The Real Newt Gingrich: 5 Things Georgians Know That the Rest of Us Should
Newt Gingrich’s meteoric rise and fall in the 2012 GOP presidential nominating contest is not just the turning point in his latest political quest. It is a reflection of his volatile political personality, which is well known to Georgians and others who have watched him for years.
There are five things that those of us who have weathered Gingrich’s triumphs and travails know very well that others are still learning, starting with our expectation that Gingrich—despite losing in Florida—will not consider stepping aside, but would rather go down in flames all the way to the doorstep of the Republican convention.
Here are snapshots of what more there is to know about Newton Leroy Gingrich, a complex, driven, mercurial man who was born to a teenage mother and adopted in infancy by a stepfather who was a career soldier.
1. Never Is Not in Newt’s Political Vocabulary
Gingrich vows to remain in the fight for the nomination until the GOP Convention this August in Tampa. How can that be? Like a character in a gothic novel who sees a path to salvation, Newt believes politicians who stay on their feet can eventually win.
Insiders say he’s really counting on a big boost on Super Tuesday, March 6, when some key Southern states vote: Georgia and Tennessee. Gingrich may also do well in the Texas primary, April 3. In fact, Martin Baker, the candidate’s national political director, sent out an email the other day, citing these upcoming state contests and saying they give Gingrich “a distinct advantage” over his Republican rivals.
More reasonable assessments of his chances of securing the GOP nomination posit his momentum (if there is any left) will now stall because the next big contests are in late February, and he may not have enough money or grassroots support to survive. However, Gingrich's greatest asset is one Romney’s allies cannot silence, even with millions of dollars of negative television ads: his prowess in debates.
2. A Lifetime Spent Tuning the Art of Arguing
Gingrich rose from the campaign ashes last autumn, largely because of what many call his superb performances in those endless candidate debates. He actually honed that skill decades ago when he was a faculty member at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia), teaching history and geography. When Gingrich decided to run for Congress, he approached the head of the college debate team and asked if he and the students could help him to improve his debating skills.
Chester Gibson, the now-retired coach and communications professor, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the debate team spent countless hours videotaping Gingrich debating issues. Why not? The tiny titans on the debate team from rural West Georgia had qualified for national debate tournaments for 30 straight years, facing off with prestigious schools from the Ivy League and elsewhere. It didn’t help Gingrich at first because he lost his congressional races in 1974 and 1976. But he did win in 1978 and ultimately served 10 terms in the House.
Gingrich learned to pick a fight at West Georgia, Gibson told the AJC. “You do not want to engage Newt in a series of caustic barbs. He will get the best of you every time.”
3. The Dawn of Newtspeak
Gingrich did not come out of the 1960s throwing his war medals over the White House fence like future Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry; he entered public life as a verbal bomb thrower. He not only perfected the us-versus-them mentality that is uniquely resonant in Southern politics—due to the South’s racial strife—but perfected using phrases and accusations filled with dark innuendos and overtones.
The tough talk began decades ago. In his first two losing campaigns for the House, he hurled take-no-prisoner epithets at his opponents, calling them corrupt and incompetent and saying one of them disgraced every Georgian he might represent. Newtspeak was born and refined over the years. And he did not confine his negative comments to immediate opponents. Gingrich famously called Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, “nuts.”
Herman Cain, the other Georgian in the 2012 race, who endorsed Gingrich last weekend, is elated with Newtspeak. Cain calls Mitt Romney’s rhetoric “generic,” while lauding Gingrich for his passion and commitment to his vision.
4. Loyalty to One Cause Above All: Himself
Beyond the Newtspeak, there’s the attitude. Gingrich's no-holds-barred attitudes do not just reflect deep scorn towards others, but a conceit that has a particular political liability: he is known for not being loyal to his supporters.
Dick Pettys is editor emeritus of Insider Advantage Georgia, which covers politics and government. He’s heard many Georgians say Gingrich can be mercurial in his dealings with people, friend or foe. Pettys says, “Some say his sense of loyalty to those who help him is not well developed.” That’s why very few of his former colleagues in Congress have stepped forward to endorse him.
Pettys says many Georgians who only know Gingrich casually were infatuated with him in recent months, especially after his noteworthy debate performances. But he adds that changed last week after another Gingrich asset played out. He loves ideas more than people, and the bigger the idea, the more infatuated he can become.
5. The Big Idea: Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained
We know Gingrich pursues grand concepts. But sometimes the way his mind swings like a pendulum not only knocks would-be supporters off their feet, but it raises genuine doubts that he can identify with ordinary people—because he sees himself as anything but ordinary.
Americans remember the GOP’s 1995 Contract with America and give the ex-speaker plenty of credit for that big idea. Less visible during this presidential campaign are his “visionary” proposals. In Iowa, he advocated more ethanol fuel for America’s future. In New Hampshire, he touted a grand plan to bring electricity from Canada to New England. When Granite Staters said they opposed the power line because it might decimate forests, Gingrich boldly called for an underground line. In South Carolina, Gingrich supported improving the port of Charleston and criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for dragging its governmental feet on studying the project’s feasibility.
Then came the REALLY big idea in Florida: a manned space station on the Moon by the end of a second Gingrich presidential term. The Florida Space Coast may have loved it -- it would create jobs for them for decades. But most other folks did not. Dick Pettys said that even Gingrich's fans were put off, with one Georgian suggesting that Gingrich should be sent to live on the Moon, permanently.
GOP Nightmare, Democratic Delight
A good deal of the Republican Party establishment fears that Gingrich will be more damaging to their sanctioned pick—Mitt Romney—than a conflict-averse Obama would ever be in the fall campaign. While the Democrats watching this spectacle may enjoy the circular firing squad, it probably will end up making Romney a tougher candidate against Obama in the long run.
Across the Peach State, Gingrich has devoted followers as well as those who hate his guts. Folks are impressed by his resolve, his rhetoric and his newfound religion. Others know an unabashedly conceited, overconfident and disloyal man and are glad he’s no longer living in Georgia, as his infidelity and resignation from Congress tarnish their state.
But are Georgians surprised by Newt’s drive to keep campaigning, even if it ends in an inglorious crash when Romney clinches the nomination? Not at all: they have seen it all before -- and now the rest of America is getting to know the real Newt.