of themselves as conservatives. In this case there was also the matter of not stirring up a hornets’ nest in his district, as a tax on veterans’ benefits would surely do.
A third assistant, Sherri Zedd, handed Gingrich a “Dear colleague” letter that another congressman wanted him to sign before it went out to all the House members. “I’m, um, no, although I’m sympathetic,” Gingrich said. “I just don’t want to get involved right now. I don’t want the tobacco lobby beating up on me.”
Zedd handed him a few sheets of paper stapled together. “Trent Lott sent this questionnaire of what you’d like to cut from the budget,” she said.
Lott is the minority whip of the House, which makes him the secondranking Republican. He is the only member of the leadership to have cultivated a friendship (hearty, but a bit at arm’s length) with the COS congressmen. Gingrich eyed the questionnaire suspiciously. Like most congressmen, he tries to avoid endorsing specific budget cuts—though he eloquently supports a balanced budget. “Do we have to send this in?” he asked. “Do we get in trouble?”
He began leafing through the questionnaire. “Yes.” He marked one of the questions with a pen. “I would even freeze the trust funds. How’s that for being radical?” He continued leafing through. “This is one of those . . . I understand why he’s doing it, but frankly . . .” Apparently, Gingrich was getting the uneasy feeling that this was a budget-cutting exercise that could only lead to problems back home and to problems for the COS cause.
“Yeah, now, Part B of this one is something that we ought to check its impact on Montgomery County,” he said, naming a county in a neighboring district that could be hurt by the cutback. He kept going. “Make sure these cuts are part of a package. I ain’t gonna go it alone on this. But if it’s on an emergency basis, I’d be very close to zero-based budgeting, really being very tough.” He put the questionnaire down. “Do they have things like—where’s foreign aid in all this? Ask Trent. Say I can be as tough on this as I need to be, but it has to be a total package, including defense, and where’s foreign aid and the State Department budget?”
That completed the business at hand. The assistants gathered their papers and stood up to leave. “I would like to try to give you all this kind of meeting once or twice a week,” Gingrich said. “At least once. I’m really gonna try to squeeze you in.”
Gingrich’s next appointment was with David Klein, the executive director of the American Council on Germany, who had come to try to persuade Gingrich to speak at a seminar in Dallas in March. Through Laurie James, Gingrich had already said no, but Klein felt—correctly, as it turned out—that a little arm-twisting in person would make Gingrich change his mind.
Gingrich greeted Klein warmly, they sat down, and then Gingrich had an idea. “Do you want to say to somebody that I know something about foreign policy?” he asked. He called to the outer office: “Is McDonald here?”
AFTER “CONSERVATIVE Opportunity Society” and “Liberal Welfare State,” Gingrich’s favorite phrase is “majority status”—the status Gingrich wants for the Republican Party, both in the House and in the nation. Publicopinion polls show that more voters identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans, though the margin has narrowed considerably over the past decade. The Democrats also continue to control most state and local governments. Gingrich, like most other young conservatives, is obsessed with making Republicanism more popular, which is the salient difference between his and Barry Goldwater’s generation.
For years conservatives deeply mistrusted the eastern press. Many still do, but Gingrich courts the press, perceiving that political battles are won and lost in newspapers and on television. He promotes himself especially to reporters who are inclined to dislike him, because in the course of portraying him as an ogre they do him the great service of making him a star. Conservatives traditionally have professed their allegiance to a set of inviolable principles, but Gingrich seeks to win the public over with slogans—winning by seizing what he calls the “linguistic high ground.” He believes that Republicans should reach out to key groups in the Democratic constituency, especially blacks; for example, he has maneuvered the COS congressmen into a position of staunch opposition to apartheid. He doesn’t support such less-than-universally popular conservative causes as the Human Life Amendment, a return to the gold standard. and a bigger military budget. Practically the only area in which he’s an oldfashioned conservative is foreign policy.
Gingrich combines a rhetoric of radicalism (“revolution” is a favorite word) with specific policies that offend only infinitesimal constituencies (such as foreign-service officers). Reagan, apparently more instinctively than deliberately, does the same thing. When Gingrich was a young man, Reagan opposed such liberal reforms as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare, and Medicaid; today he embraces them, but his language is as combative as ever.
GINGRICH’S NEXT VISITOR was Hedrick Smith, of The New York Times, who conducted a long interview about the COS group’s bright vision of the Republican future. Then Gingrich went to a weekly lunch for leaders of the New Right. When he got back to his office, a camera crew from NBC News was set up and waiting.
