Autumn 2009: Features

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The Man with the Plan

Emory alumnus and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 65C sees himself as a historian who’s also a visionary. He’s even willing to admit he’s made a few mistakes along the way. Will his new “tripartisan” approach to everything from education to health care mobilize the masses, or is it just politics as usual?

By Mary J. Loftus

By the time former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walks into the lobby of the nondescript K Street building that houses his Center for Health Transformation, he has already done six interviews, including NBC’s Today show, Fox & Friends, and the Reverend Al Sharpton’s radio show.

Several young center staffers are milling about, and he stops to chat and joke with them as he walks through the hallway.

“I say yes to too many things,” admits Gingrich, as he sinks into a chair in his sunny, book-filled office near downtown D.C. “But this was just one of those mornings.”

Gingrich, who graduated from Emory College with a BA in history before earning a PhD in modern European history from Tulane, is perhaps still best known as the Republican representative who coauthored the conservative Contract with America in the mid-1990s.

On this particular steamy August morning, however, he has made headlines across the country with the announcement that he will be teaming up with Reverend Sharpton and Education Secretary Arne Duncan—at the request of President Obama—to push for improvements in education during a multicity tour this fall.

Sharpton, says Gingrich, “has it exactly right, that education has to be the number one civil rights issue of the twenty-first century. I’ve long been passionate about reforming education.”

Gingrich, well known as an anti-big-government conservative, and Sharpton, a Baptist minister and outspoken Democratic activist, make a “political odd couple,” noted Today host Matt Lauer that morning during their interview. Some Gingrich fans took him to task in online blogs for “touring with the enemy.”

“It’s really interesting,” says Gingrich, who served as Speaker from 1995 to 1999. “Lots of people say, boy, I wish we could get beyond partisan politics and then, the minute you do, they say, that’s really strange. You can’t have it both ways.”

A talk with Gingrich—a history professor at the University of West Georgia before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1978—can feel both energizing and chaotic, like a game of mental pinball. Within the span of five minutes, he might bounce from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, to the raising of the Cross at Cape Henry in 1607, to a Johns Hopkins study about older women who exercise regularly having less incidence of depression.

Although his formal role as an elected official ended a decade ago, Gingrich is still a powerful player and pundit in the Capitol’s political arena and beyond. The author of nineteen books, including the 2008 best seller Real Change: From the World that Fails to the World that Works, Gingrich is a frequent commentator on Fox News, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, and a weekly columnist for the Washington Examiner.

“I read a lot. I watch movies. I travel,” says Gingrich, who was leaving for a two-week tour of Asia—including Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing—in two days. “I stay active.”

Several years ago, Gingrich founded the for-profit Center for Health Transformation (motto: “Better Health, Lower Cost”) as a project of the Gingrich Group, a management consulting firm he started in 1999.

He also oversees Gingrich Productions, through which he and his wife, Callista, host and produce historical documentaries and multimedia projects such as the film Rediscovering God in America, a video that accompanies Gingrich’s book of the same name.

His political organization American Solutions for Winning the Future—a “tripartisan citizen action network” dedicated to ensuring “that the United States remains the safest, freest, and most prosperous country in the world”—raised more than $8.1 million in the first half of 2009.

Then there’s the speculation that Gingrich is considering a presidential run in 2012.

A New York Times Magazine cover profile of him in March quoted a source saying that Gingrich is probably in “most people’s top five” list of potential Republican nominees—although Gingrich has stated publicly that he “won’t think about that until January 2011.”

Critics call Gingrich too divisive for a presidential run, saying that he appeals largely to right-wing voters, with not enough crossover appeal to liberals and independents. They point to his two contentious divorces, the fine imposed by the House ethics committee over the financing of a college course he taught while in Congress, and the standoff between Gingrich and President Bill Clinton over a budget bill that resulted in the 1995 government shutdown.

Professor of Political Science Randall Strahan, author of Leading Representatives: The Agency of Leaders in the Politics of the U.S. House, says Gingrich is “certainly viable . . . as someone who could hold his own as a campaigner and debater. But I would be surprised if he ever became the Republican presidential nominee. Newt’s strengths are those of the political entrepreneur and mobilizer.”

Gingrich, however, has made a twenty-year political career out of being a long shot and staging unlikely comebacks.

His interest in politics extends back to his high school years in Columbus, Georgia, where he often wore a tie to class and was voted “most intellectual” in his senior year. While majoring in political science at Emory, he dropped out for a year to manage a congressional race for a state candidate. “That was a wonderful five-year period. I learned a lot, married [first wife Jackie Battley], and had my first child at Emory,” he says. “This was before it was a nationally known school but it was a very good regional school.”

