The Gingrich Manifesto
“Experience is the name we give to our mistakes,” said Oscar Wilde, who in his later imprisonment and exile would have the experience to prove it. Contemporary America takes a more cheerful and practical view of error: it is something to be publicly confessed to, learned from, and made the basis for subsequent advance of one’s career.
Nor is this view confined to the world of daytime talk shows or popular books offering quick routes to emotional health. Bill Clinton was successfully presented in the 1992 election as a man unafraid either to weep or to make amends. And though the President has temporarily ceased admitting wrongdoing—he does, after all, seem to be guilty of some, which complicates matters—the idea that a strong man should face up to his own past errors in public is firmly established as the correct form. It has completely replaced the maxim of an earlier day, now upheld only by newspaper editors: “Never apologize, never explain.”
This is the cultural background to Newt Gingrich’s latest book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way1 whose subtitle is “A Personal Report.” By the standards of the past, this would seem a hard work to place. For it is common knowledge that Gingrich is seriously pondering a presidential bid, which means that any book by him must be considered a campaign manifesto. Yet this one appears to break certain well-established rules of the genre.
Campaign books, after all, usually contain long lists of policy proposals designed to show that the author has thought deeply about the problems facing America (if a Republican) or mankind (if a Democrat); this book contains surprisingly little wonkery, and that little crops up mostly in the course of vivid accounts of recent political struggles. Again, campaign books are usually written in the serviceable and impersonal prose of a VCR manual; this one is direct, personal, lucid, and at times engrossing. Finally, campaign books have traditionally shown the author in an uncritical light; the author of Lessons admits to a catalogue of serious political errors.
In that respect, however, Lessons does conform to current practice, and, in doing so, it also fulfills one of the purposes of any proper campaign document: it strives to make us think better of the candidate. Since Newt Gingrich’s approval ratings were almost subterranean when the book was being written, and his treatment by the press abysmal, that is certainly a legitimate ambition.
The fact is, indeed, that Gingrich has been the target of media hostility ever since his successful campaign in the late 1980’s to remove the former Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, on ethics charges; by now, he has been more vilified than any politician since Richard Nixon. It is worth inquiring briefly about the source of this animosity.
Surely it cannot be justified by any of the flaps recounted in Lessons. These fall into three categories: minor trip-ups on Gingrich’s part, like his foolish (his word) complaint about the President’s having ignored him on an Air Force One flight back from the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel; instances of gross and sometimes deliberate bias on the part of individual reporters, as in the tit-for-tat ethics scandal over Gingrich’s alleged misuse of tax-exempt funds to teach a “political” college course; and examples of media compliance with the White House’s calculated shaping of a story to portray Gingrich as a hardhearted Republican villain, as in the protracted fight over Medicare.
Nor could his politics be the explanation. For one of Washington’s best-kept secrets is that Newt Gingrich’s views, far from being “extremist,” are those of a moderate conservative with techno-nerd overtones. In Lessons, Gingrich himself seeks to keep this secret safe by frequently expressing his admiration for the GOP House “militants”; but the truth emerges implicitly, as we shall see, in the sorts of issues and policies he either stresses or ignores.
Why the vilification, then? As with Nixon, what seems to infuriate Democrats and the media alike is that Gingrich combines his moderate conservatism with a strong and stinging partisanship. Reporters can accept a partisan Democrat—partisanship is the nature of that particular beast. But a partisan Republican, like a violent gentleman, seems both a breach of etiquette and a moral contradiction. The epitaph for a Republican is generally supposed to be F. E. Smith’s judgment of the Conservative British statesman Austen Chamberlain (1863-1937): “Poor Austen. He always played the game, and he always lost it.” Gingrich defies that fate, and is accordingly resented.
It is, however, that same defiance of fate, with all the disadvantages it entails, that signifies Newt Gingrich as a formidable political leader. As his account of the Jim Wright affair reminds us, it was no small feat for a minority Republican backbencher to take on the Speaker of the House and drive him from office. And even in Gingrich’s own darkest days as Speaker—last year, in the one episode he shrouds in prose of Delphic discretion, a cabal of disloyal colleagues and young militants sought to replace him—he still dominated the Republican caucus, as indeed he does to this day. Few American politicians, moreover, have Gingrich’s grasp of strategic and historical issues, or can speak so fluently, so engagingly, or in so deeply informed a manner on so wide a range of subjects, including, most recently, on the American relationship with Europe. Above all, he has survived a terrible shellacking, and in American politics the ability to survive may now itself be a main qualification for office.
Even before the publication of this book, Gingrich’s reputation, as measured by approval ratings, had begun a recovery, and Lessons should certainly assist that process, if only by correcting the impression left by all the false reporting about him. Any halfway fair-minded reader should feel positively indignant at the press treatment of, to take only one example, the 1995-96 confrontation between the President and the House Republicans that led to the shutdown of the government; as Gingrich persuasively shows, the media either glossed over the President’s mendacity throughout this entire episode, which ostensibly involved a dispute over the budget, or winkingly portrayed it as a series of brilliant political strokes.
But there is also a downside to Gingrich’s candor. On issues ranging from the balanced budget, to the row over Republican amendments to the 1997 bill authorizing disaster relief to flood victims in the Red River Valley, to his handling of Clinton’s Medicare scare, he repeatedly admits to serious error, reveals that he ignored sensible warnings from colleagues, and concedes that he underrated Clinton and the Democrats generally. We need not exaggerate these admissions—Gingrich has nothing to confess of a Clintonian nature, let alone on a Clintonian scale—but the political misjudgments he lists are indeed serious, and they suggest an impetuosity of character that may be a continuing problem. For that reason they also raise questions about his present and future leadership. Even in today’s confessional climate, he is taking risks in baring his mind so frankly.
