James Salzer pens a keeper in the ajc
Newt Gingrich described his first congressional opponent as corrupt and incompetent. His next one, according to Gingrich, supported welfare cheaters.
After being elected to Congress from Georgia in 1978, his target became the liberal welfare state. He called the Democratic leadership destructive and thugs, dubbed his opponents’ positions radical and said some Democrats were willing to kill jobs to help win an election.
Most of the italicized words appear in a 1990 training memo teaching Republican candidates how to “speak like Newt.” Newtspeak lives today — it issues regularly from Gingrich’s lectern at the GOP presidential debates — and if it’s effective now, it was downright revolutionary when Gingrich and others pioneered it in the 1980s. Many credit Gingrich — or blame him — for transforming American politics with words.
“The things that came out of Gingrich’s mouth ... we had never heard that before from either side,” said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State University lecturer who once headed the state Democratic Party. “Gingrich went so far over the top that the shock factor rendered the opposition frozen for a few years.”
Newtspeak has become part of the contrasting — some would say hyperbolic — language commonly heard in today’s political discourse.
Joseph Crespino, an Emory University historian, said Gingrich “has the ability to channel a certain disenchantment and to frame certain issues in a way that has a real visceral reaction to people.”
Gingrich’s debate performances in Florida last week got less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But his style was clear during the final South Carolina primary debate, which he started by getting a rousing ovation when he blamed the “destructive, vicious, negative nature” of the media for making it so hard to govern. He ended the debate calling President Obama “the most dangerous president of our lifetime” who, if re-elected, would bring a “level of radicalism” that would be “truly frightening.”
Some of those who both used and were on the receiving end of Gingrich’s language lessons say it made compromise more difficult and produced a political scene in which the center has largely disappeared.
“I am not sure we did the political system a favor,” said Rusty Paul, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman and onetime aide to U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who worked closely with Gingrich. “The language we have used over the past 20 years has so polarized Congress. ... The society is as divided as the political rhetoric.”
Former Georgia Democratic U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, who served with Gingrich, said the Republican’s incendiary language has now become the norm in American politics.
“That probably has been his major contribution to the political discourse,” Darden said.
Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank a longtime liberal critic of Gingrich’s, recently told the New York Times, “He transformed American politics from one in which people presume the good will of their opponents, even as they disagreed, into one in which people treated the people with whom they disagreed as bad and immoral. He was a kind of McCarthy-ite who succeeded.”
As Crespino noted, American politics has long been a bare-knuckled affair. In 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson went after each other with a viciousness that remains the standard for presidential elections. Candidates were described as criminals, tyrants, cowards and, in the case of Jefferson, an atheist and “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
Crespino said Gingrich’s brand of hardball rhetoric came out of an era when Republicans were a distinct minority in both Congress and the South.
“Gingrich was a Republican in a state and a region in which Republicans were trying to gain a foothold,” he said.
His first congressional opponent was longtime U.S. Rep. Jack Flynt, whom Gingrich considered part of the Democratic machine that had run Congress for decades.
Gingrich told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that year, “Congressmen are not bribed anymore. They simply have a lot of friends who are willing to help them out whenever they find it necessary.”
Gingrich went after both parties, but he narrowly lost to Flynt twice. When Flynt decided to retire, Gingrich called for a “tax revolt” and put out campaign literature accusing his Democratic opponent of joining civil rights activist and Georgia lawmaker Julian Bond to protect “welfare cheaters.”
Once elected in 1978, Gingrich spent more than a decade as a provocative back-bench bomb-thrower, assailing taxes and government bureaucracy, denouncing what he saw as “radicalism” and portraying Democrats as “counterculture” backers of the “liberal welfare state. He compared some congressmen to Hitler appeasers and accused Democratic leaders of having “Mussolini-like” egos as well as being sick, muggers and thugs trying to “destroy our country.”
At one point Gingrich called the attacks by him and his colleagues “pin pricks” against the Democratic majority. The plan was to bleed the enemy. He promoted a partisan view that Republicans could stand to gain politically from portraying the majority as a corrupt party, which he repeatedly referred to as the “Democratic machine.”
Tactics for revolution
In the early years, he used the C-SPAN network as a televised bully pulpit to sell a Conservative Opportunity Society and hammer the Democratic majority. Gingrich drew a rebuke from House Speaker Tip O’Neill when he said the Republican questioned the patriotism of some Democrats. He criticized the “value system” of opponents and called 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis “nuts.”
He took over leadership of GOPAC, which trained Republican candidates in the tactics and language of what Gingrich hoped would be a Republican revolution.
In 1990, he worked with pollster Frank Luntz to put out a memo of focus-group-tested words for GOP candidates to use.
The cover letter, signed by Gingrich, was titled “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control” and encouraged candidates to “speak like Newt.”
“This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media,” the memo said. “The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible.”
The “optimistic positive governing words” included change, moral, courage, reform, freedom, common sense. Negative, contrasting words to be used on opponents included destructive, liberal, welfare, traitors, radical, corruption.
Paul said using such language is meant to evoke an “emotional response in your political base.”
