The testament according to Newt

In an interview with Salon, House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks about the president's popularity, America's attitude toward adultery, accusations that he is mean, his own political goals, religious beliefs and what character he would most like to play in a movie.

By David Wallis
May 4, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
main article image

WASHINGTON -- Last week House Speaker Newt Gingrich returned to the political fray in unmistakable manner, firing off broadsides against President Clinton on the campaign finance scandals and the Lewinsky affair. He lambasted critics of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, accusing them of undermining the Constitution. "I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic," Gingrich declared. Reporter Elizabeth Drew said last week that Gingrich has talked with close associates about the possibility of impeaching both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- a report the speaker's office labeled "fantasies."

So much for the quieter, gentler Newt, who until recently had been circumspect, even statesmanlike, about the president's alleged scandals. In fact, before last week's outbursts, the speaker had appeared to be going through something of a makeover, described in his latest book, "Lessons Learned the Hard Way."


During a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, Gingrich -- dressed in gray slacks and a blue and white gingham shirt open at the collar -- came across as eloquent, easygoing, quick with a chuckle or an impromptu history lesson.

Still, he seemed to restrain himself more than once. You could almost see his jaw muscles working as he tried to clamp down on his tongue. Nevertheless, after the interview was conducted, he fired off a few verbal grenades as if he were still a defiant backbencher.

During the interview, he said little about the impeachment scenario, but spoke extensively about public opinion, morals, his political goals and religious beliefs, his reputation for meanness and who he would most like to play in a movie.


You draw a distinction in your book between public opinion and public judgment. Do President Clinton's robust poll numbers in the face of the scandals swirling around him reflect the former or the latter?

[Pollster Daniel] Yankelovich makes the argument that public opinion is what you say when asked by a reporter about a topic you haven't thought about. And most of the time you are repeating something you heard somebody else say. Public judgment is what you say after you and the people you trust have talked about [a topic] at length. The president's health plan did very well in public opinion the morning after the speech; it did very badly in public judgment eight months later.

Public judgment tends to be much more complex and more introspective. I think the public has exercised both right now with the president. On one hand, the public has heard a lot of noise for a long time and refused to pay attention. "Oh that's more of the same." On the other hand, the president has asserted very forcefully his innocence and so far the public is willing to suspend its judgment, so long as his innocence is not disproved. I wouldn't want to bet an enormous amount of money on those [poll] numbers.


Do you expect that there will be impeachment hearings?

I do not think about it. I wait for Judge Starr to brief us.

C'mon, you don't think about it?

No, I rigorously don't think about it.

Many have argued that the Lewinsky allegations, even if true, should be a private matter between her and the president. When should a politician's private life remain private?


I think when it does not involve the violation of law and does not involve the gross violation of public trust it should remain private. I think we've had 35 years of soap operas and they've actually weakened the country. I don't believe that America was in any way weakened, and I believe it was in many ways strengthened, by the fact that the press allowed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to have a private life. I believe that America fought the Second World War better because the press corps decided that there were zones in which they would not cover, such as private behavior. But I think over the last 35 years there has been a process of degrading the entire quality of public life that has been astonishing.

Has the average American's attitude toward adultery changed since the 1960s?

No, I don't think it has changed dramatically. "Peyton Place" was
written when I was in high school. I used to tell my students, if you
can find something that isn't in the Bible, come tell me. Until then I will assume that you are repeating normal human behavior. No one ever showed up. The Old Testament is replete with every possible human weakness and every possible venality because it turned out that it was written about humans. We are governed as humans, by humans for humans.


Nicholas Mills, author of the "The Triumph of Meanness:
America's War Against Its Better Self," was asked once who he thought is the one person most responsible for fostering meanness in American society? He replied: "Newt Gingrich, who made meanness respectable by continually promoting the notion of 'welfare queens' to the middle class. Being tough on the
poor suddenly wasn't acting cruel, but just doing something positive."

The cultural style of meanness began, if anywhere, with "All in the
Family" -- and a kind of viciously self-destructive, interpersonal
behavior that became the national norm. Cultural tone does matter.
We're into a kind of humor that's so malicious that one day I called the president and urged him not to go to another event featuring a
comedian, because I was embarrassed for the president, his wife and the country.

Starting with pure personal invective, I would say that the
gentleman quoted must have suffered from amnesia or missed most of the 20 years preceding my becoming speaker of the House to figure that it began when I became speaker. And I suspect that if he went back and read the things said about Dan Quayle, for example, he'd be astonished by how mean they often were. Or for that matter the things said about Ronald Reagan. In fact, what I have suggested consistently is that the word "compassion" means with passion at its root, and that Marvin Olasky is right when he says no bureaucrat by definition can behave officially with compassion although they can as private citizens.


What we have done in reforming welfare has, in fact, improved the lives of 2.2 million people who have left welfare for the private sector. The question that I would ask the man quoted is: Does he truly believe that New York City was better off when it had 1.2 million people on welfare than under Rudy Giuliani, when for the first time since 1967 there's less than 800,000 people on welfare? Or does he think that the 400,000 additional people going to work, the civility, the cleanliness of the streets and the general demeanor is in fact an improvement?

You write that you could probably spend nearly every day answering the mean and distorted things that you've got to hear and read about yourself. What were the meanest and most distorted?

I can't tell you. I eventually learned Margaret Thatcher's rule. I
don't read them anymore. I just block them out. When in doubt I go to the Smithsonian or the American Museum of Natural History or a zoo.

Are you considering retiring in 2002?


Sure. At the pace at which I do this job I can't sustain it for more
than eight years.

