December 28, 2011

Gingrich: Man Behind the Politican

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Newt Protest

Gingrich protesters. Photo by Keely Kemp

When Newt Gingrich entered a packed lecture hall at the University of Iowa on Dec. 14, Occupy Iowa City protesters launched a “human microphone” chant that was more personal than political.

“Mr. Gingrich, we are here to protest your speech today,” the protesters shouted, “because we object to your callous and arrogant attitude towards poverty and poor people.”

Later, in Des Moines, a man in a camouflaged jacket got face to face with Gingrich and became profane and vulgar. Then in Des Moines, Occupy protesters who followed him down the capitol steps to his waiting car, shouting questions that received no answers.

As the final days of the presidential caucus campaign pass, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representative probably has become accustomed to fending off verbal slings from rivals and even his former staff members, like Frank Gregorsky, once his congressional chief of staff and who now backs his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I don’t think his skill set equips him to be the chief executive of the United States,” Gregorsky, said in a phone interview with IowaWatch.

OPPOSITION DEEP-SEATED

But for the Occupy protesters, the opposition to Gingrich was less about politics and more about deep-seated distaste that bordered on emotional. At the University of Iowa, they braved the rain outside the university campus building to recite points and chants written specifically for Gingrich, including one entitled “How Gingrich Stole Christmas.” And changing We Wish You a Merry Christmas to “We Wish You a Fair Economy,” they sang:

We wish you would really listen
We wish you would really listen
We wish you would really listen
To us regular folks
We all want our part of the American Dream
Let’s have a fair economy. You know what we mean

The impact of the mounting criticism has taken its toll. Once dominating the polls earlier this month with a double-digit lead in the wake of Herman Cain’s suspension, Gingrich has now fallen to 4th place (14 percent) behind Mitt Romney (25 percent) Ron Paul (24 percent) and Rick Santorum (16 percent), according to the latest CNN poll.

GINGRICH, THE AMBITIOUS POL

The up and down trajectory of his campaign since the summer has mirrored his political career, and, to his supporters provides evidence that Gingrich is at his best when people think he is down.

As a brash young politician from Georgia who doesn’t hide his ambition, Gingrich catapulted from several electoral defeats to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and to take meteoric ride to the House speakership. From that perch, he engineered the Republican Party’s takeover of the lower chamber for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Then, his political career plummeted faster than it rose, as his own party colleagues joined in launching an ethics investigation that was soon followed by his departure from Congress.

And now – just a few days before the Jan. 3 Iowa Caucus meetings and after the crescendo of attacks, he appears close to another political defeat.

Like his ever-changing place in the polls, Gingrich’s work on the campaign trail has been unpredictable.

In the campaign, he’s often been an elbow-slinging and sharp-tongued politician, like during the oft-repeated debate moment when Romney implied Gingrich was a career politician: “Let’s be candid here,” he said, looking directly at Romney. The only reason you didn’t become a career politician is because you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994.”

Or earlier this week, when a campaign ad by Ron Paul called him a “serial hypocrite,” Gingrich shot back on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.”

“I think Ron Paul’s views are totally outside the mainstream of virtually every decent American.”

GINGRICH, THE PEACEMAKER

At other times in the debates, he would praise a rival or act like a defender of the Republican campaign against “gotcha” debate interviewers trying to sow discord among the candidates.

And then at the University of Iowa confrontation with Occupiers, there was the non-confrontational Gingrich, who sought calm when things got rowdy between his supporters and the protesters.

“I don’t ask anyone to be ‘for’ me,” he said, “because if you’re for me, then you’re going to vote, go home, and hope I can fix things,” he said. “And the fact is, with the kind of irrational opposition we’re going to face, we need to recognize that the election isn’t the end of the process. And so I ask people to be with me for eight years so that we can actually get the kind of change we need in this country.”

Throughout his political career, his guiding political star, according to his biographer, Professor Melvin Steely, has been pragmatism.

GINGRICH, THE PROFESSOR

Gingrich, 67, announced his first run for Congress while eating blueberry pancakes at Steely’s house in 1973.

“I’m probably his oldest living friend,” said Steely, 72, director of Georgia’s Political Heritage Program, and Gingrich’s biographer. “He’s what I’d call a conservative pragmatist: You don’t slit your own throat, because you can’t get what you want.”

Gingrich and Steely both taught history at the University of West Georgia in the nineteen-seventies. He was well liked by his students, according to Steely. They would follow him home after class, where they would spend hours talking with him on his porch, and accompany him on weekend canoeing excursions to Okefenokee Swamp.

He would begin each quarter by walking into a room full of new students and deliberately fall flat on his face, according to Gregorsky, who first joined the campaign as an intern. Gingrich would do this to gain the trust of his students, telling them after getting to his feet, that his classroom should be a comfortable place for open discussion.

