The Many Faces of Newt Gingrich

A House speaker divided


I know perfectly well my own egotism,
And know my omnivorous words, and cannot say any less,
And would fetch you whoever you are flush with myself.

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Newt Gingrich likes to present audiences with a puzzle: Draw three rows of three dots each and, without lifting pencil from paper, draw four lines that cover all nine dots. Those who quit in frustration are surprised that one can solve the puzzle easily–by going outside the box. In a House speech, Gingrich once explained, "[Y]ou say to them, pointing back to the original nine dots, you say, 'What box? What perimeter? What limits?'"

Newt Gingrich is always trying to go outside the dots. As he once told Adam Clymer of The New York Times, "I had set out to do a very unusual job, which was part revolutionary, part national political figure, part Speaker, part intellectual." His detractors believe such statements reveal him as both an egotist and an undisciplined dabbler unwilling to acknowledge constraints on his visions. His admirers prefer to think of him as "Whitmanesque" (Walt, not Christine).

Either way, his leadership style is subject to sharp changes in direction. During the past two years, the congressional agenda reflected his war on the welfare state and his use of the balanced budget as a goal to focus his troops. This time, things may be different. "If the last Congress was the 'confrontation Congress,'" he told the House GOP in November, "this Congress will be the 'implementation Congress.'"

To understand such shifts, and to anticipate his agenda, one has to look at Gingrich from several perspectives. He is a self-described conservative who departs from conservative ideology, a Tofflerian futurist who has sometimes allied himself with Al Gore, a disciple of Peter Drucker who often neglects Drucker's maxims, a warrior who speaks of conciliation, and a political pragmatist who made his name as an ideologue.

The Un-Conservative

I find one side a balance, and the antipodal side a balance;
Soft doctrine as steady help as stable doctrine;
Thoughts and deeds of the present, our rouse and early start

Newt Gingrich is not a conservative.

In 1983, explaining the moral of his favorite puzzle, he said that "just as the liberals have been trapped in the nine dots of bureaucratic solutions of Washington, so conservatives have been trapped in the nine dots of penny-pinching and negativism." Gingrich may have been thinking of the Burkean conservatism of incremental change, which he rejects in favor of revolutionary rhetoric. "Revolutions have to occur fast or not at all," he wrote in 1984. "Revolutions have to occur fast because they represent a fundamental break with the paradigm and power structure of the past."

If Gingrich is not a Burkean, neither is he a social conservative in the vein of Ralph Reed. When he discusses God, his references come not from Scripture but from Thomas Jefferson, who was a Deist. When he advocates school prayer, his argument is more sociological than theological: "It goes to the core of why Alcoholics Anonymous starts with the belief in a Supreme Being." Paul Weyrich, a leading social conservative, explained in a PBS interview: "When I hear about an issue, or when I'm considering a policy, the first question I ask is, 'Does this conform to the Judeo-Christian teachings on whatever subject it is we're talking about?' He does not start at that point. He starts at a different point. Is this good for the country? Is this good for the Republicans? Is this going to strengthen his majority?"

Even as a Republican who opposes gay marriage, Gingrich has long voiced tolerance for cultural differences. In his 1971 doctoral dissertation on Belgian education policy in the Congo, he criticized an influential 1921 book by a Catholic priest, who called for abolishing African adultery. "His definition of adultery was Christian and therefore monogamous," Gingrich wrote. "Yet the very basis of some African societies was polygamy. Eliminating the incredibly complex family relationships meant destroying the essence of tribal stability in many regions of Central Africa." Gingrich also expressed his tolerance on a personal level by allying himself with Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson, until recently the only openly gay Republican in Congress. For social conservatives, then, Gingrich is not a true believer.

He is not really an economic conservative either, notwithstanding his pursuit of budget cuts. Unlike Majority Leader Dick Armey, who has a Ph.D. in economics, Gingrich often disparages the dismal science, with Hayek and Friedman conspicuously absent from his many lists of required readings. Gingrich's quest for solutions outside the "nine dots" is a classic case of what Thomas Sowell calls "the unconstrained vision," which denies the tradeoffs that are inevitable in conservative economic thought.