“The carefully chosen words and phrases are important because they don’t appeal as much to the intellect as to the emotion,” he said.
The Georgia congressman used the language in his own campaigns. On one randomly chosen page of a fundraising letter in 1990, he used “liberal” to describe his opponent seven times. He also used suffer, recession, record levels, negative, vicious cycle (twice), special interest, federal handouts, ever-expanding federal programs, massive tax increases, more government programs and tax-and-spend.
Change of status
The Republicans’ Contract With America, coupled with disenchantment with the Clinton administration, brought a GOP victory in the 1994 elections, and Gingrich became speaker. Many of those elected in the early ’90s became leading purveyors of Newtspeak.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said he has had his differences with Gingrich over the years. But when Democrats ran the statehouse, Ehrhart was known for his biting, straight-to-the-heart critiques of Democrats that were reminiscent of Gingrich.
“Newt has always been good at the politics of the clear statement,” Ehrhart said. “Here’s where I stand, here’s where you stand.”
Gingrich and his colleagues used wedge issues — like flag burning and school prayer — to drive that contrasting message home, Ehrhart added. Georgia Republicans did the same during the 1990s and early 2000s.
“The practical reality was that in the clubish world of politics, you were coopted,” he said. “Some might consider it pugnacious or odious — but it worked. You don’t gain anything by holding hands and dancing around the maypole.”
On the other hand, once Republicans took power in Congress, Gingrich’s statements and actions sometimes proved troublesome for his own party.
Rick Santorum, who served with Gingrich and is today one of his presidential rivals, referred to that during a recent debate.
“I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and worrying what he is going say next,” Santorum said.
And at Thursday’s debate, during a sharp exchange on immigration, Mitt Romney accused Gingrich of using “the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long.”
But that same sort of rhetoric helped the Republicans win a congressional majority after decades in the minority, said Paul, the former state GOP chairman. In fact, he said, the victory would have been impossible without the inflammatory language and conservative message Gingrich and other “mavericks” spread to contrast their positions with those of the Democrats.
“There is no way the Republicans could have broken out of their perpetual second-class status” without it, he said.
In his presidential bid, Gingrich’s strategy remains consistent: promote conservative values and private-sector job growth, criticize federal spending and programs, promise lower taxes and maintain a robust national defense. Those have been a part of his speeches since he was a candidate in Georgia in the 1970s.
Gingrich tried an “experiment” in Iowa, staying positive, and lost badly after being hammered in his opponents’ ads. So he went back on the attack.
He called the work of GOP opponent Romney’s former private equity firm “exploitive” and compared it to “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company.” He dubbed Obama the “food-stamp president” and warned that the president (and Romney) are peddling “European socialism.”
In maybe the best example of how he has not lost his touch for the dramatic over the years, he spoke to a church crowd last March about his two grandchildren.
“I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
Susan Meyers, Southeast communications director for the Gingrich campaign and a former AJC reporter, called him “one of the great communicators of our lifetime.
“What Newt says on the campaign trail right now is what every frustrated American feels,” Meyers said. “It’s as if he can peer into each of our souls and articulate what many of us can’t — that we all deserve better and he wants to make our lives better, almost like a father.”
Crespino, the Emory historian called Gingrich, “One of the most successful leaders on the right in framing issues around a certain set of ideals and using language in a very strategic way.
“He has, as all successful politicians have, a sense of the theatrical and the ability to use language and frame words in contexts that appeal to lots of people.
“It was a key to the Reagan coalition, it was a key to the Contract with America in 1994, and it is key to his being able to hang on in this primary campaign at a time when no one thought he would do anything.”
Positive phrases for candidates to define themselves:
Negative terms to define their opponents:
The ever-quotable Gingrich:
Some of Newt Gingrich’s quotes during his Georgia years:
- On his 1974 and 1976 congressional opponent, Democratic Congressman Jack Flynt: “Jack Flynt has disgraced every citizen he is supposed to represent with a record of inaction that ignores the principles on which this country was founded.”
-On Congress in 1974: “Congressman are not bribed anymore. They simply have a lot of friends who are willing to help them out whenever they find it necessary.”
--On Democrats in 1984: “The liberal Democrats propose a return to the welfare state with higher taxes for all working Americans.”
- When some congressmen opposed the US invasion of Grenada: “Not since Chamberlain appeased Hitler have we heard such talk from elected officials in a free society.”
--Mid-1980, during debate on funding the Contras in Nicaragua: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail.”
- On 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis: “It’s not that he isn’t a patriot. It is that Dukakis is nuts ... his value system has no relation to reality.”
- On Georgia’s Democratic leadership in 1989: “They are not good old boys. They are pleasant people who behind the scenes are thugs.”
- On Democrats in the late 1980s: “The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness.”
- On then-House Speaker Jim Wright and the Democratic leadership in the late 1980s: “These people are sick. They are destructive of the values we believe in. They are so consumed by their own Mussolini-like ego that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.”
Source: Gingrich press releases, Gingrich campaign speeches, the AJC, St. Petersburg Times, Associated Press, Washington Post, Mother Jones, the National Review