“He’d say to them, ‘I fell on my face in this class. And you guys can do the same thing,’ ” Gregorsky said over the phone.

EARLY DAYS IN POLITICS

Still teaching, Gingrich made his first run for the House of Representatives in 1974 against Rep. John Flynt. He has had political ambitions as early as high school, when he was an active member of the Muscogee County Republican Party, according to Steely.

His father had been in the army, but since Gingrich’s bad eyesight precluded a military career, he decided early on to pursue a life in politics instead.

Gingrich lost his 1974 and 1976 runs, and finally won the seat in 1978. That’s around the time when Gregorsky signed on to Gingrich’s campaign.

“I walked into his office and asked to volunteer, and he said do you want to be my driver on Saturdays?” From that point on he was Gingrich’s weekend chauffer to barbecues, fund raisers, and speaking events, eventually taking the chief of staff position later that year. Gregorsky said that Gingrich was an ambitious, highly creative boss who was hard to keep up with.

“Working around Newt is sort of like being in boot camp,” Gregorsky said. “It was incredibly exciting, but very hard work. He had so many ideas and so many projects that he wanted to work on, and after about 21 months I got worn out and resigned.”

GINGRICH ON THE RISE

Gingrich served the Sixth District of Georgia for 20 years. In 1979, Gingrich and a few other freshman Republicans voted voted to create the federal Department of Education, a vote for which he has since received criticism from his political colleagues in the GOP.

In 1983 he formed the Conservative Opportunity Society, a Republican organization whose ideas influenced Ronald Reagan’s policies during his 1984 re-election campaign. His political profile rose after helping fellow Republicans oust Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, according to Politico. He was named the minority whip in 1989, replacing Dick Cheney after he was appointed Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush.

While in Congress, he was charged with 84 ethics violations, according to the Washington Post, culminating in a $300,000 ethics committee investigation. Gingrich eventually paid the large sum off with personal funds. The charges included allegations that he misallocated tax-exempt donations and used a teaching position at Kennesaw State College to forward his partisan-political agenda.

Gingrich is most well-known as the architect of the Contract with America, a set of policies that is largely credited as the impetus for the 54 seats the Republicans secured that year, gaining them control of the House for the first time since 1954.

In 1995, he was elected the first Republican speaker of the House in 40 years. A Time magazine article naming him Man of the Year in 1995 read, “Leaders make things possible. Exceptional leaders make them inevitable. Newt Gingrich belongs in the category of the exceptional.”

During his career as speaker, he spearheaded the campaign to impeach Clinton for “sexual-relations” with Monica Lewinsky, though at the time Gingrich himself had a history of breaking marital bonds, according to his BBC profile.

In 1962 he married his first wife Jackie Battley, who was his high school geometry teacher. He allegedly discussed his plans to divorce her in the spring of 1980 while she was recovering from cancer treatment. He’d been carrying on an affair with his future second wife, Marianne Ginther, whom he had met at a 1980 fundraiser. Gingrich called Ginther during a visit to her childhood home and informed her that he’d been having an affair with Bisek, a congressional aide 23 years his junior. They continued to see each other during the Clinton impeachment, and eventually married in 2000.

“The man believes in marriage,” Steely said without irony. “He’s worked hard at all three, and this one is really paying off. Callista has brought about a real change in him.”

GINGRICH, THE PRESIDENTIAL CONTENDER

Gingrich’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination has been one of sudden starts and stops. In May, his criticism of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan caused backlash from his own party, and much of his campaign staff resigned in the following month. Still, Gingrich remained in the race and after months trailing most of his rivals he surprised political onlookers by gaining front-runner status in Iowa earlier this month.

Gingrich speaks in Iowa. Photo by Keely Kemp.

But within weeks his surge in the polls has dwindled. A further series of controversial remarks about Palestine, impoverished minorities and judiciary reform have cost Gingrich at least one endorsement, his former chief of staff Frank Gregorsky.

Gregorsky characterized some of Gingrich’s statements as the kind of thing a provocative college professor would say to get his students to think outside the box, but that they were inappropriate for someone running for the president of the United States.

Gregorsky reacted specifically to an interview in which Gingrich advocated abolishing child labor laws.

“You have a very poor neighborhood. You have kids who are required under law to go to school,” Gingrich said in the interview. “They have no money. They have no habit of work. What if you paid them part-time in the afternoon to sit at the clerical office and greet people when they came in? What if you paid them to work as the assistant librarian? And I’d pay them as early as is reasonable and practical.”

If the president of the United States held such positions, Gregorsky said, “it would be an absolute nightmare.”

“There’s a place for people to say things like that,” Gregorsky said, chuckling. “He would be a great senator. But you can’t have the president talking like that.”

 

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