More important, Gingrich has often praised big government. In 1983, he said his philosophy could "involve very activist government," and he cited such GOP precedents as the transcontinental railroad. When a liberal interviewer once asked about problems with private enterprise, he said: "Oh yeah. But see, I'm not a libertarian. I say it pretty clearly in the book [Window of Opportunity]. I am not for untrammeled free enterprise. I am not for greed as the ultimate cultural value."

So if Gingrich is not a traditionalist, a social rightist, or an economic conservative, what is he?

In a 1989 interview with Ripon Forum, Gingrich suggested the answer: "There is almost a new synthesis evolving with the classic moderate wing of the party where, as a former Rockefeller state chairman, I've spent most of my life, and the conservative/activist right wing." In important ways, the Gingrich Republicanism of the 1990s echoes the liberal Republicanism of the 1960s.

Those Republicans stood out by their commitment to civil rights, a position that appealed to Gingrich. Even as an undergraduate political activist at Emory University, he denounced the racism of Georgia Democrats and urged Republicans to court black voters. In 1979, his first entry in the Congressional Record marked Martin Luther King's birthday. During the 1980s, Gingrich supported sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime.

Civil rights leaders may attack Gingrich's stands, but one can still detect signs of his 1960s liberalism. In his inaugural address, he said, "The greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the 20th century were in the Democratic Party." In the 104th Congress, he squelched a full-scale assault on affirmative action, arguing that the GOP should spend "four times as much effort reaching out to the black community to ensure that they know they will not be discriminated against, as compared to the amount of effort we've put into saying we're against quotas and set-asides."

In the 1960s and '70s, liberal Republicans stood in the vanguard of the environmental movement. (Rockefeller's interest was proprietary, since his family owned much of the planet.) Gingrich has carried this tradition to Congress, trying to soften the party's "anti-green" image. His November speech to the House Republicans nicely captured his attitude: "As Americans we should not accept a tradeoff which says you're either for bureaucrats bullying citizens or you're for killing off endangered species. We are for endangered species being saved, and we're for American liberties being saved. We're for the right technologies for the environment and the right opportunities for the economy. And yes, that takes creativity, but that's why we were elected: to be creative, not just coercive. And we're going to solve both."

This tack is reminiscent of the liberal Republicans' public policy approach, which faulted the Great Society less for its lofty aims than for its unresponsive bureaucracies. In his doctoral dissertation, Gingrich was already thinking that way. "Belgian colonialism was in fact a model of technocratic government," he said, concluding that "the dream of technocratic planning had all too many hidden limitations and so became a nightmare." Substitute "Washington bureaucracy" for "Belgian colonialism," and you have the makings of a Gingrich floor speech.

During the 1960s, Ripon Republicans advocated early versions of proposals such as enterprise zones, which they said would lead to an "opportunity state." In the 1980s, Gingrich changed the term to "opportunity society" and used it to sum up his guiding notions: devolving power and programs to states and localities; privatizing government functions wherever possible; replacing red tape with economic incentives; and reforming government to make it more accessible.

If this description sounds like Clintonism, don't be surprised. Clinton, after all, has cribbed much of his rhetoric from Gingrich. (See "The Adventures of 'But-Man,'" November 1996.) As Gingrich adopts a more cooperative attitude toward the administration, expect to see agreements on modest steps to improve federal performance. In the spirit of the Reinventing Government initiative, Gingrich told the House GOP, "I believe we can overhaul the mid-level bureaucracy of the Pentagon and that our goal should be to turn the Pentagon into a triangle by reducing at least 40 percent of the unnecessary duplication and waste that's in the system." (Here he was going outside the "nine dots" of traditional geometry.)

