Newsmaker: Newt Gingrich
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JIM LEHRER: And now to the Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who’s with us for a Newsmaker interview. Mr. Speaker, welcome. First, my condolences on the death of your stepfather this morning. He’d been ill for some time, is that correct?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: Thank you, yes. He’d been in the hospital about five weeks, and it was very sad. I called my mom this morning to wish her Happy Birthday and learned that he’d actually died very early this morning on her birthday, which is I think doubly difficult. But I appreciate you mentioning it.
JIM LEHRER: He was suffering from lung cancer, right? That was the cause.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Yes. He had lung cancer.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. So quite a day for you, Mr. Speaker.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: A bittersweet day. I mean, very wonderful in the conference, where we had tremendous support but also very sad talking to my mother–
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: –and my sisters and trying to make arrangements.
JIM LEHRER: Well, congratulations to you on the good part of your day.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Your renomination. Are you the same man who took this job two years ago?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I guess. I mean, maybe I should bench myself. Look, this is a very demanding and difficult job, and no one had been a Republican speaker in 40 years, so I guess that we all had a lot to learn. Certainly, I’ve learned a lot in two years, and I’m very grateful the American people have given us a chance to continue. As you noted in your report, this is the first time in sixty-eight years that the Republican Party has held the House for two consecutive elections. I think most experts believe that we’ll almost certainly keep it in 1998, since historically the White House party has always lost seats in the off year, except for one time, since the Civil War. So I think for us it’s an opportunity to serve the country, to continue to learn. And I would hope that I’m a little wiser and maybe a little more mature person than I was two years ago, but I think I’m probably the same guy.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see the mission differently for this next two years than you saw it when you began two years ago?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Oh, I think the mission is very different in part because the cycle of confrontation ended with President Clinton being for a balanced budget, for lower taxes, for welfare reform, for fighting drugs. You know, you go down the list, it’s very close to what we campaigned on in 1994, and remarkably different from the tax increase–government-run health care, left-wing social policies of the Democrats in 1994, so there’s a tremendous common ground now where our values and the President’s campaign overlap very dramatically, and I believe this could be the implementation Congress where we actually work to implement these kind of general directions for the country.
JIM LEHRER: And the words have changed dramatically, have they not? I mean, you were talking about dramatic change. You were talking about revolution. Those words are gone right now.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, partly they’re gone out of success. As I said a while ago, you know, we ended the agricultural subsidy in the Midwest; we ended the entitlement for welfare reform; we passed the line item veto after a hundred and twenty years of trying. There were some pretty dramatic changes in the last two years. Now we’re in a new zone. This is a zone of balancing the budget, reducing the size of government, using good ideas and good solutions such as working on diabetes prevention, which we think will save millions of lives and billions of dollars, go out of–I think it’s a different approach because we’re in a different arena than we were two years ago.
JIM LEHRER: Is there an agenda? Are you going to start on January the 7th with an agenda comparable to the Contract with America?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: No. One of the nicest things about this cycle is we don’t have a pledge to have a hundred days of passing things. You know, 65 percent of the Contract with America ultimately got signed into law. All of it passed the House, except for term limits, but we don’t have that same kind of commitment this time. We have an obligation I think to work with the President. The American people chose Bill Clinton to be President under our constitutional system. I think that both the Senate and House Republicans have an obligation to try to work with the man chosen by the American people to be President. He has to come back home and give a State of the Union, give an inaugural address, send up a budget. We’re certainly going to work with him on ideas and proposals, and then hopefully, we’ll find that common ground that he’s talked about and that I’ve talked about, where in his ideas and ours, we can actually find ways of getting things done, rather than just fighting in a partisan way.
JIM LEHRER: I was struck, Mr. Speaker, in your remarks to your fellow House Republicans. You said that you all had a moral obligation to work with the President. Why did you use the word “moral?”