“What are we doing?” Gingrich asked.
“We’re talking about Mrs. Kirkpatrick,” Leslie Sewell, the reporter from NBC, replied.
“What happened today?”
“How do I look?” Gingrich asked. “Do I look all right?”
Gingrich called out to Laurie James, in the other room. “I want to call Lott, Vander Jagt, and Joe Gaylord.”
Sewell said, “So as far as we know, she’s on her way back to New York right now and will leave the Administration. I just want to start off with a general reaction from you.” The crew turned its lights on and started to shoot.
“Well, I think it’s a terrible mistake to let Jeane Kirkpatrick leave the Administration,” Gingrich said. “I think there’s been a systematic effort in the past few months to put in a foreign-service approach, and I think they’re people who deceive themselves about the nature of the Soviet Union. It’s a decisive defeat for the conservative movement in trying to effect a more realistic foreign policy and a more realistic approach to the Soviet Union.” He paused. “There’s in effect been a bureaucratic coup d’état in foreign policy. They don’t share Ronald Reagan’s values; they don’t believe in a free market.”
Sewell had a good quote, and now she could relax. “Tell me what else is going on,” she said.
“I think the thing that’s gonna blow this House open is the McIntyre thing in Indiana,” Gingrich said. “We have no record in history of a certified congressman not being seated.”
One of the cameramen spoke up from the back of the room: “Congressman, if you’ll just listen for a minute. We need that shot.”
Gingrich stopped talking and nodded sagely for a little while. The cameramen turned off their lights.
“Look at the Wilkes case in the 1770s,” Gingrich said. “We will make it impossible for this House to function. You’ll see literal war in the House. This is a constitutional issue, not a political issue. This is not a game. This is like Watergate in the House.”
The crew left. Laurie James reached Joe Gaylord, the executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Gingrich picked up the phone. “Hi, there. How’re you doing?” he said. “Hedrick Smith, of The New York Times, was here; he’ll call to see your data. Now, the second thing: did you see Coelho’s chart from yesterday?” (Tony Coelho, a Democratic congressman from California, was in charge of the Democrats’ efforts to seat Francis X. McCloskey, their man in Indiana, instead of McIntyre; also he had recently sent every Democrat in the House a copy of an extremely unflattering article that had appeared in the magazine Mother Jones about Gingrich’s bitter relations with his ex-wife and several former aides. As his opening salvo in the war of perceptions, Coelho had produced for the press a chart showing how Republicans had stolen the election from McCloskey.)
Gingrich went on: “We should take Coelho’s chart and redo it as our own chart showing what really happened. I think the press is beginning to pick up the scent that this is a constitutional issue, not a political issue. But we’ve got to really break Coelho’s believability with the national press and with many Democrats. See what I’m getting at? All right, you’re a great American.”
He hung up. Laurie James got Guy Vander Jagt, a veteran Republican representative from Michigan and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, on the phone. “Hi, Guy, how’re you doing?” said Gingrich. “I just wanted you to know I talked to Joe. Coelho’s chart is full of untruths and distortions. What I’d like to do is get two charts and systematically track it through. Get Cheney”—Richard Cheney, a Republican representative from Wyoming—“to brief the press, because they believe he’s nonpartisan. Write a letter, hand-deliver it, with the press watching: ‘We have reluctantly come to the conclusion that this is a constitutional issue. . . .’”
Vander Jagt replied at some length; evidently the leadership preferred to work on the problem quietly. Gingrich listened, rolled his eyes, and held the phone away from his ear so that Vander Jagt’s sonorous drone, perfected over the decades, could be heard emanating from the receiver. There wasn’t any mistaking Gingrich’s message: Vander Jagt’s reaction was the essence of the old politics, against which Gingrich’s whole career stands in sharp relief.
After Gingrich got off the phone, he ran out to a meeting with Representative James Howard, of New Jersey, the chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, and Andrew Young, the mayor of Atlanta. Gingrich and Young wanted Howard to put $58 million in federal highway-construction funds for the Atlanta freeways into a major highway bill; Howard agreed, provided Gingrich would support the whole bill, and Gingrich said that that would be fine. This was good district politics, and both Howard and Young were important to Gingrich: Howard because Public Works is Gingrich’s only important committee assignment, and Young because he is not just a Georgia politician but also a national black leader, and so a crucial potential ally for the COS. After the meeting Gingrich and Young parted fondly. Young flattered Gingrich by asking if he could send his daughter Andrea by to meet him.