Gingrich's principles will run into problems. Cutting elements of the Pentagon budget might make sense, but there will be tradeoffs in the military's capabilities. More broadly, the GOP agenda is not entirely consistent. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) admitted to reporter Elizabeth Drew that Republicans "have some conflicting interests, and we want block granting and freedom for local and state governments when it fits our agenda, and we want restrictions when that fits our agenda."

The Futurist

Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.

Gingrich is both historian and futurist. In high school, he read Toynbee's A Study of History as well as the Foundation trilogy, in which Isaac Asimov recast the Roman Empire as a space-based civilization. As a House member, Gingrich made the trilogy required reading for his aides. As he explained to aide Frank Gregorsky, "[W]hat I'm trying to convey to you is that I'm a figure who thinks in terms of 100-year increments, and I think in terms of civilization's rising and falling over 500-year increments."

Asimov's main character, Hari Seldon, is a "psychohistorian" who forecasts his civilization's decline and devises a way to hasten its renewal. Gingrich summed up the underlying concepts: "The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior…[Yet] Asimov did not believe in a mechanistic world. Instead, to Asimov, human beings always hold their fate in their own hands."

Another important influence on Gingrich has been the work of Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980). Just as the world shifted from agricultural civilization ("The First Wave") to industrial civilization ("The Second Wave"), says Toffler, now it is shifting to a civilization based on knowledge and information ("The Third Wave"). According to Gingrich, "the information age means more decentralization, more market orientation, more freedom for individuals, more opportunity for choice, more capacity to be productive without controls by the state." One passage in Future Shock helps explain futurism's political value: "As we move from poverty toward affluence, politics changes from what mathematicians call a zero-sum game to a non-zero sum game….A system for generating imaginative policy ideas could help us take maximum advantage of the non-zero opportunities ahead." Technology will not just settle problems, it will transcend them–a painless solution to the nine-dot dilemmas of public policy.

Applying this idea to health care, Gingrich told his colleagues in November that "we represent better care with better science through better participation, so you have a better quality of life at lower cost. And frankly, I think we as a party can do an immense amount…at dramatically expanding the opportunities for the American people, and in the process, both improving the quality of life and lowering the cost to the taxpayers." In the 105th Congress, look for GOP initiatives on medical research and "wellness" programs.

This example, however, highlights a problem with the futurist approach. According to Charles Krauthammer, a centrist commentator with an M.D., Gingrich's optimism about costs is "nonsense on stilts." High-tech medicine extends lifespans, thereby increasing the ranks of the elderly, who need costlier treatments. In this case as in others, futurism downplays tradeoffs.

By encouraging government planning, futurism may also spawn bureaucracy. As a House member, Al Gore sponsored legislation to establish an Office of Critical Trends Analysis that would have prepared reports on "critical trends and alternative futures," with the help of an Advisory Commission on Critical Trends Analysis. His bill's co-sponsor was Newt Gingrich.

Both should have remembered what Hayek wrote: "Human reason can neither predict nor deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist of finding out where it has been wrong."

The Executive and Entrepreneur

I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions;
But really I am neither for nor against institutions;
(What indeed have I in common with them?–Or what with the destruction of them?)

Gingrich has often acknowledged his debt to the works of management scholar Peter Drucker, especially The Effective Executive (1966). During one of his college lectures, Gingrich rhetorically asked how he could do so many things at once. "And the answer is this book," he said. "This book taught me a quarter century ago how to systematically discipline, plan, think through, delegate, trust others to build a system." Anyone who knows Gingrich's career will find familiar concepts in The Effective Executive. For instance, Drucker's "rules for identifying priorities" embody much of Gingrich's style: "Pick the future as against the past….Focus on opportunity rather than on problem….Choose your own direction rather than climb on the bandwagon….Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is 'safe' and easy to do."