Have you accomplished everything that you want to in the legislative branch?

We've got four and a half more years. No one person accomplishes
everything. My goals are a majoritarian Republican party, which is
inclusive and problem solving. A 21st century information age
legislative branch. Then I have four big national goals and two building block goals: a drug free America, dramatically less crime, creating a world standard educational system, dramatic change in retirement. And then, moving us toward an information age government that only costs you 25 percent of your income, not 38 percent. And having science as the central driving provider of knowledge, information and jobs for the 21st Century. If I can get those eight things done, if I can get them up and running in a way that is stable and understandable by 2002, then I've done my job.

Are you saying that you have no plans to run for president in 2000?


I am currently only planning to be reelected as speaker of this hall and I currently am assuming that I will run for speaker again in 2000, but I'm not excluding any other option. I'm essentially an idea-oriented political leader and I believe the ideas matter more than the personalities.

But wouldn't there be more of a chance in the executive branch to generate and execute ideas?

Considering my background, who I am, where I came from, this has been the right job, because I needed at least three years in this job just to learn how to do it. Remember, no Republican had done this job since Nicholas Longworth in the 1920s. There were no role models. There was nobody to sit and talk with.

What lessons did you learn from the Republicans losing the presidential campaign in 1996?


We should have taken much more seriously the Democrats' September 1995 ad campaign, which was the initial launch of what was to be 120,000 negative ads; and I think we should have been much more aggressive in figuring out early on that they were breaking the law to do that. We kept saying, "They're going to run out of money," but they didn't because they broke the law. When you look back, it was the most illegal presidential campaign in history.

We also did not have an argument in 1996 that we were capable of winning, which would have defined the election on terms we could have won. That was a huge mistake. The central principal is
always the same, and Margaret Thatcher said it better than anybody:
"First you win the argument, then you win the vote." Every time we
defined an argument and won the argument, we won the election. Every
time we hide from the argument, we lose the election.

But don't you think the framers of the Constitution would be appalled at how much time politicians devote to raising money, rather than arguing over the issues?

Yes, and I think that the framers would point out that it's entirely an artifact of $1,000 campaign [contribution] limits which have not been indexed since 1974. Common Cause first created the problem and now complain about the problem they created and want to make it even worse by restricting free speech. We should have indexed the donations to Super Bowl TV commercials. Look at what it costs today for congressional races to buy a 30-second commercial. Now, you tell me which side is more obscene: those who charge that amount of money while editorializing piously against the cost of campaigning or those who raise the money to buy the ads? I think we should be honest about it. The information age is expensive. It ain't going to get cheaper, because you have to compete with Nike and Coca-Cola to get your message though.

If you could add one article to the Constitution, what would it be?

If I couldn't change the courts' mistaken interpretation of the
religious liberties laws, I would be for a constitutional amendment to require the government not to infringe upon your right to practice religion. This was a country in which God was in the public arena, not a country which drove God out of it.

You are a religious man; you go to church --

I'm a person of faith more than I go to church.

You are also a devotee of science who wanted to be a paleontologist as a kid. Do you believe in the theory of evolution?

I think that a God that can raise a carpenter from the dead could also create a universe that's understandable in rational terms. In fact, if you talk to subatomic physicists, they are saying more and more frequently that some of their findings require them to have faith.

You are also a historian. As a historian, did you ever notice similarities between the Confederate Constitution and the Contract With America, which both espoused states' rights and lower taxes?

That's a new one to me (laughs). As a Pennsylvania-born son of a
career soldier, the idea that I sat down late one evening and took out the Confederate Constitution (laughs more) ... That's good. That's creative.

If you had access to a time machine, which historic event would
you have most liked to have influenced?

If you could see one historical event, you would want to be there when Christ ascended; however you wouldn't influence the event because God preempted you. If you believe single events can change history, and they probably can, then you would like to be in a truck running over Adolph Hitler in 1920 as he crosses the street. No other single event, except doing the same thing to Stalin and Mao, would have quite the same impact on the history of the human race.

If you could have any job in the world besides speaker, what would it be?

Any job in the world? Probably one of two: chief general collector for the American Museum of Natural History or field observer at the San Diego Zoological Society.


Childhood emotions. I love the American Museum of Natural History.
There you get Barnam Brown and Roy Chapman Andrews and the great
tradition of collecting. It would be such a thrill to stand in their
shadows and go out occasionally and collect. San Diego is probably the greatest zoo in the world. Every time I go to their wild animal park I am overwhelmed, and I think going on field expeditions with them would be just remarkable. If I retire in 2002, Marianne [Gingrich's wife] and I have talked about spending half the year collecting and half the year writing and teaching.

If you could cast yourself in any movie role, what would it be, and who would play opposite you?

(Long pause) The psychiatrist played by Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting." If you could play opposite one actress, you would want to play opposite Katharine Hepburn, just for the experience of having been onstage with one of the greatest actresses in American history.

If an extraterrestrial landed in Washington, D.C. -- let's say it was
attracted by Al Gore's 24-hour earth channel -- what message would you want it to beam back?

If you saw "Men In Black," you know that I am conflicted in answering this question. The message I've sent back so far is, "Still studying, be patient." On bad days I've sent back, "Less hope, be more patient." On no day have I sent a message that said, "Good times to come." All I'll say is that I have no memories earlier than being in New Mexico in 1948. But I don't want you to interpret from that -- and I will reject out of hand, and we have no controlling legal authority that suggests -- that you can define me as an alien for that answer.

David Wallis

MORE FROM David Wallis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore Bill Clinton Campaign Finance Newt Gingrich Republican Party Rudy Giuliani