Gingrich’s predecessor from the sixth district of Georgia, John Flynt, had been the dean of the state’s congressional delegation. He had stopped holding regular delegation meetings in 1972, the year Young had been elected to Congress from Atlanta, because he didn’t want to integrate the meetings. A lot had changed in a dozen years.
Then again, a lot had changed in thirty minutes, which was how much time had elapsed between Gingrich’s lamentation for Jeane Kirkpatrick to the NBC News crew and his warm talk with Young, who, as Kirkpatrick’s predecessor at the United Nations, had been the embodiment of her notion of a Democratic tendency to “blame America first.“ Fierce conservatives like Kirkpatrick would find it as hard as Flynt had merely to speak to Andrew Young, though for an entirely different reason. But Gingrich doesn’t want to and doesn’t have to despise Young simply because he adores Kirkpatrick. In fact, he moved from one to the other without missing a beat, just as he had exchanged the role of the outraged young ideologue with Vander Jagt for that of the pork-barrelvote swapper with Howard.
BACK IN HIS office Gingrich pushed an automatic-dialing button on his phone to call Trent Lott’s office. “Hello, this is Newt,” he said. “Is Trent around?” There was a brief wait. “Hi there, Leader. How you? Listen, a couple of things. A number of us feel we should fight this McIntyre thing as if it’s a constitutional issue comparable to Watergate—thirty-five of us, forty of us— that is, the end of the House as an orderly body, including civil disobedience if necessary. It’s a constitutional issue, not a political issue.”
Gingrich listened for a while, evidently to a version of the story in which the seat hadn’t clearly been won by McIntyre and then stolen from him by corrupt Democrats.
“Yeah, I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “You’re right. Yes, sir. If we’re not on full ground, we won’t ask Michel”—Robert Michel, of Illinois, the House minority leader—“to seat him. I’ll check it all out. I’ll accept it if McIntyre lost, but if he won it’s a constitutional issue.”
The conversation didn’t seem to dampen Gingrich’s enthusiasm for the fight—he immediately made another call about the McIntyre affair—but he told his staff that he wanted to do more research. The issue was at that moment like a swell that might or might not become a wave; it existed, but it was not yet the kind of small matter that several times a year grips Washington’s attention for a week or two. That morning’s edition of The Washington Post, for example, had carried a story on the Indiana race, but it had been on page six and had run under the headline PARTIES BICKER ON HOUSE SEAT. With effort, the issue could perhaps become a major one, but if it didn’t, Gingrich would look foolish for having flogged it too hard.
Some people from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority came in. They were concerned that Stockman would try to cut federal mass-transit funds and that MARTA wouldn’t be able to extend the Atlanta subway system to the airport, which is in Gingrich’s district. In the middle of the conversation the phone rang; it was Joe Barton, the COS freshman from Texas, who was reporting on the lack of movement in the McIntyre case.
“Why don’t you do this?” Gingrich said. “Why don’t you write a letter to Meg Greenfield [the editorial-page editor of The Washington Post]? Say, ‘I’m a freshman, I’m a presidential scholar, Tony Coelho is engaged in an explicit campaign of disinformation, and I don’t know what the procedure is for sitting down with your editorial board.’ Send it to Ms. Meg Greenfield. And put a P.S. on it that says, ‘Newt Gingrich told me that sometimes idealism really works.’ And after a few weeks of this at least she’ll return your phone calls. At least she’ll know who Joe Barton is. And then you’ll be influencing The Washington Post. Okay? Take care.”
He hung up and turned back to the transit officials. “I have an inclination to be against operating subsidies,” he said, for the moment stepping out of his role as Sixth District congressman into that of conservative theorist.
“That’d be fifteen more cents on every fare,” a member of the delegation shot back.
Gingrich thought for a moment. “Can you get a story?” he said, meaning could they arrange for a story in the press on MARTA’s efficient management. “A major piece outside of Georgia. An In Search of Excellence kind of thing. The more we can communicate that, the easier it is for me to walk into OMB and say, ‘This is not just parochialism.’”
