Gingrich, Defending Race-Tinged Food Stamp Comments, Is Dogged by Occupy Protesters
MANCHESTER, N.H.--Across the street from the modest hotel and convention center complex where national media set up shop for the New Hampshire presidential primary, the quadrennial spectacle they help to incite, is a tidy if spare little park. Had the Occupy movement not already existed, one could imagine it being invented for the sole purpose of laying claim to that particular patch of land.
And so they came -- mostly from Manhattan, the Occupy movement's birthplace, but others came from as far away as Las Vegas and Los Angeles to be part of history as the 2012 presidential election takes shape. And one even came from around the corner.
"I was walking home from work one night -- last Friday, actually -- and I saw them there," said Dave Davis, who decided he was meant to be part of the cause. On his grey winter jacket, he had stuck a hand-written name label bearing the title, "Responsible Citizen."
I met Davis, who grew up in nearby Peterborough and now lives in Manchester, in the parking lot of Don Quixote's Mexican Restaurant, where inside former House Speaker Newt Gingrich vied for the GOP presidential election, tilting at the windmills of the tyranny of food stamps and purported anti-Catholic bigotry (now, suddenly apparent to him that, as his third faith home, he has chosen the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to have sold him an indulgence for his two divorces).
Gingrich took the stage at Don Quixote's for a town-hall meeting with an immigration theme. His daughter, Kathy Lubbers, introduced him in halting Spanish, after being introduced herself by Carlos Gonzales, who said he was the first Hispanic, as he described himself, to be elected to the New Hampshire legislature. The event smacked of one staged for an audience beyond the boundaries of New Hampshire, whose primary Gingrich is unlikely to win. In Florida, however, he's said to have a chance.
It almost went according to plan, until an audience member pressed him on his comments about black people and food stamps.
Only minutes into his opening speech, the Occupy protesters milling about the parking lot made their presence known, turning their signs in toward the windows, so they could be seen from inside the restaurant, and banging on drums. "Newt go home!" they yelled, interspersed with the movement slogan, "We are the 99 percent!"
As Gingrich stuck to his standard stump messages, some in the media began to sense that the news lay outside the restaurant, and the protesters succeeded in enticing a throng of videographers and photographers to leave the former speaker's recitation of his impossible dream.
The Occupiers are targeting all of the Republican candidates, explained Ian Williams, who made the trek from New York. "We'll be targeting Democrats, too," he added. Really, he said, he was against politicians in general, since the very notion of political leaders ran counter to the ideal of the non-hierarchical society that he and many of his colleagues hope to create.
But wasn't Ron Paul enjoying support among some of the Occupiers, I asked. "They're entitled to their opinions," he said with a smile and a shrug.
With chin-length blond-streaked hair, a perfectly trimmed beard and stylish rimless glasses, Williams belied the stereotypical image of the grubby, rumpled occupier. He held a sign that read, "End the Bought Congress," hand-stenciled in an elegant, Antique Bookman kind of a font. It wasn't hard to envision Williams as the male romantic lead in TV movie-of-the week set in an airbrushed version of the grassroots movement, where the heroine, an otherwise good girl, finds true love in the tents.
Joining the Occupiers at Don Quixote's hitching post were two PETA activists dressed in pink pig costumes, and the ever-present character, Vermin Supreme, who may be the longest-running political performance art act in American history. Sporting a full grey beard and a rubber boot on his head (which gives the impression of an exaggerated stovepipe hat), Vermin wielded a bullhorn, as he has at New Hampshire primary campaign events since the 1980s, making the case for his own presidential candidacy.
No Escape for Newt
Back inside the restaurant, which was jammed with reporters whose numbers dwarfed those of the audience, Gingrich repeated a number of themes he's pounded in recent days, including the notion that the Roman Catholic church is under attack by the Obama administration and liberals in general, its adoption services being "put out of business" in states where LGBT people have the right to adopt and/or marry, because it cannot, in good conscience, place needy children in the homes of gay parents. Then there's the contraception mandate for employers in the new health care law, from which Gingrich holds that the church's institution should be exempt. (For more on this, read Sarah Posner's post at Religion Dispatches.)
One theme Gingrich failed to bring up was his recent painting of Barack Obama as the "best food stamp president in history." (To be clear, Gingrich said that in contrast, "I want to be the best paycheck president in history.") So an audience member brought it up for him.
In the immigration section of his speech, Gingrich had reiterated his advocacy of a permanent residency program for undocumented immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for some 25, especially those who raised families here and were fine members of their communities.
A black man who described himself as an immigrant but did not indicate his country of origin said he had lived in New Hampshire since 1973, raising two sons here, one who became a physician and another an executive in a high-tech company.
When he heard Gingrich's description of the president, the man said, he was pretty sure the former speaker was implying that it was only black people who received food stamps (perhaps because, in the same set of remarks, Gingrich offered to attend the NAACP national convention and lay out his paycheck versus food stamps plan).
The audience member mentioned that in 1930s Germany, Adolf Hitler began speaking of "the Jewish problem."
"[D]o you think that blacks represent an American problem?" the man asked. "Are you viewing blacks in general as a stepping stone or a punching bag?"
Gingrich bristled, saying that he was misunderstood because the Democratic National Committee publicized just a part of his sentence, which, he said, was taken "wholly out of context."
"Clearly, as somebody who has served with Colin Powell, somebody who has served with Condi Rice, I have a fairly good sense that African Americans have made many contributions to America," Gingrich went on. He cited high unemployment among African American teenagers -- 43 percent, he said -- to be a problem that should be unacceptable to all Americans.
Then, he dug his hole deeper. "And I said I was willing to go to the NAACP national convention, which most Republicans are unwilling to do, and talk about the importance of food stamps versus paychecks... Here's a Republican who is standing up, [willing to talk to] one of the most left-wing groups in America about how to help the people they represent."
Because, obviously, they need some splainin' from the brainy white man.
Another audience member interrupted the speaker to say that most food stamp recipients actually have jobs. (That's if you don't count children and adults on Social Security retirement.) Then he mentioned something about the 99 percent, and Gingrich refused to engage him further. "You've had your turn," Gingrich said, clearly annoyed.
After taking a few more questions, Gingrich brought the Q&A to a close, and the campaign cranked up a mix of country music to a deafening pitch, as Gingrich, joined by third wife Callista, as well as his two daughters, became all smiles again, as he stood for pictures with his supporters.