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Because I believe all over the world people in Zaire, where you just showed some clips awhile ago, in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Russia, all over the world people look to see whether this American experiment in self-government can work. It’s the most divided system in the world. The Founding Fathers really wanted to separate power very dramatically to protect us from dictatorship. And so I think between elections we have a real obligation to try to reach out and find ways to make it work, despite our partisan differences. And I think as the leading country on the planet, which we clearly are, that those of us who have been allowed to represent our districts have an obligation to represent the future of America, and, therefore, to have an impact on the future of the entire human race. And for us to just degenerate into four years of bickering would be truly I think a tragic loss of opportunity and would be to fail to do our duty as citizens to our country.
JIM LEHRER: Now, I don’t have to remind you that you said some really harsh things about President Clinton during the election. For instance, Bob Schiefer on “Face the Nation” on CBS asked you if you believed President Clinton was a man of integrity who told the truth, and you said, no. Now, is all that kind of stuff just swept aside now?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: No. I think if you’ll notice, President Clinton and the Democrats ran 80,000 commercials attacking me, and I think at one point, Bob Dole and I were described by Al Gore as a two-headed monster. So you can draw up lots of lists of things people have said.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I believe that the President has been chosen by the American people to be President. I don’t particularly totally feel that I can trust him all the time. He doesn’t particularly agree with my values and ideology. So we have to learn to live together. We have an obligation to the American people to say let’s walk in a room, let’s find a way to work together, let’s see how we can make this system operate. You know, it’s easy for it to break down. He can veto bills and attack us. We can fail to pass things he wants and attack him. Letting it break down is not hard. It’s hard to reach out beyond the partisanship and beyond the rhetoric and make it work. And I think that’s what Trent Lott and I want to work with President Clinton to do.
JIM LEHRER: Well, what I’m getting at, Mr. Speaker, is all the polls show that the American people have trouble understanding how you, the Speaker of the House, and Bill Clinton, the President of the United States, and just fill in the names beyond that, can say these really awful things about each other and then suddenly come back to Washington and say, oh, forget it, I didn’t mean any of that, we’re now going to all cooperate and everything’s just going to be great again.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I didn’t say that.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: What I said was–
JIM LEHRER: No. I didn’t say you said it.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: I’m just saying that people don’t understand that.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, maybe we can help them to have a better grip on it here.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Terrific, terrific.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: What I said was that whatever my feelings and however strong my concerns, the American people made a choice, just as in the House and Senate, the American people made a choice. Now we can do one of two things. We can decide to continue battering each other and calling each other names and fighting, or we can say, all right, while I wish Bob Dole had won, he didn’t, and I’m going to work with the President. Now, if the President goes back to the left, we’re not going to cooperate. But if the President stays where he campaigned, which is on a balanced budget, reforming welfare, stopping drugs, lowering taxes, why would we fight him? I mean, he’s describing things we believe in. I think the proof will be in the pudding. We have, I think, for the next six months or a year a great opportunity to bake that pudding or cook that pudding the right way, and all I’ve said is an American citizen that I feel I have an obligation, I feel my colleagues have an obligation to work with the President of the United States because he was the choice of the American people, and who are we to repudiate that choice?
JIM LEHRER: All right, sir. Some of your colleagues, Republican colleagues, are urging that the Congress and particularly the House vigorously investigate many of the allegations that have been made against the various aspects of the Clinton administration, particularly the Indonesian connection, the campaign finance thing. How do you feel about that?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, the New York Times pointed out today that there are extraordinary levels of deceit, and the editorial in the Times today is pretty stunning in its toughness about deceit in the White House, deceit about foreign contributions, deceit about probable lawbreaking. Certainly, where there is a clear obligation to perform oversight, that job should be done. That’s part of our Constitution. But I don’t think the leaders of the Congress should focus on that. I think the leaders of the Congress should focus on positive legislation and positive solutions, and should try to help the country get the job done. Now I don’t think we should shirk our responsibilities. There are certainly appropriate committees, appropriate chairmen to do the legitimate things, and I don’t think any American expects us to shirk our responsibilities, but that should not be the primary focus of this Congress. This Congress should be focused on common sense solutions that let us balance the budget, save our children from drugs and violent crime, implement better approaches to health care, such as diabetes prevention and education, things which can be dramatically helpful to the country, and where I think any rational person can find a common ground to do good things for America.
