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The Nutty Professor

Newt in the classroom.

If you’ve watched a recent GOP debate, you may have felt like you were, willingly or not, sitting through a class with Professor Newt Gingrich. Indeed, before Gingrich was a politician, he was an academic, albeit a not terribly successful one: In 1978, he was denied tenure at West Georgia College (the stated reason was that he had failed to publish any work).

Fifteen years following that setback, however, he made a brief return to academia. At Kennesaw State College in suburban Atlanta in the fall of 1993, Gingrich taught a class titled “Renewing American Civilization.” In 1994 and 1995—even after he had been elected House speaker—Gingrich offered the same ten-week course at the smaller Reinhardt College, also in Georgia.

Gingrich recorded his lectures on VHS tape and later sold them through his think tank, the Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF). Recently, I watched six hours of the videos; thanks to these tapes, as well as interviews with former students, and a transcript of the 1995 course, I was able to cobble together a sense of what it was like to take a class with Gingrich.

“I’M ‘NEWT,’” HE told his students one day in 1995. “I’m not ‘Mr. Speaker.’ Because we’re all equals. And it’s core to being American.” That semester, he would fly to Atlanta on Friday nights, talking politics with students in the cafeteria before class on Saturday mornings. Afterward, he would leave campus to conduct constituent meetings; another Reinhardt professor took care of grading papers and discussion sections.

The class—which Gingrich led from behind a lectern, encouraging student participation and appearing not to rely too heavily on notes—had a simple premise, which he repeated every lecture. “American Civilization” was exemplified by five pillars: “the historic lessons of American Civilization,” “personal strength,” “entrepreneurial free enterprise,” the “spirit of invention and discovery,” and “quality as defined by Deming.” Gingrich’s thesis was that, starting with the Great Society and the rise of the counterculture, these pillars had begun to crumble. By reaffirming them, Americans could replace the welfare state with a twenty-first-century “opportunity society.”

Newt explained the pillars by invoking great men. Teddy Roosevelt symbolized the emergence of “America as the leading industrial power.” Franklin Roosevelt’s “we can do it” attitude ended the Depression. (No mention of the New Deal.) McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc used working-class perseverance to create the crispiest French fries. Arnold Schwarzenegger overcame poverty through “amazing power of concentration” and “created a major export industry” in the Terminator franchise. A then-unknown businessman named Herman Cain absorbed wisdom from his father—the chauffeur for the CEO of Coca-Cola.

When real-life legends didn’t suffice, Gingrich turned to fiction. In a discussion of Pillar One (“the historic lessons of American Civilization”), Gingrich commended a Civil War general who inspires his haggard troops to mount one last charge in the movie Gettysburg and an Amish community raising a barn in Witness. These men showed that “you are responsible for your fate; the government is not responsible for your fate.” Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, however, did not “get” America.

Gingrich drew from the animal kingdom, too. “I read a little Reader’s Digest story about a butterfly that was coming out of the cocoon,” Gingrich said while explaining Pillar Three (“entrepreneurial free enterprise”). “Sometimes people have to get out of their own cocoon, they have to struggle, they have to learn.” In the penultimate 1995 lecture, “Replacing a Culture of Poverty and Violence With a Culture of Productivity and Safety,” Gingrich observed that, like animals, all humans were different. “An antelope is not just a short-necked giraffe, you know. And a lion isn’t just a giraffe that eats meat.” Similarly, a productive citizen who lived in a good neighborhood was not the same as one “trapped in a neighborhood of violence with a system that won’t let you go to work, being dependent on a bureaucrat who doesn’t have a clue what your name is or who your family is, and having to send your kids to a monopoly that will destroy them.”

The professor also had high hopes for a more gender-balanced future. Traditionally, he said, “if combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for thirty days, because they get infections and they don’t have upper body strength.” On the other hand, in the space age, “if combat means being on an Aegis class cruiser managing the computer controls for twelve ships and their rockets,” a female may be better equipped than a restless male, who is “biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.”

GINGRICH’S TENURE AS a teacher drew wide criticism. Forty members of Kennesaw State’s liberal arts faculty complained about the course’s political nature, forcing the college to move it to the business department. The Georgia Board of Regents responded to the Kennesaw faculty outcry by barring elected officials from teaching at public colleges, forcing Gingrich to move the class to Reinhardt, a private school. In 1995, the House of Representative’s Committee on Standards of Official Conduct opened an inquiry into allegations that Gingrich had violated tax law by using the tax-exempt Kennesaw State College Foundation and PFF (which paid for the classes at Reinhardt) to push his politics. The IRS filed an audit, too. The committee eventually dropped these charges (the IRS later cleared him as well), though it fined Gingrich $300,000 for more minor matters related to the investigation.

But perhaps the most curious aspect of Gingrich’s teaching was his relationship with donors. According to documents obtained by Roll Call in 1994, contributors of $50,000 could “work directly” on the “course development process.” Gingrich showed his class a promotional video for Hewlett-Packard, “one of the great companies in American history”—and a donor to PFF. During his lectures, Gingrich also plugged Coke and Ford (both donors to PFF), and devoted significant time to textile magnate Roger Milliken. Milliken and his brother had given nearly $300,000 to Gingrich’s reelection campaign and his fund-raising vehicle, GOPAC.

Still, when I surveyed former students, their memories were favorable. “His political critics were continually harping about how it was political indoctrination,” says 60-year-old Cartersville, Georgia, accountant Bob Mayzes, who twice audited the class at Reinhardt. “It was a legitimate class.” (Mayzes is treasurer of the Georgia Republican Party.) Neil Hopper, a 45-year-old Christian radio broadcaster from Adairsville who took the class at Kennesaw told me that Gingrich didn’t teach “Republican values or Democratic values”; he taught “American values.”

Yet, while the half dozen ex-students I spoke to agreed that the class was not political propaganda, there was no consensus on what, exactly, it was. Ryan Satterfield, a 38-year-old Cartersville high school teacher and Reinhardt graduate, told me, “I didn’t walk out of there and say, ‘Ah, now I understand NAFTA, or now I understand Social Security.’ It was kind of a commonsense approach to business, history, and ... just how to make things better.” 

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.