In his pre-leadership years, Gingrich always aimed high. Rather than embracing the "minority mentality," he sought ways to make the House GOP the majority. After the 1982 elections, he helped form the Conservative Opportunity Society, a new kind of congressional organization that sought to sharpen partisan distinctions and communicate the GOP message to the C-SPAN audience.

Gingrich was not merely tinkering with partisan tactics but creating a new, Gingrichian politics. "There are two ways to rise," he once said. "One is to figure out the current system and figure out how you fit into it. The other is to figure out the system that ought to be, and as you change the current system into the system that ought to be, at some point it becomes more practical for you to be a leader than somebody who grew out of the old order."

Gingrich could accomplish this goal because he observed another Drucker maxim: "Know thy time." That is, simply stop doing things that eat up work days without yielding results. As a backbencher, Gingrich chose to forgo the legislative detail work that consumes so many other members. Since the majority Democrats ignored GOP ideas anyway, Gingrich reasoned, why go through the motions?

After he became speaker, however, he let his self-confidence eclipse Drucker's advice about time. He took on too many duties, and when he got over-tired, he made serious mistakes. Thus he illustrated another Drucker saying: "Strong people always have strong weaknesses, too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys." Later on, he tried to rise from the valley by delegating more duties to Majority Leader Armey.

The first year of Gingrich's speakership saw harsh partisan struggles over the budget and social policy. Why did he begin by taking such a hard line? A passage from The Effective Executive explains that "one must start with what is right rather than what is acceptable because one must eventually compromise. But if one does not know what is right to satisfy the specifications and boundary conditions, one cannot distinguish between the right compromise and the wrong compromise–and will end up by making the wrong compromise."

In 1996, Gingrich and the Republicans did compromise on issues such as health and welfare reform. Because of their initial firmness, they argue, they ended up with the "right" compromises. Some conservatives would reply that the GOP "revolution" made the wrong compromises, leaving too much of the welfare state intact. They would quote another passage from Drucker: "The surgeon who only takes out half the tonsils or half the appendix risks as much infection or shock as if he did the whole job. And he has not cured the condition, has indeed made it worse."

In the next session of Congress, conservatives on Capitol Hill may hesitate to cede quite so much power to Gingrich, since they have seen that his valleys can dip very low indeed. Instead, some may turn to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who lacks Gingrich's zigzag brilliance but wields power with a steadier hand.

The Warrior

Adieu, dear comrade!
Your mission is fulfill'd–but I, more warlike,
Myself, and this contentious soul of mine,
Still on our own campaigning bound…

Like all politicians, Gingrich uses military terminology. (After all, words such as campaign and strategy were born on battlefields.) Unlike most other political figures, he seriously thinks about applications of military analysis. In his first successful congressional race, he told a group of College Republicans: "A number of you are old enough to have been platoon leaders, or company commanders, depending on the situation, and how rapidly you move up in rank. This is the same business. We're just lucky, in this country, we don't use bullets, we use ballots instead. You're fighting a war. It is a war for power."

This mindset manifests itself in very concrete ways. Throughout 1995, Gingrich sent House Republican leaders and their aides to the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command centers in Virginia and Kansas. He reportedly asked military officers to prepare training materials for House Republicans and conduct "after-action reviews" of legislative maneuvers. Upon their disclosure, these practices exposed Gingrich's flank to Democratic attack. (See how easy it is to slip into military language?)

His model for long-range planning–"vision, strategy, projects, and tactics"–comes from military literature. Civilians may not always associate "vision" with olive-drab uniforms, but the idea is essential to soldiering. Clausewitz wrote that an indispensable quality for a military leader is "intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of inner light which leads to truth."

Gingrich's strategic vision reflects the influence of the ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu, who taught: "Anger [the opposing] general and confuse him….Keep him under a strain and wear him down." These proverbs encouraged Gingrich in his one-on-one battles with Democratic leaders. Tip O'Neill's famous 1984 outburst on the floor, a reaction to Gingrich attacks, confirmed ancient advice: "If the enemy is obstinate and prone to anger, insult and enrage him, so that he will be irritated and confused, and without a plan will recklessly advance against you."