The day was winding down. There were a couple more drop-ins. Gingrich sent Greg Waddell out to pick up his tuxedo so that he could change for the National Press Club’s annual dinner that night. His last call was to Benjamin Elliott, President Reagan’s chief speechwriter. That day Delta Airlines, by far the biggest company headquartered in Gingrich’s district, had announced that its reservations agents would henceforth take reservations for Air Atlanta. Such arrangements are not unusual in the airline business, but in this case Delta serves all of Air Atlanta’s destinations and so had had nothing to gain from the deal. Gingrich and other politicians had talked Delta into the agreement with the argument that it would be, in Gingrich’s words, “a very statesmanlike thing to do,” because Air Atlanta is the largest black-owned airline in the country. Air Atlanta’s chairman, Michael Hollis, had called Gingrich in jubilation. Hollis suggested that President Reagan mention him in the State of the Union address; Gingrich was trying to sell the idea to Elliott.
Many conservatives would recoil in horror at the thought of politicians pressuring a company into a decision for reasons of race rather than efficiency; in the conservative movement racial quotas, minority business set-asides, and the like are at the top of the list of evils right now. Gingrich, however, saw the deal as a chance to sell blacks on the Republican Party and the COS. Consistently he seems willing to abandon specific conservative beliefs for the sake of the aura of conservatism—the ever-growing appeal of the word itself. Gingrich told Elliott, “The President could point up to the gallery. He could say, ‘There’s a successful young black entrepreneur, and he was willing to come up and be recognized.‘ ”
SOME TIDAL FORCE that acts on all congressmen is pulling Gingrich a little more toward the role of the insider. In early 1983, at the start of the Ninetyeighth Congress, he gave up a chance to be the ranking minority member on the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the Public Works Committee, temporarily ceding the position to Representative Guy Molinari, of New York. At the time, Gingrich wanted to play the maverick within the House and to avoid being tied down by legislative duties that would keep him from promoting the COS. Now, at the start of the Ninety-ninth Congress, he was repositioning himself. He had become the middleman between the leadership and COS freshmen like Joe Barton and Robert Smith, of New Hampshire. During the week of my visit he decided to exercise his seniority prerogative to unseat Molinari and take over as the ranking Republican on Investigations and Oversight.
There was an irony here. One reason Gingrich had shied away from Investigations and Oversight was that the subcommittee had been chaired by Elliott Levitas, a Democrat from a neighboring district in suburban Atlanta. Whatever the subcommittee did for Atlanta, Levitas (and by extension the Liberal Welfare State) would have been in a position to take all the credit. In November, Levitas had lost his seat to Patrick Swindall, a young Republican with COS leanings; now when the subcommittee brought home the bacon, it would be Gingrich and the COS that got the credit. As the ranking Republican, he would have control over one staff position and would have a new eminence in the inner councils of Public Works, where construction and dredging dollars are parceled out. Finally, there was the possibility that Gingrich could use Investigations and Oversight, with its vague mission, as a forum for publicized hearings on virtually anything that he wanted.
Gingrich handled his decision in a way that couldn’t have outraged the other Republican members more. If he had made up his mind two weeks earlier, when committee assignments were being handed out, Molinari and Representative Clay Shaw, of Florida, who had been set to be the ranking Republican on Public Works’s lowliest subcommittee, Public Buildings and Grounds, could have worked out other assignments. Because Gingrich had waited until it was too late for that, Molinari would probably choose to become the ranking Republican on the next subcommittee down—Economic Development—and as the dominoes fell, Shaw was likely to lose his ranking status altogether. Not only that—Gingrich had not yet told Molinari and Shaw what he was up to. Here it was Thursday, January 31, and he was just getting around to putting in his call to Shaw.
“Clay?” he said. “I think I owe you an apology. I’m going to be ranking on I&O, and I think you’re going to get bumped. I’m sorry. I owe you one. Let’s sit down and have a drink. I’m the cause of your problem. I should have talked to you before. I owe you a big one.”
Now it was time for the call he really dreaded—to Molinari. He rolled his eyes and picked up the phone. “Guy, this is Newt,” he said. “I’m calling to tell you I’ve decided to take ranking on I&O. Just the day before yesterday.” He listened for a long time, and when he talked again it was without his usual speed and exuberance. “I think if you follow precisely what I’m saying, you’ll see the implications of what I’m doing. Clay made exactly the point you’re making: If I was gonna do this, damn it, I should’ve done it two weeks ago.” He listened some more. “Yeah, I think you’re correct, and this isn’t my style, frankly, and frankly this is one of the least pleasant phone calls I’ve made in my seven years up here. I’ve stepped on toes before, and I know the consequences. Anything I can do to help you, Guy. . . . If Levitas had stayed. I might not be doing this. And let me know what I can do in any sense to facilitate or make this up to you.”