His excuse—no, his attempt at redress—is that he has learned the lessons of his mistakes. And indeed he lays out those lessons, chapter by chapter: learn to listen; learn to keep your mouth shut; pick your fights wisely; keep your eye on the ball; stay on offense; etc., etc. There is a great deal of shrewd political observation and advice contained here. But the current condition of the congressional Republicans—who to an outsider seem either totally shell-shocked or lying in wait for Clinton and the Democrats to fall into a hole of their own digging—hardly suggests that these lessons, and in particular the one marked “stay on offense,” have been heeded or digested, including by Gingrich himself.
An explanation for the apparent discrepancy, anticipated by Gingrich (and partly endorsed by Tod Lindberg in his review of this book in the June American Spectator), is that outsiders are not in a position to see the whole game. They cannot know all the conflicting interests that must be satisfied, or be aware of all the advantages enjoyed by the opposing team. In particular, Gingrich complains that outside-the-Beltway conservatives, having rightly criticized previous generations of Republicans for a failure of will power in fighting liberalism, now embrace the no less fallacious notion that in politics, will power is everything.
There is undoubtedly something to what he says. Gingrich’s own experience in the government shutdown certainly demonstrated that will power alone was not very effective when Clinton had the Maxim gun and he did not. Yet, as the memoirs of retired politicians regretfully confirm, the outside-the-Beltway conservatives are sometimes right, too. Who now defends Richard Nixon’s imposition of wage-and-price controls, or George Bush’s breaking of his pledge not to raise taxes, both measures undertaken under the pressure of conflicting interests?
There is, alas, no hand-held calculator to tell us when the insiders are right and the outsiders wrong about what to do in a given situation of uncertainty. But we tend to trust those political leaders who we feel have a confident sense of where they are going in general and when we want to go in the same direction. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, occasionally quoted by Gingrich, is a case in point. People trusted her decision to surrender to striking coal miners in 1981 because they sensed, rightly as it turned out, that her retreat was a tactical one and that she would mount an offensive when conditions were right.
Gingrich also seems to know where he is going, but do enough voters want to follow him? What are his distinctive political issues? And are they sufficiently appealing to a sufficient number of people to enable him to establish his forward-looking brand of conservatism (“opportunity conservatism”) as the new natural order in American politics? Lessons cannot answer such questions, among other reasons because it is not a policy handbook. But it does suggest a number of the strengths and weaknesses in Gingrich’s brand of politics.
First, many of the issues that he helped to pioneer as a backbencher and that eventually drove the GOP to its majority status—including welfare reform and other portions of the conservative agenda—have now been embraced by liberals, and so have ceased to be political issues in any real sense. He recognizes this as a conservative achievement, but not as the problem it presents, which has been to deprive the GOP of important rallying cries and sources of support. Indeed, Gingrich is reluctant in general to accept that a number of the older issues he still cares about are, politically speaking, useless. He places great stress, for example, on fighting the drug war. Most voters believe that both political parties would like to win that war, but that neither knows how.
Second, the newer issues about which Gingrich is enthusiastic, notably technology and an entrepreneurial approach to the political process, are secondary in nature. They leave most people cold—is putting a tax bill on the Internet really “the dawn of a new age in responsible self-government”?—and they are easily trumped by more primitive appeals. No doubt Representative Deborah Pryce has done a fine job heading the committee shaping a Republican response to the proposed tobacco legislation; at least from the outside, however, the President’s mobilization of popular and media resentment of the tobacco companies seems to have preempted the possibility of any considerable GOP response.
Third, Gingrich seems risk-averse when it comes to seizing upon those new political issues that, although legitimate in themselves, and also calculated to attract substantial support, are nonetheless likely to arouse controversy and perhaps allow the media to raise charges of racism, sexism, homophobia, or the like. Racial and sexual quotas are by far the best example. Others include bilingualism, the overturning of popular referenda by the courts (as in the case of the Colorado initiative prohibiting special preferences for homosexuals), immigration, and the whole range of topics associated with multiculturalism and the balkanizing of America. These are matters about which many people feel both desperate and indignant; yet the Republicans flirt nervously with them at best.
Newt Gingrich’s GOP is thus like a shiny new sports car: modern, streamlined, equipped with the latest accessories, designed for comfort, but lacking one essential—an engine. Very few people have strong, passionate reasons to buy it, and one can hardly blame them, for those in charge of marketing the new model are basically relying on their competitors to blow a gasket.
Still, the final verdict is not in. Newt Gingrich remains Speaker of the House, and he seems likely to run for President. If he should actually make that move and win, the past, including this book, would be merely prologue. And if he continues as Speaker, he will be, among the three most politically influential men in American life (the other two being the next President and Vice President, of either party), the one with the greatest experience in national government. How effectively will he use that power and influence? Will he succeed in ensuring that a discredited liberalism is followed by a truly vibrant conservatism as the reigning doctrine of American politics? And what will that conservatism look like? The answers to those questions will be determined in large part by whether he has really learned the lessons he sets out so lucidly in Lessons Learned the Hard Way.
1 HarperCollins, 229 pp., $25.00.