Free Minds & Free Markets

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."

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online