Gingrich hung up. “He was very good about that.” he said.
GINGRICH MADE A couple of calls about the McIntyre affair, and then Laurie James stuck her head into his office and said that Representative Robert Walker, a COS congressman from Pennsylvania, had just called from the House floor. “He said you’d better get over there, because Coelho’s starting a fight on McIntyre,” she said.
This was exciting news: a dramatic showdown on the floor—assuming that the press had been alerted—could instantly make the McIntyre issue a big deal, which it so plainly wasn’t now. Just to think about the COS’s merry band taking on the establishment again got the juices flowing. Gingrich hurried to the floor.
He got there to find a familiar scene. It was the time of the afternoon given to Special Orders—minor matters that members want to read into the Congressional Record after the regular business is over and everybody has left. The COS congressmen use Special Orders to make their speeches denouncing the Democrats and the Liberal Welfare State, and that day they were out in force, taking turns talking about McIntyre. Coelho was nowhere in sight. A couple of ranking Democrats wandered in and Gingrich talked to them. Then he sat in a back row and chatted with Bill Frenzel, a high-ranking Republican representative from Minnesota, letting other COS congressmen do the speechifying about Watergate and constitutional crisis. At one point Trent Lott came onto the floor with Robert Michel, but they talked in a corner and did not seem to pay the fiery speeches of the COS congressmen the slightest heed. The cabletelevision cameras, in accordance with Tip O’Neill’s orders, periodically panned the chamber to show that nobody was listening. It took a certain imperviousness to embarrassment, possessed only by members of the COS group, to make these speeches. After half an hour Gingrich left.
On the way back to his office he stopped a couple of members to talk about McIntyre and summoned a researcher from the Congressional Research Service to come and brief him on the historical background. According to the researcher, McIntyre’s case was unusual but it was not unique; moreover, the Wilkes case was not really a precedent. “The strangest thing about Washington, D.C., is nobody does his homework,” Gingrich said when the researcher had left. “We’ve been in this case fora month, and nobody’s done the research.“ Gingrich would stay on it, of course, but he seemed to be losing his fervor. “It’s your seventh year, you have thirty or forty people, a movement’s building, and all of a sudden things that in your first year weren’t risks . . .” He trailed off. “If we spent six hundred hours on McIntyre versus six hundred hours on tax reform, which gets us closer to the world we’re trying to build?”
Gingrich’s administrative assistant, Mary Brown, and Laurie James came in to talk about how his schedule should be arranged, given the increasing number of requests for Gingrich to speak. They are the senior members of a staff with high turnover, and this was part of a never-ending effort to get Gingrich organized. The immediate issue, however, was Gingrich’s acceptance of David Klein’s invitation to speak in Dallas, which in an earlier and more sensible moment he had turned down.
“First of all, Dallas is a very important market,” Gingrich said. “California, Texas, and Florida are the most important parts of the country, according to Megatrends. If we got something with the California Republican Party, twenty thousand people, in the LA media market . . .”
Just then Sherri Zedd, the legislative assistant, came in. “Mike Toohey just called, the staff director of I&O,” she said. “He said Molinari may be mounting a challenge to you. He asked them to check the status of pulling rank.”
This news shook Gingrich, making him nervous and angry. The perceptions of voters, not of House members, are his natural medium; to deal with the Molinari problem he would have to be wary, rather than cheerfully outrageous. “If I’m doing this, I’m not gonna lose,” he said. “I’m not going out on this limb for fun. Get me that list of members. I’ll call every member of that committee today and tomorrow.” Gingrich softened a little. “I think he’s pretty upset. It’s largely because I’m moving so late. He’s a good politician. I think he knew this was coming. I think he’s very irked that I waited, and he’s probably right.”
Zedd was dispatched to find out whether Molinari could really do this; Gingrich, slightly chastened, turned back to Laurie James and Mary Brown. “All right, I think we may want to say no to Dallas,” he said. Then he began to deliver a soliloquy on his schedule. “I’m always interested in anything in New York, California, Texas, Chicago, and Florida,” he said. “And I want to keep rnv hand in foreign affairs. Teeter” — Robert Teeter, a leading Republican pollster—“says foreign affairs is, after tax policy, the reason the younger generation is coming to us. I’m on the advisory board of the American Council on Germany—because it gets me into New York. I’m just trying to work through in my head here why I said yes. This’ll buy me another year and a half of Klein running around New York in his circles saying that Newt Gingrich is a good guy, which is very important to me.” He looked at his assistants. “I want you to understand what’s running in my head as I make a decision like that. Help build a COS movement in Europe. Meet with the three congressmen in that market and talk about maybe doing something.”