JIM LEHRER: You said at one time that the Indonesian thing makes “Watergate look tiny.” Do you still feel that way?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I’m told that several major news organizations have about the same number of reporters investigating foreign contributions as they had investigating Watergate. If it turns out to be as large and expansive as it looks like, it’s certainly going to be a very major story, and there may well be millions of dollars involved and a substantial amount of lawbreaking; however, that should be handled in an appropriate way by the appropriate people. I don’t think that that’s what Trent Lott ought to focus on or Newt Gingrich or Dick Armey. I think we ought to focus on finding the right kind of positive things to do. The country’s been through a long, exhausting political process. I think it would be very helpful to us for a while as a country to try to find some things we can do together that actually improve the lives of people, that reform education, that help save the environment, that balance the budget, that lower the cost of government, that allow us to reduce the tax burden on working Americans. These are good things to do, and I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be diverted. The appropriate investigation by the appropriate people, but the leadership ought to focus on passing the right legislation.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Speaker, do the new freshmen in the 105th Congress come to Washington with the same fire in their bellies of those who came here in the 104th Congress two years ago?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Oh, I think they have the same fire in their belly. They have the same commitment to serving their country. They have the same desire to reform welfare, to stop drugs, to lower taxes, to balance the budget, but I also think they come with a very practical understanding that this election the American people chose divided government. They had a chance to go with liberals and elect Democrats to the House and Senate, as well as a Democratic President. They had a chance to go with solid conservatism and elect a Republican President to with a Republican House and Senate. The country chose divided government. So I think there’s a little more of an attitude this year of let’s see how much we could get done the next two years. Then we’ll have another election. The odds are pretty good Republicans will gain seats in ’98. Then we’ll see how much we can get done in ’99 and 2000. Then we’ll have another chance to choose and see do you want to go to the left or the right, who do you want to run the country, but for the mome nt, the freshmen I’ve talked to are a very, very bright, remarkably sophisticated and experienced group. I think their interest is in moving in the right direction. Again, President Clinton campaigned on the right direction. He campaigned on a balanced budget, lower taxes, smaller government, welfare reform, stopping drugs, reforming education. I think almost every Republican can agree with him in general principles, and now we have to find out if we can agree in detail.
JIM LEHRER: On a more personal basis, Mr. Speaker, this has been a rough year for you, a great first year, as I say–just picking up on what Kwame’s report was–and whatever–how do you feel about all the attacks on you during the campaign, the negative polls? The exit polls showed something like 60 percent unfavorable rating. What does that do to you?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, I think almost anybody in America who had 80,000 commercials run against them without answering them would have a very interesting image. You might have survived it better than I did, but you ought to try it some time. It’s a very amazing experience. You know, partly affected, I guess, you know, by my dad having died–the thing I feel most, frankly, is exhaustion. This has been not just two years but three and a half years, going back to the time that I began to clearly be the successor to Bob Michel and the leader of the House Party, and we waged the ’94 campaign. We passed the contract. We developed the balanced budget. We fought the campaign this year, and with the union onslaught and the money that the unions developed, you know, it’s probably the most intense campaign for control of the House maybe in modern history. So my first reaction is I could sure use Thanksgiving and Christmas to unwind and slip down and maybe give you a better answer in January, but there’s a certain level here where I’m almost too tired to be able to explain what all those ads meant.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. But, for instance, Kwame mentioned that at one time–a year ago, in fact–you were seriously considering running for President of the United States. Is that still a possibility in your life when you look ahead?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Well, I think it’s a long way from here to there. I saw Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in a debate that we did with Bill Buckley, and I thanked him, because as you’ll remember, he wrote “The Age of Jackson” in the 1950′s, and I said, it took Jackson about 130 years to find a historian who would write a favorable version because he’d so angered the Whig historians. I think, you know, my job is to be an effective speaker to offer common sense solutions, to lead efforts such as diabetes education, to work on the environment, to help us get to a balanced budget, to continue to reform welfare, to save the capital of the country, Washington, D.C., which should be the best capital city in the world and is tragically far from that position today. You know, if I do my job, I’ll let all those other things take care of themselves, and as a historian, I know that over time, the American people are pretty shrewd in their judgments, and we’ll see where they are in the years to come.
