Bill Berkowitz: God, Government And Gingrich
God, Government And Gingrich
On comeback trail, the former House Speaker claims that driving 'God out of the public arena is an America on the way to decay and defeat'
By Bill Berkowitz
"You know what that tells you? It tells you were terrible the year before." -- Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, 1992, the year he won the Comeback Player of the Year award.
Newt Gingrich, who is firmly embedded on the New York Times bestseller list with his new book Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract With America, is both selling books and seeing if people will buy a future for him in electoral politics. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and the leader of the 1994 Republican Revolution, was the architect (along with PR man Frank Luntz) of the Contract With America -- a document often referred to as the "Contract On America," with its series of slash and burn proposals. Will the American people buy his latest Contract and will it lead to the launch of a full-blown political comeback?
Americans love comebacks; they are as American as apple pie, chow mien, and hip-hop. Movie stars make comebacks -- think John Travolta in Pulp Fiction; books make comebacks -- the novelist Henry Roth wrote Call it Sleep in 1934, but it didn't land on the bestseller list until it was reissued in 1964; and most professional sports give out annual Comeback Player of the Year awards. If a player that may have suffered a season-ending injury or illness the year before, or just plain had a lousy year, and subsequently manages to recover the magic, then he/she becomes a worthy Comeback Player of the Year candidate.
Political comebacks are a bit harder to find, especially if the politician has been forced to slink off the national stage. Once disgraced, most politicians are grateful to be allowed to ride easy into the sunset, rather than being sent to the slammer. In the twentieth century, Richard Nixon perfected the political comeback. If there were Political Comeback of the Year Awards, Nixon would have retired it by the time he died in 1994. His first comeback came while serving as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower when he went on television with wife Pat by his side and delivered his now famous/infamous "Checkers" speech, denying that he had abused a secret Republican slush fund.
Nixon's second comeback came years after he dispensed his "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore" comment at a bitter press conference announcing his retirement from politics after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown. Six years later, he was elected president and was handily re-elected in 1972. His maximum comeback took years in the making: After he was forced to resign the presidency over the Watergate scandal, Nixon spent the rest of his life refashioning his image. At the end he was both a disgraced and dishonored president, and a "statesman" who, as then President Bill Clinton acknowledged at Nixon's funeral, gave him "wise counsel, especially with regard to Russia." Even now, five years into the twenty-first century, Nixon is making a comeback of sorts; a movie entitled The Assassination of Richard Nixon is playing at a local Cineplex.
Gingrich: 'I'm glad to be back'
In 1994, in no small part through the resolute work and long-term vision of Newt Gingrich, Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. On February 7, 2005, Gingrich appeared at North Carolina State University where he "shared his vision for the future of health care in North Carolina and across the country," News 14 Carolina reported.
Two weeks later, for the first time in several years, Gingrich appeared at the February 23 breakfast in Chicago sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Once a regular at these events, Gingrich opened with the line, ""I'm glad to be back.' His speech was characterized by the Chicago Sun-Times as "an intellectual and historical romp... a short course on the ills facing the nation and, naturally, the cures."
After talking about God in public life, Gingrich then borrowed a page from the playbook of President Bush brushing aside charges of past moral lapses as opportunities for personal growth. [While considering a run for the presidency, Bush told Doug Wead, who secretly taped and recently revealed their conversations, that in the campaign, he wouldn't talk specifically about his private behavior but he would acknowledge that he had made mistakes and learned from them and moved on. Bush said, "What you need to say time and time again is not talk about the details of your transgressions but talk about what I have learned. ... I've sinned and I've learned."]
Gingrich has been married three times -- most recently to a congressional aide he had an affair with. He readily confessed to being "a sinner' when he was asked about the affair, a question that was posed to him after he had spent time at the breakfast discussing the role of God in public life.
For Gingrich, "Coming back" doesn't necessarily mean that he actually went away. Although he hasn't recently had nearly the presence before he quit the House in 1998, for several years he has been a high-profile partisan analyst for the Fox News Channel and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.
Judging from the Sun-Times report, Gingrich has chosen a compelling combo to drive his comeback: God and government. These two topics are much on Gingrich's mind these days, as he told the breakfasters that "The fight over whether or not our rights come from our Creator is much more real and much more vivid and has become intense.' Gingrich wrote in his new book: "We must re-establish that our rights come from our Creator and that an America that has driven God out of the public arena is an America on the way to decay and defeat."