“If you’re gonna go to Dallas, you ought to do a COS fundraiser,” said Brown.
Gingrich nodded and plunged on. “A good example is the TV news directors speech. TV news directors is real important. Incredibly important. That’s the central nervous system. They’re the ones who make the decision to put Gingrich on. If we can do Face the Nation, that’s very valuable. I mean, last night’s dinner”—the National Press Club’s— “made no sense, except the news media could see me walking through the crowd.”
He grinned. “I still can’t get used to the idea that so many people want me to come to the dance.”
THE MORE I saw of Gingrich, the more I wondered what his nefarious Liberal Welfare State is exactly. In Stockman’s vision it is the Democrats’ mass buy-off of their constituency with government dollars; a conservative state would be purged of such corruption. But even under an exultantly conservative President that purge hasn’t come close to occurring. For his part, Gingrich is in favor of practically everything that the term “Liberal Welfare State” covers: Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies (including special measures to deal with the current farm crisis), strong unions, affirmative action (but not quotas), and even a “domestic content” bill to limit automobile imports (there is a large Ford Motor plant in his district). What is he against?
“The Liberal Welfare State: these words that were neutral in the fifties have an incredibly pejorative connotation today,” he said when I put this question to him. “This country picks ‘COS’ over ‘Liberal Welfare State’ seventy-four to nineteen in polls. We fieldtested the terms just in terms of not knowing what it is, but how do you feel about it intuitively. ‘COS’ even carried blacks.”
Gingrich defined the Liberal Welfare State that he was talking about as “the baroque phase of liberalism: the Soviet Union as puzzling and benign, no growth, rationing.” He said, “We’re post—New Deal conservatives, not antiNew Deal conservatives. Most of the old order worked. But the fringes of the old order failed.”
Gingrich seems to hold a cluster of opinions on domestic policy that have been popping through the seams of American politics for more than ten years. Democrats like Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, and Jimmy Carter, and Republicans like Jack Kemp and even David Stockman seem to have in common the belief that we all know where the dogs are in the American government’s activities and that we ought to clear them out to make room for some sort of new order. But Gingrich is a politician first and a theorist second. As a politician he knows two things: Americans today like to think of themselves as conservatives, and they are righteously protective of whatever programs benefit them. This paradox helps to explain why the most
conservative President in fifty years or more has produced by far the largest deficits in peacetime. For all his talk of revolution, Gingrich isn’t about to gore the ox of anybody who votes. What he has to sell is three words, not a set of explicit policies that have winners and losers.
The conservative politicians in ascendance in this country will reach a turning point when they have to say no to powerful constituencies. They haven’t had to do so yet, because the economy is growing and the deficit has not had any politically unpopular consequences. Gingrich hopes they will never have to. “We may be in a transformation of such power that the economy catches up with the government,” he says. “We may become so much incredibly richer that these things won’t matter.” If such riches do not come to pass, then conservatives either will be forced to make the kind of choices that Gingrich abhors because they alienate voters or they will find themselves re-enacting Animal Farm, having become welfare-state liberals in everything but name.
Now, though, is the right’s golden moment. Practically everybody is a conservative, and politicians can ride their opposition to the word liberal to the stars. Conservatives don’t have to be against the Civil Rights Act and Social Security anymore. In fact, it seems quaint that they ever did. Because Newt Gingrich understands all this, he has achieved among his brethren a weird kind of eminence: okay to dislike, not okay to trifle with.
THE NEXT MORNING, as Gingrich was leaving his office for a meeting, Laurie James looked up from her desk. “Mr. Molinari just called,” she said. “He has a speech in Orlando to airline financial officers on February 8. Can you make it instead of him?”
“Um . . .” Airline financial officers in Orlando? This was not a glamorous offer. It could be taken as an insult or as a way of showing Gingrich what the work of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee was all about. But it was a concession, too, wasn’t it?
“He said the speech is already written,” James said.
“Well, let’s see it,” Gingrich said. “Yeah, sure.”