Magazine article Insight on the News

Who Is Newt?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Who Is Newt?

Article excerpt

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who long has been portrayed by the media as a right-wing ideologue, once called himself a "pragmatist" and a "Rockefeller Republican," according to senior conservative activists. Gingrich endeared himself to conservative organizers more as a parliamentary street fighter than as a conservative true believer, they say, and now is viewed by some of those organizers as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

One veteran conservative congressional staffer tells Insight: "Newt used to say years ago in conspiratorial lunches, `Remember: I'm not a conservative, I'm a pragmatist. The first duty of a political party is to take and hold power.'"

Direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie, one of the founders of the new right in the late 1970s, recalls regular meetings between Gingrich and conservative leaders. At those sessions, Viguerie says, it was tactics, not ideology, that predominated. "His redeeming quality," recalls Viguerie, "was that he is a partisan. He wakes up every morning asking what are six things I can do to put the Democrats out of business. We haven't had any really partisan leaders, and we were starved for someone who would bring our movement to power."

It may be surprising that movement leaders for whom the Rockefeller label symbolizes everything evil took to the ambitious Georgian. But, Viguerie explains: "He didn't bring his Rockefeller credentials to town with him. I wa until he came to the leadership that his moderate views surfaced."

But as long as this partisan scrapper was willing to pin his hopes to the conservative kite, the effect was electric. Viguerie recalls the early meetings. "We had a leadership gathering in Annapolis [Maryland] in 1979," he tells Insight, "and there was Newt with his blackboard -- you know, the way he likes to do presentations -- talking about vision, strategy and tactics. Then in 1982 and 1983 Newt and about six other congressmen from his `Conservative Opportunity Society' group would come to my home on Wednesday evenings. There'd be about six congressmen and six organizers. We were not talking about issues, we were talking about political strategy -- a plan to come to power."

"I was not under any illusion," says Howard Phillips, founder and chairman of the Conservative Caucus and the U.S. Taxpayers Party, "that he would be a conservative leader. What I did believe was that he, for his own reasons, would raise a challenge to the defeatist Republicanism that was dominant in the House GOP. I was trying to generate a more combative posture, and Newt was taking that line as well, even though he never misled us into believing that he was with us on all the issues'"

Heritage Foundation President Ed Feulner also recalls those meetings. "Actually, the first was even before he made it to Congress, between his second defeat and his first victory He came over for a brown-bag lunch at Heritage in '77 or '78 and talked about computer terminals and mainframes and how we'd be doing all our banking via modems and phone lines, etc. We thought he was crazy, but it turned out he was right, except that he didn't foresee the personal computer, he was still talking about mainframes. At the level of vision, however, he was absolutely right'"

"In terms of his ideology," continues Feulner, "it was a hybrid: partly conservative, partly Toffler-influenced futurism, which was hard to pin down. His conservatism was not of the Russell Kirk school or the Milton Friedman school or the Friedrich Hayek school. It was more of a gut conservatism that he then built on."

On July 23, in the immediate wake of the failed coup against his House leadership, and on the eve of reaching a grand compromise on the "balanced-budget package" Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi -- another alumnus of the conservative movement currently perceived by movement leaders as drifting into ideological blandness -- spoke to a group of college students attending a conference of the conservative Young America's Foundation. …

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