J. Ben Shapiro 64C, a partner with Shapiro and Fussell in Midtown Atlanta, was president of College Council at Emory and remembers Gingrich from a political science class they had with Professor Ronald Howell.

“It was in Bowden Hall, the history building, the last classroom on the right,” he says. “We read Machiavelli, Hobbes, and talked about political philosophy. Newt was very thoughtful, very smart. There was a lot of discussion in that class, and he was a big part of that.”

Professor Emeritus Howard Cramer taught geology to a young Gingrich. “I remember having Newt as a student with great pleasure for two reasons—not only because he became a national figure worthy of admiration and emulation, but because of the interest he showed in the development of others whilst he was still a student,” he says. “Newt . . . was already committed to a public service career by the time he entered college and our paths crossed. From what I could see, outside of his classroom obligations, all of his time was devoted to student activities and political health.”

Gingrich founded a Young Republicans club at Emory as a sophomore in 1962, and Cramer, despite being a Democrat, agreed to become the faculty adviser.

“I was a Depression-raised child, politically still worshipping at the feet of our political savior, FDR and his successors, when Newt, by his dedication and his knowledge of the matter, convinced me that the Republican view of things was okay after all,” Cramer recalls. “Thank God my sainted mother had already passed on; this certainly would have caused her passage otherwise.”

Gingrich and his fellow Young Republicans met against the backdrop of the John F. Kennedy assassination, race riots in Harlem, and the Barry Goldwater years. The state was solidly Democratic and had been for decades.

“At the time, Georgia was a one-party state, and I thought we had a lot of corruption. I thought it would be good to have a two-party state. And it was a great way to meet people who, like me, were interested in politics,” says Gingrich. “We had the Cuban Missile crisis and all kinds of things going on. It was an interesting time—in 1964, you had the whole Goldwater movement, which was very exciting. That was the breakthrough year for Georgia.”

Gingrich left Emory for a year and ran a congressional race for Jack Prince in Gainesville. Although Prince lost, Gingrich was hooked. “Remember, if you were a Georgia Republican, there were no staff jobs. And so you had to figure out how you were going to win office.”

After two unsuccessful bids in 1974 and 1976, a thirty-five-year-old Gingrich was sent to Congress to represent Georgia’s sixth district in 1978, going on to be reelected six times from his district.

In the mid-1990s, he engineered the Republicans’ national revival through the Contract with America, a set of policy proposals based on Reaganite ideas that promised, among other things, a shrinking government, lower taxes, term limits, and welfare reform.

In 1995, when the Republicans regained control of the House for the first time in forty years, it was viewed largely as Gingrich’s victory. According to several accounts, on inauguration day, when he was announced as Speaker of the 105th Congress, someone yelled from the chamber, “It’s a whole Newt world!”

Gingrich simply “refused to accept permanent minority status for his party,” says Emory’s Asa G. Candler Professor of Politics and Government Merle Black.

“Following the Republicans’ unexpected congressional victory . . . Gingrich temporarily dislodged President Clinton as America’s most important elected political leader,” writes Black in The Rise of Southern Republicans.

Gingrich calls the Contract with America “a moment in time. It was really, in many ways, the last stage of the Reagan Revolution,” he says, adding that the original document is in the Smithsonian.

By then, Gingrich was an old hand at using the media, and a bit of grandstanding, to influence the public’s receptiveness to conservative ideas.

When C-SPAN first went on air in 1979, Gingrich recounts, he and Representative Bob Walker used the new cable network to give impassioned speeches to a national audience. “Even though the House chamber was nearly empty, there were 250,000 people watching around the country,” he says. “Older colleagues would laugh at me, why are you going over there to talk to an empty room?”

Gingrich’s ease with the Internet and social media—he has his own website, newt.org, as well as about thirty thousand fans on Facebook and more than a million followers on Twitter—is an extension of his “the medium is the message” mentality.

Twitter is simply “a new subset of email that enables large numbers of people to engage each other in a very immediate and inexpensive way,” he says. “I Tweet up to ten to fifteen times a day. Occasionally I’m writing so fast on my Blackberry that I make a typo—that’s how people know it’s really me.”

And, occasionally, he’s writing so fast he makes a comment that he later feels the need to qualify.

