Imagining a Gingrich Presidency

He's confrontational, volatile, and self-aggrandizing -- but those aren't the only reasons his former colleagues fear him becoming leader of the free world.


There is a serious debate among those who know Newt Gingrich well, particularly those who served with him in Congress and watched him not for the duration of a debate or speech but for hours at a time, day after day, year after year. On the one hand, there are those who fear for the country if he were ever to become president. That assessment seems a little extreme to others: they express no fear for the country because they believe (wrongly, I think) that he has no chance of becoming president. What they fear instead is the destruction of the Republican Party. The fact that those who know him best fear him the most makes it imperative to try to understand what a Gingrich nomination -- or presidency -- would mean, and to better understand who, exactly, this person is.

To this point, almost all of assessments of the Gingrich candidacy have been focused on the immediate campaign (for the Republican nomination) and the prospective campaign (the subsequent contest against Barack Obama). Those evaluations concern themselves with debate technique, ability to exploit weakness, and likeability. But this is not a sporting event, it is about who will serve as the next president of the United States. I acknowledge that I have frequently observed that the American presidency is a relatively constrained executive position, with most of the nation's ultimate powers residing with the peoples' representatives in the House and Senate. But the presidency is not a minor governmental position; whoever holds that office has some ability to do good and a frighteningly large ability to do harm. Which is why we should be assessing the campaign for the Republican nomination not in terms of who can be nastiest in a head-to-head showdown with Obama, but who can be wise, constrained, and strategic in dealing with the French, the Germans, the Chinese, the Brazilians, and the North Koreans. Newt Gingrich is not half as smart as he thinks he is, nor as he has persuaded easily-conned journalists and primary voters he is (more on that in a moment). But smart or not, nobody has ever accused him of either wisdom or constraint. This campaign is not just about 'taking it to Obama'; the current administration has not been a great success on any front and there is more than one Republican in the field who could ensure that the Obama presidency does not extend beyond the current term. The issue is not who would be most aggressive on the stump but to whom we should entrust America's future, America's prosperity, and America's safety. I am not associated with any campaign but of the choices available to us, the worst -- and that is saying something -- is Newt Gingrich.

I have known Newt Gingrich for 33 years. For several, he and I served together as members of the House Republican leadership. And to be honest, my first reactions were positive. We who were already in the House were pleased when he finally won his first election, in 1978, after two unsuccessful tries. He and I talked occasionally, sometimes in one of our two offices, sometimes on the House floor, once as I was giving him a ride home. He was ambitious and eager to engage in the process. During his first term, I established a small gathering of members I considered to be intelligent, thoughtful, and committed to an optimistic and big-tent conservatism. Newt was one of the members I invited to participate, along with friends like Jack Kemp, Bob Livingston, and Ed Bethune, each of whom had reached beyond the stereotypical conservative constituency and had worked assiduously to reach out to minorities and people with new approaches to problem-solving (Kemp was probably the archetype). I invited speakers ranging from the head of the public school system in Washington, D.C., to foreign policy experts, and a Georgetown professor named Jeane Kirkpatrick before she switched her primary focus to foreign affairs. I was deliberately selective in inviting colleagues into that group and had no hesitation about including Newt.

Over time, however, a different Newt began to emerge. We all knew he was intelligent: there's a lot of brain power in Congress and Gingrich was certainly in the top hundred, maybe the top 50. (To those who have bought into his shtick about being the resident genius, it's a two-sided coin. There were always a number of people in the room who were much smarter, but he's no dummy. He could hold his own). Nonetheless, despite the fact that he was initially taken seriously, Newt began to adopt a pose. He would not simply walk into a meeting, he would walk in clutching armloads full of newspapers, magazines, and other assorted papers. He had taught history for a short time in a college and had no need to try to impress others; we all read a lot, but usually left the newspapers at the breakfast table and the briefing papers in our offices.

(Newt's penchant for lecturing was brought home to me several years later, when I was teaching at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He developed a filmed "course" on government which he wanted to have offered for credit as a part of the Kennedy School curriculum. I was one of two faculty members tasked with reviewing the course, which mainly featured Newt, talking. I was then one of the few Republicans teaching at the Kennedy School and hoped this could be a good supplement to give our students an additional taste of how we Republicans view the government-citizen relationship. But the course, and the lectures that were its central feature, were shallow -- provocative and interesting at first, but essentially a patchwork of boiler-plate argument and hyperbole. The school had no choice but to send it back with a simple "no thanks.")

Newt also adopted another new practice in his meetings on the Hill, not just talking, but whipping out "briefing points." Newt became more and more entertaining and increasingly engendered a lot of eye-rolling. He also began a practice of "synthesizing." Because nobody particularly liked meetings and much that seemed self-evident was simply left unsaid, it became Newt's habit to rise late and proclaim what everybody in the room already knew but thought unnecessary to state. This, of course, left the impression of grandstanding but also led to the obvious conclusion that what he was saying was quite wise because it was precisely what each of us had also been thinking. I've always thought that if he had not entered politics, Newt should have gone to Hollywood; he has become unusually adept at adopting personas for public consumption. In that sense he is every bit as good as a Robert DeNiro or a Robert Duvall. He is, above all, an actor. This is why he is so appealing to those who know only what they see on a stage.

