You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Elephant Man

Campaign '94

It's a few minutes to six on a Thursday evening in October, and the corridor outside the House chamber, thick with bodies a week ago, is a lazy parlor for a team of guards kicking back on swivel chairs bolted to the marble floor. Afternoon light sifts through windows painted shut since Truman was president, smoothing a coat of gold over the sculpted walls and vaulted ceiling. In another hour it will be dark, nature's memo to the few dyspeptic members still inside that it's time to muzzle the floor speeches and high-tail it back home to where the votes are.

But if Capitol anterooms are the last place an incumbent representative wants to be found in the precious weeks before election day, no one bothered to tell Newt Gingrich. For at the far end of the passageway, ten brisk steps from the Republican cloak room and twenty more from the House door, the inhabitant of room H-219—the Republican whip's lair—is still toiling.

Gingrich is nurturing grander plans than mere re-election to his suburban Atlanta district. Next year, he will assume the top spot in the Republican hierarchy. No one is challenging him to succeed retiring Minority Leader Robert Michel. But it's not the Republican leader's suite Gingrich truly covets. It's Tom Foley's place on the dais. "If you were in my shoes today, you are more likely, not by a big margin, say 55 to 45 percent, but more likely to be Speaker of the House than minority leader," he says with a professorial self-assuredness that is often—and accurately—taken as arrogance.

Whether or not Gingrich actually believes Republican candidates will pull out the elusive forty seats they need to give them a House majority and him the speaker's chair (and it's not likely they will: most estimates put the number at between twenty and thirty), Gingrich is preparing for the transition as though the votes were already tallied. For months he's spent part of each day in the violet-carpeted, yellow-draped confines of H-219, drawing up lists detailing everything from revamping committee staffs to hiring moving companies to haul furniture around the Hill. He's ordered Representative Pete Hoekstra, one of his acolytes, to orchestrate a smooth transition of power. He's recruited defense and foreign policy wonks to bring him up to speed. He's secured a prized artifact for his new digs: the skull of a tyrannosaurus rex, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

The point is so hard for most of us to believe (or stomach) that it's worth reiterating: ignored for years by Democrats and Republicans alike as a flaky, reedy-voiced gadfly, Gingrich is now poised to take over as the most powerful Republican in the country. Only Senate GOP leader Robert Dole (who has a better chance than Gingrich of presiding over a Republican majority) will rival him in defining the party's agenda.

In the past year we've gotten an eyeful of what life under Gingrich will look like, and how different it will be from Michel's old-style, gentlemanly tenure (the lobbying reform brawl, the health care brawl, the crime bill brawl, etc.). But as leader, Gingrich isn't content to continue playing the role of Democratic Party scold. Unlike rank-and-file politicians such as Dole and Michel, Gingrich thinks of himself as a visionary, a prophetic figure in whose hands the great jagged forces of history are smoothed and tamed. He clings to two chapters from American history in which the country underwent dramatic transformations: the Revolutionary War and the New Deal. "The reasons transformations occur is if they become the highest value solutions to objective reality," he says. "When the American Revolution occurred it was because over a million people looked around and said, `This ain't working. And we need to be independent.' The New Deal occurred because the Depression was horrible, Hoover had no answer, capitalism had lost its moral base and FDR was able to say, `We have nothing to fear but fear itself; let's get the job done.'"

Like Roosevelt, with whom he identifies historically, if not politically, Gingrich believes he, too, is a man whose vision and daring will resuscitate an ailing nation. Gingrich isn't just spending his autumn evenings in H-219 prepping for a new job. He's putting the finishing touches on the blueprint for the Republican revolution he's been plotting since he was a high school sophomore. "We're in a cycle where I believe the counter-cultural, redistributionist, bureaucratic welfare state model is just a disaster," Gingrich says. "And people are very ready for a very profound transformation."

Gingrich has spent his fifteen years in Congress gathering support among Republicans for his personal version of the Very Profound Transformation. In 1983, as a second-term backbencher, he founded the ubiquitous Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of House Republicans who met to plot the coming upheaval and made nuisances of themselves with after-hours speeches on the House floor. Three years after that, he took the helm of GOPAC, a recruiting campaign for Newtoid upstarts who want to fashion themselves in Gingrich's image. GOPAC sends out "training tapes" to more than 9,600 candidates, instructing them in the delicate art of beating their liberal opponents to a pulp. "We send out tapes to candidates for city council, county commission," Gingrich enthuses. "New York Assembly freshmen listen to the tapes and discuss them. I mean, nobody in this town gets it. This is about the long-range transformation of where we're going and what we're going to accomplish."