When now–Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s remark from a 2001 speech at Berkeley—“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”—surfaced in May as she rose to the top of Obama’s list of potential nominees, Gingrich Tweeted: “White man racist nominee would be forced to withdraw. Latina woman racist should also withdraw.”

In June, after much public hullabaloo, Gingrich allowed that “my initial reaction was strong and direct—perhaps too strong and too direct. The sentiment struck me as racist, and I said so. . . . The word ‘racist’ should not have been applied to Judge Sotomayor as a person, even if her words themselves are unacceptable.”

Gingrich has never steered away from a good controversy and seems to rather enjoy the give and take of rigorous debate.

“Politicians are calling me and asking me what to do about these town hall meetings,” he says, of the sometimes rancorous public meetings held around the country this summer on health care reform. “I tell them the solution is to go home and have more of them and to really listen.”

The public outpouring of emotion and frustration should be taken very seriously, Gingrich says, calling it “a genuine popular uprising.

“I think the reaction in these meetings ought to be telling the Democrats something pretty profound,” he says. “I can’t remember any time I’ve see this level of intensity. You have a country that is very worried about unemployment, is very worried about jobs, and is very worried about spending, and I think that they are just appalled by the way in which the administration has pursued this.”

But Emory’s Woodruff Professor of Health Policy and Management Ken Thorpe, who was deputy assistant secretary for health policy under Clinton, says the public must keep in mind the two major components of health care reform. “One is that we have to find a way to control the growth in health care costs. And two is, we’re trying to get everyone health insurance,” Thorpe told CNN recently. “We’re now in a tactical discussion about how to achieve those ends, but I hope we don’t lose sight of what we were trying to do in the first place.”

Gingrich, though, says the way to control health care spending is straightforward: remove waste and fraud from the system and place more of an emphasis on preventive care, wellness, and good management. “Then you don’t have to make hard decisions,” he says. “What you want to do is make wise decisions.”

On the walls in the conference room of the Center for Health Transformation are posters and flow charts listing various programs such as the Healthy Georgia Diabetes and Obesity Project and the Healthy Workforce and Community Project, along with metrics for gauging their effectiveness. “Our core model starts with the individual, goes to the community, then to the delivery system, and finally to finance, in that order,” Gingrich explains. “You help the individual have maximum care, then you build a community social structure around them to maximize health.”

The government, he says, should have no part in deciding that if “you’re over seventy-five you don’t need treatment for prostate cancer or if you’re over sixty you shouldn’t get your knees replaced. I have a friend who got his knees replaced in his eighties because he still skis with his grandchildren. In America, I think you ought to have the freedom to have the quality of life you’re willing to work for and save for.”

Despite the outcry over “death panels” by some conservatives, Gingrich is in favor of “the right kind” of end-of-life planning.

“I have a living will. I recommend that everybody have a living will. I don’t have an advance directive yet but I should get one,” says Gingrich. “My father-in-law died of lung cancer a few years ago at Gundersen Lutheran, and they had the right advance directive, they did it the right way.”

Gingrich says what he visualizes—in health care, education, and other crucial areas in which the country may be facing impending crises—is a “tripartisan” effort involving Republicans, Democrats, and independents to get America back on track, running smoothly and efficiently, without losing the traditional values on which the country is based.

And this, he says, begins and ends with “listening to the American people. You’ve got to constantly try to understand what the people will tolerate, what they won’t tolerate, what they will support, what they will actively oppose,” he says. “It’s like sailing. . . . you have to feel the tide and the wind, and you have to have a sense of what’s possible.”

A longtime Baptist, Gingrich recently converted to Catholicism, Callista’s lifelong religion. “When I go to the Basilica where my wife sings every Sunday and I wait for her after church, inevitably people walk up from all over the country and say hi, I’m from Waco, Texas, or I’m from Des Moines, Iowa, and they’ll chat for three minutes, and I’ll listen,” he says. “I listen to people all the time. Frankly, it’s very tiring.”

But the sixty-six-year-old Gingrich insists he is nowhere close to stopping.

“I was in an airport, and these students came up and said, ‘You’re in our history book,’ ” he says. “I felt very old at that point. It’s a little like Brett Favre and Bart Starr, you know, once upon a time they were great quarterbacks. So once upon a time, I played in a big game. The question is, can you continue to contribute? I think, frankly, having founded the Center for Health Transformation is in some ways a significant step in the same pattern of change as the Contract for America was.”

And then Gingrich is off, down the hall to his next appointment, no doubt Tweeting as he goes.

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