(Gingrich also gains credibility from claims of ties to the Reagan campaign; I cannot deny the claim since it is impossible to know every input into a presidential campaign, but since I was director of the policy task forces established in Congress to advise the Reagan campaign in 1980, named the task force members, and chaired our meetings with Reagan throughout the campaign, I would have thought I might have known of Gingrich's involvement, but perhaps it was undercover and he was secretly the brains behind that victory; I mean, who knows?)

I must say that none of this is particularly disturbing. We all try to shape how people see us, we all want to appear smarter than we may think ourselves to be, pats on the back are always welcome. Newt's self-aggrandizing antics were theater; weird, perhaps, but not anything to be concerned about. So why have so many people who know him now begun to warn about the possibility that he could become president -- and how has that come to pass, anyway?

First, as to how this prospect has arisen. Gingrich was a back-bencher in the House, noisy more than productive, but luck intervened to help him realize his ambitions. When Jim Wright succeeded Tip O'Neill as Speaker, Wright began to close down the process by which legislation is considered on the House floor, turning to the use of "closed rules" to prevent Republicans from offering amendments to the bills Wright and the Democratic leadership favored. Republicans had been in the minority for decades, but this was finally too much: when George H.W. Bush asked Republican Whip Dick Cheney to leave the House to take over the Department of Defense, Gingrich announced for the opening and won, though by only two votes. (If his opponent, Ed Madigan, had won, both of the party's top two leaders, good friends Madigan and Bob Michel, would have come from the same state delegation, Illinois). Even though the Los Angeles Times declared it a victory by a "confrontational conservative," it was only the first part of that description -- "confrontational" -- that was accurate. Newt Gingrich's only philosophy is Newt Gingrich and ironically he won because liberal Republicans, angry at being cut out of the legislative process, wanted the confrontation that Gingrich promised. Conservatives like Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, who became Speaker after House Republicans became tired of Gingrich's strong-arm tactics, had worked actively to prevent Gingrich's election to the leadership.

Yet this does not explain why so many -- myself included -- are so disturbed at the possibility of a Gingrich presidency. So first let us consider the attributes that are desirable in a President of the United States, whose job description includes representing America on the world stage and directing the administrative activities of the government in accordance with federal law. To describe Gingrich as "volatile" is like describing Picasso as somebody who liked to draw. Political chatterers point to this volatility as something to be concerned about in terms of a possible Gingrich eruption in the debates; I worry about it in terms of America's relationships with other nations. Gingrich sees the world as a battleground -- more than any other man alive, he is responsible for creating the non-stop partisan warfare that has made American government so dysfunctional. Even before his election as Republican Whip in 1989, Gingrich had begun to demand a no-compromise war for political power; it is his sole belief system. It is distinctly at odds with the Founders' conception of peoples' representatives gathering in a Congress to reason together to shape the nation's laws. It is why they argued against creating strong political parties like the ones they had left behind in Europe. But to Gingrich, parties -- confrontational parties -- are essential tools to be used to gain, and hold, power. It is power, not wise governance, that exerts the magnetic pull.

Gingrich would like to become a successor to the Republican Party's first president, Abraham Lincoln, yet no two men could be more different. Lincoln was a uniter who famously created a "team of rivals" and preached reconciliation in the wake of war; Gingrich is committed to the crushing of dissent. Lincoln was sufficiently committed to the rule of law that after suspending habeas corpus in the Civil War (one of the two occasions on which such an act is permissible), he asked the Congress, which had been in recess, to authorize the action; Gingrich wants to eliminate judges, and even entire courts, which do not rule as he wishes them to.

To imagine a Gingrich presidency, one must turn to his attenuated term as Speaker of the House (attenuated because his fellow Republicans could take no more of it). Gingrich took control of determining who could chair House committees and swept away long-serving conservatives who he deemed insufficiently confrontational. If he was uncertain whether committees would do his bidding without question, he bypassed them altogether and created his own Newt-appointed task forces to write the laws. Leadership positions were awarded to those who raised the most money for the party. The party of Newt rose within, and became the core of, the Republican side of the House of Representatives. Congress as a governing institution was transformed into a Roman-style arena for combat. Imagine now a cadre built around allegiance to Newt Gingrich at the center of American government: not even Lyndon Johnson was so insistent on fealty.

The first caucuses and primaries are near at hand. This is no longer a game. It's fun to watch the spectacle of hopefuls clawing at each other to win a party nomination. It is indeed, great sport. But it is now time to turn away from the spectacle of American Gladiator and consider not who we most like to watch -- the entertainer -- and begin to think seriously about the future of the United States. It is not a future we want to enter with a Newt Gingrich in the Oval Office.

Image credit: Reuters