Verbal attacks serve another purpose. Military leaders try to fire up their troops by telling them about the evils the enemy has committed and the even greater horrors that the enemy would perpetrate if it won. In the long march to the speakership, Gingrich took this approach against the Democrats. In 1988, he blamed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork's defeat on a liberal smear campaign, adding: "The Left at its core understands in a way Grant understood after Shiloh that this is a civil war, that only one side will prevail, and that the other side will be relegated to history. This war has to be fought with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars. While we are lucky in this country that our civil wars are fought at the ballot box, not on the battlefield, nonetheless it is a true civil war."

While Gingrich is sticking to his military planning model, the harsh publicity of 1995 and 1996 has prompted him to make his rhetoric a little more pacifistic. But in 1997, he may find the other side unwilling to call off the war. Liberal Democrats have taken every opportunity to attack his ethics and undercut his leadership, and they show no signs of letting up. In describing this strategy, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) himself used a military analogy: "Newt is the nerve center and the energy source. Going after him is like trying to take out command and control."

The Pragmatist

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself;
(I am large–I contain multitudes.)

"I think Newt's always been supremely pragmatic," says former Conservative Opportunity Society ally Vin Weber. "[F]or a long time, [that] simply meant keeping your mouth shut and going along. If pragmatic is defined more literally as doing what it takes to succeed, Newt's always been pragmatic." Newt Gingrich is a risk taker, but he is also a practicing politician. In 1986, he acknowledged that "you can trim some programs and you can kill some programs, but the first duty of a political coalition is to sustain its majority."

This pragmatism has cropped up on a number of issues.

In Window of Opportunity, Gingrich singled out the United Auto Workers as a praiseworthy, progressive union. He also wrote: "There are times and places when specific protectionist steps are appropriate: protectionism can defend an industry vital to national defense, can buy time for an industry to make adjustments to a sudden change in its environment, and can bludgeon a trading partner to force it to engage in fair trade." These comments, which clashed with GOP skepticism toward unions and its free trade ideology, reflected local concerns: Gingrich's district at the time included two auto plants, and protectionist sentiment was running high in Georgia.

In 1985, Gingrich persuaded Delta Air Lines to take reservations for Air Atlanta, the largest black-owned airline. Reporter Nicholas Lemann said: "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." In this case, Gingrich's intervention served two practical purposes: improving the GOP's image in the black enterprise community and serving a local business interest.

In 1992, during a difficult primary, Gingrich argued that Republicans should support him because he could bring home more federal benefits. Columnist George Will observed, "Gingrich may have saved his career as a professional legislator, but he ended his career as the scourge of the 'corruption' of the welfare state in the hands of career legislators." When an interviewer presented him with such examples of position shifting, he responded: "Oh, you can find more examples of chameleon-like behavior like that. Look, I believe in pragmatism. But it's tautological. Conservatism works. The work ethic works. Strength works. The free market works. Focusing on learning works. Preventive health works. So I can tell you with a straight face I am pragmatic, and as a result I am driven to conservatism. But I am not dogmatic. I think if non-conservatism works, I'll look at it, too. It just doesn't work as well."

Such pragmatism is fine for a split-the-difference Republican such as Bob Dole or Bob Michel, but it is a most peculiar attitude for a revolutionary. Try to picture Lenin saying, "If czarism works, I'll look at it."

Pragmatism also holds a more immediate political risk. In 1992, Gingrich told Republican congressional candidates in Georgia not to pledge their support to the unpopular George Bush in case a three-way election went to the House. In 1996, he told marginal Republican incumbents to "do what gets you re-elected," even if that meant ignoring Bob Dole. If the Democrats score direct hits on Gingrich over ethics or other issues, he will be looking for allies. He may not find them among Republicans who have fully absorbed his lessons about pragmatism.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney !r (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.