As party leader, Gingrich will have the luxury of transforming his rhetoric into policy. So, just what is his master plan to save America? That is a question best left for the man himself to answer. As darkness falls over the H-219 command center, he attempts to explain it. It is a lecture he's doubtless given 100, 200 times before, but there's no sign that he has lost any enthusiasm for the telling. Gingrich has a broadcaster's ability to speak three or four words simultaneously with perfect clarity. Impatient sentences tumble out of his downturned mouth in staccato bursts, consonants colliding, then regrouping mid-flight. But only the mouth is in motion. Below the neck his torso remains motionless as he talks, but for the Scottish plaid tie rising and falling on the just-over-50 paunch. We're about to cover some serious ground here, so try not to blink.

"I use two models at the core of what I do," he begins. "One is vision, strategy, projects and tactics. The other is a processing model of listen, learn, help and lead. And we constantly work from the concept of the leader team. There is, in the twenty-first century, no isolated leader. I believe there are five parallel transformations that are unavoidable if we are going to be a healthy society. The first is from a second-wave mechanical bureaucratic model to a third wave information model. I believe that, second, you have to move from a national economy to a world economy model ... creating local jobs through world sales. And that requires rethinking litigation, regulation, taxation, welfare, education, health and the structure of government. Third, the transformation from a welfare state to an opportunity society, because the Great Society experiment has now failed totally and is destroying human beings. Fourth, you've got to replace the counter-culture and elites with a revitalization of American culture and American civilization. And fifth, you have to assist in the transition from a professional politician class to a citizen activist leader system. Which is dramatically different." The plan has a caveat: "All five of those have to occur in parallel," Gingrich warns. "Because if they don't all five happen, we don't make the successful transition into twenty-first century America."

The Gingrich revolution comes with a code all its own. His sentences are peppered with "paradigms" and "processing models," "systems" and "waves." But peel away the jargon and it's not difficult to figure what spines face out on Gingrich's shelves. His chapbook is essentially a mind-meld of W. Edwards Deming (total quality management) and Alvin Toffler (Future Shock, The Third Wave), with the specter of Ronald Reagan taking a few bows in the margins.

This isn't an accusation of intellectual theft. Gingrich admits to his sources. In a forty-five-minute-long conversation he mentions Deming three times. And Toffler is an old pal. The two struck up a friendship at an academic conference in Chicago in the '70s, when Gingrich was a graduate student in history at Tulane (he taught a course called "The Year 2000"). They still talk on the phone and visit each other throughout the year. "Newt is a futurist," Toffler says. "Whether you agree with him or not, he is the only one I know in Washington who in casual conversation will say, `Thirty years from now or forty years from now, things will be this way.'" Last Christmas, Gingrich and his wife, Marianne, spent a week with the Tofflers. One afternoon they taped a piece of paper to the wall and, Toffler recalls, "began collectively to try to print out what are essentially the principles to a third-wave alternative to conventional principles."

Gingrich lays out these principles in rich detail in his twenty-hour video lecture course, "Renewing American Civilization." Taped early this year at Reinhardt College, a tiny private school in the Georgia mountains ("It reminds me of Bennington," says Jeffrey Eisenach, whose Progress and Freedom Foundation produced the series), the course is Gingrich's attempt to bring the gospel to the masses. The lectures were beamed over satellite T.V. And the course has its own discussion group on CompuServe.

In each of twenty lectures—with titles such as "Personal Strength," "Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise," "Quality and Deming's Profound Knowledge," "Health and Wellness"—Gingrich, introduced as an "adjunct professor at Reinhardt," maps the path to the Republican future while warning of the Democratic pitfalls looming along the way. "The welfare state reduces a citizen to a client, subordinates them to a bureaucrat, and subjects them to rules that are anti-work, anti-family, anti-opportunity and anti-property," he intones in "Understanding American Civilization," which is lecture No. 1. "Humans forced to suffer under such anti-human rules naturally develop pathologies. The evening news is the natural result of the welfare state." Rarely does Gingrich look down at his notes. Behind him, a volume titled T-REX sits head-high on the bookshelf backdrop.

In lecture No. 7, "Economic Growth and Job Creation," Gingrich deftly contrasts the foreboding welfare state with the liberating opportunity society: "Bureaucrats focus on control. Entrepreneurs focus on creating, solving. Bureaucrats see a static world in which numbers count. Entrepreneurs see a dynamic world in which people count."

And so on. "The five principles of American civilization are: personal strength, entrepreneurial free enterprise, the spirit of invention and discovery, quality as described by Deming, the lessons of American history." There's even a bibliography list of suggested readings that accompanies the course, among them "S. Walton, Made in America; Ronald Reagan, first Inaugural Address; Arianna Huffington...."