"I tell you upfront, I'm a sinner; I suspect you are, too,' he tells the Sun-Times reporter and then moved to his scripted message: "Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about whether as a historian I can talk about how the Declaration of Independence was written, what Thomas Jefferson stands for, and whether it is good for American families to go on a walking tour of Washington to see historically the absolute fact that the Founding Fathers were deeply committed to the idea our rights come from God."
(For a convincing and countervailing opinion see Our Godless Constitution by Brooke Allen, who maintains that despite the Bush Administration's insistence that America was founded on Christian principles, America was in reality founded "on Enlightenment ones." Not to mention that the word "God" is not mentioned in the Constitution.)
The Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldmann and David T. Cook also reported on Gingrich's breakfast appearance: "Listening to Newt Gingrich is still like trying to take a sip out of a fire hose. Make that a fire hose on steroids. Ten years since the insurgent Republican from Georgia became Speaker of the House and six years since he left, he has updated his message of reform -- and with no less of a sense of urgency."
Gingrich also appeared to have some advice for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay: "Republicans in the House have to look at the reality that if we make sense as a party right now it's because we are the reform party, and anything that risks being the reform party is more dangerous for us than it is for the Democrats," Gingrich said. "They should be very careful."
"Talking with Newt Gingrich about ethics may be like talking to Willie Sutton about bank robbery," the Houston Chronicle's Cragg Hines recently wrote in a story headlined "If Newt is warning DeLay about ethics, times are bad."
"You listen carefully to such an experienced practitioner, but you wonder: If he's so smart why did he get caught so often."
At the recently concluded annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Gingrich got his red meat/red state swerve on. He told attendees that as co-chair, along with former U.S. Senate Democrat Leader George Mitchell, of a task force on U.N. reform, he would "bring into the room with me one simple premise... Any organization that permits Sudan to join its human rights commission while investigating genocide in that country is in need of profound and fundamental reform."
Nuggets of Newt
In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that Newt told a group of young Republicans, not to "do things that may be wrong; but do something," explaining that one of the GOP's "great problems" was that "we don't encourage you to be nasty."
In a life filled with outrageous comments and ethically-challenged activities, perhaps the rhetorical topper was the comment he made about the Susan Smith case three days before the polls opened in 1994 equating the murder of children to Democratic values. As reported by the Associated Press, Gingrich said of Smith, the South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons: "the mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican (emphasis mine). That's the message for the last three days." (For more on this see Norman Solomon's piece Gingrich & The Susan Smith Case.)
Newt Gingrich forced House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) to resign. Gingrich engineered the shutdown of the government in 1995. In 1997, he became the first Speaker of the House in U.S. history to be censured and fined for ethical misconduct. A year later he resigned and was going to be replaced by Congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.) but he too was forced to withdraw because of disclosures about an extra-marital affair.
After Gingrich's resignation, he become a fellow at both the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution. In 1999, he founded the Gingrich Group, which according to its Web site is "a communications and consulting firm that specializes in transformational change." And in January 2003, The Center for Health Transformation -- "a collaboration of public and private sector leaders dedicated to the creation of a 21st Century Intelligent Health System in which knowledge saves lives and saves money for every American -- was launched as a project of the Gingrich Group.
Gingrich's new book posits that if not corrected, five things threaten to destroy the US: Islamic terrorists and rogue dictatorships armed with nuclear or biological weapons; the removal of God from the public square; diminished patriotism and understanding of America's history; economic decline due to inadequate science and math education; and overburdened Medicare and Social Security.
Gingrich's prescription: tax code simplification; government investment in science and technology; privatization of Social Security; tort reform; and privatization of as much of the federal government as possible. Gingrich also advocates enhancing America's intelligence capabilities, reforming its election system, developing a more intelligent health care system and balancing the federal budget.
Gingrich's future political possibilities will hinge on more than the proposals in his latest book, his history of ethical lapses, smarmy comments, multiple affairs, and the abandonment of his wife while she had cancer. He did, after all, lead the Republican Revolution. Does he want to be back in the driver's seat? According to The Hill, Gingrich has scheduled "trips to New Hampshire and Iowa this spring, but not necessarily to launch a presidential campaign."
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Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.