Gingrich often tells the story of how he came to take on the elimination of the welfare state and the creation of a nationwide Republican majority as his life's work. The son of an Army officer, Gingrich grew up on military bases in Europe and the United States. When he was 15, his father took him to the battlefield at Verdun in France. There, as the Gingrich legend would have it, he experienced the political epiphany that set him on his quest for a House to call his own. Looking out onto the landscape, he realized that the decisions politicians make have momentous effects on people's lives, and concluded right then he'd rather make the decisions than live under the decisions of others. Especially if those others were Democrats. "I've worked pretty much this intensely since then," he says.

In his sophomore year at the base high school in Stuttgart, Gingrich says he wrote a 200-page paper on the balance of world power. At the same time, his hyperkinetic brain began to map out how to break the Democratic stronghold in Congress. After graduating in 1960, Gingrich went on to Emory University, where the aspiring Republican studied European history and married his high school math teacher. (The marriage ended bitterly twenty years later, with magazine and newspaper features gleefully reporting the gory details. Gingrich later remarried.) At the end of his sophomore year, he had a daughter. As far as Gingrich was concerned, college was a necessary irritant. "I went to school to go to class to get through to become an adult to run for office," he says. After graduating in 1964, he went south to Tulane for a Ph.D. in European history, figuring "those who want to make it have to know it," says Gingrich aide Tony Blankley. So why not American history? "Better job market," Gingrich says plainly. His dissertation was a study of Belgian education policy in the Congo. "I wanted to look at a bureaucracy operating in a world that had almost no political constraints," he says. After Tulane, he taught at West Georgia State College, biding his time until he saw a chance at a House seat.

Gingrich lost his first two House bids, in 1974 and 1976, but won on his third try, in 1978. He chalks up the losses as tactical defeats. "The first time there was Watergate," he says, "the second time, Jimmy Carter." Immediately, he began making a name for himself as a firebrand. By now, the stories are part of the Gingrich lore: as a junior backbencher, he called for Representatives Gerry Studds and Daniel Crane to be censured for having sex with congressional pages. He later infuriated Speaker Tip O'Neill with his after-hours diatribes against the welfare state. And, of course, he masterminded the campaign to topple speaker Jim Wright.

Gingrich's antics didn't play well in parts of his home district, where constituents wanted a legislator, not a showboater. He was far more interested in seeding dissent and plotting his rise than in passing bills. In fifteen years in Congress, his legislative portfolio is paper thin. In 1990 he was nearly tossed out of office, squeaking by with 974 votes. Two years later Gingrich nearly lost in the Republican primary. His opponent, Herman Clark, aired campaign ads jabbing him for bouncing twenty-two checks at the House bank. Gingrich beat Clark by just two percentage points, and then won easily in the general election. (This time around, thanks in part to redistricting after the 1990 Census, he faces no serious challenger.)

In 1989, when President Bush named Republican Whip Richard Cheney as defense secretary, Gingrich saw his chance for the leadership spot he'd long coveted. He beat out Edward Madigan of Illinois, the obvious choice for whip, by two votes, drawing support not only from conservatives, but also from moderates who believed that the Republican House leadership was too passive.

But Gingrich got off to a rocky start with the courtly Michel, who thought of him as a reckless loudmouth, a suspicion Gingrich didn't help to quell when he set out after Wright with a vengeance, using his visibility as whip to back up the cause. Gingrich, for his part, challenged Michel's authority, appearing on Sunday chat shows and endorsing policies Michel never cleared. But among House conservatives, Gingrich gained a loyal following. He formed especially tight relationships with Robert Walker, Richard Armey, Tom DeLay, Robert Paxon and John Kasich. Together, they make up Gingrich's inner circle of advisers.

Michel and Gingrich have since patched things up. "Gingrich learned to show him proper deference," says Eisenach. In the year since Michel announced his retirement, Gingrich slid himself into the role of de facto Republican leader, while Michel eased off into a largely ceremonial post.

Over the past two months, Gingrich has kept up a furious pace of campaigning for Republicans across the country. By election day, he'll have stumped in the home districts of more than 125 Republican incumbents and challengers, many of them full-fledged Newtoids raised on GOPAC seminars. "I'm convinced he doesn't sleep at all," says Paxon. "The calls come to me at 1:00 in the morning or 5 a.m. Anything from minute political strategy in a district he just visited to the macro questions of how we're going to deal with the House of Representatives on twenty-first-century issues."

On the eve of his ascendance, Gingrich's long efforts to seed the Congress with sympathizers are coming to fruition. He began his career carrying water as a foot soldier for the Reagan revolution. Now Gingrich is the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. Next year, every member of the House leadership but Henry Hyde will be a Conservative Opportunity Society member, baptized and ordained by the church of Newt. A decade ago, Bob Dole waved off Gingrich with a flick of his wrist: "He's making a lot of noise," he sneered, "but I don't see any impact." Today, Gingrich's Third Wave has seeped into Dole's chamber. A dozen Senate Republicans have formed their own version of the cos.

Weston Kosova is a senior editor at Newsweek.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.