JIM LEHRER: But as a historian, here again, as Kwame said, you were “the” political force in this country. Everybody has acknowledged–you were on the cover of every magazine–everybody was talking about Newt Gingrich, and that has changed. Has that changed you and your attitude toward politics, toward your life–going so up and then so–well not down–you’re still Speaker of the House, but you know what I mean.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: First of all, yes, it’s been difficult, and yes, having, you know, attacks in commercials and all those things and having made some mistakes in my own, quite frankly, I mean, you know, I wasn’t perfect, and I was the first Republican speaker in 40 years, and there are some things I’d do differently. On the other hand, to be the first re-elected Republican speaker in 68 years, to have a majority, despite a Democratic President winning re-election, the first time in American history that’s happened, to be in a position where the President won re-election in large part by coopting our issues in campaigning as almost a shadow Republican, be in a position to talk in a practical way with Erskine Bowles and the new Clinton team about balancing the budget, reforming welfare, saving our children from drugs, reforming education, I mean, I feel very positive about the potential that we can make over the next four years, dramatic contributions to preparing our children and our country for the information age and for the world market. You mentioned tonight on your show the increased deficit in foreign trade. I think we can do things to make America more competitive. So I look at this as a tremendous opportunity. Yes, I’m a little more battered than I was two years ago. Yes, it’s been harder than I would have guessed. Yes, I made some mistakes. On the other hand, I was in 130 districts, I helped re-elect an awful lot of very important members and elect some brand new freshmen. And as a team, we’re very excited across-the-board, whether you’re talking to Kay Granger, the former mayor of Fort Worth, or whether you’re talking with somebody like Nancy Johnson, who’s going to be a leader on health care, or you’re talking with Bill Thomas, who heads House Oversight, everywhere I turn, the members of our conference are excited about the opportunity to work towards good solutions and to keep moving the country in the right direction for our children’s future. That makes me, frankly, feel pretty exhilarated about the opportunity. Think how bad it would be if I was here tonight as a defeated one-time speaker, continuing the Republican tradition of losing control. Now, that would be a whole lot different conversation.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, sir. What about this ethics investigation? The Ethics Committee is supposed to report out before Congress actually convenes in January. Is this hurting you in terms of your possible effectiveness as speaker?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Oh, I think it never helps. I think the fact that over the years the Ethics Committee has looked at some 70 Democratic Party allegations and in the end found none of them merited going to the floor puts it in some context. And I think some of the questions are very technical. I’m a college teacher. I taught a college class. All the college classes I know are taught in a tax-deductible environment. The question was whether or not a college class taught by an elected official is also a legitimate college class. Now as a Ph.D. in history, teaching a college class in a college classroom, I think that’s a pretty straightforward answer. And people as prestigious as Lynn Cheney, the former head of the Humanities Program for the federal government, has said unequivocally that the standard applied to me has to say that it’s tax deductible, or a third of the college courses in the country would be at risk. So, you know, I think those are very technical questions that lawyers can argue over. I think in the end it all will come out fine. But I do believe in the ethics process. I do believe in cooperating with the committee, and I’ve always been comfortable allowing my colleagues to look at all the facts and then make up their own mind.
JIM LEHRER: Did you ever seriously consider not standing for re-election, Mr. Speaker?
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: I never considered not standing for re-election. I did consider seriously and said that I would not have served as a minority leader if the Republican Party had lost control. I thought that that would have been very unfair of me to ask my colleagues to make that choice and that it would not have been appropriate for me to have done that. So I did think that through, and I would not have asked to be minority leader, but I would have served my district, and I would have served as a back-bench member of the House and probably gone back to working on ideas and frankly you know, studying dinosaurs and zoos and things that interest me in my spare time, which I would have had more of if I weren’t speaker.
JIM LEHRER: But you never considered stepping down as speaker.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Oh, no, but I don’t–I mean, I think that, you know, I was–the Democrats were very excited that I was the key part of the election. They ran 80,000 commercials saying Newt Gingrich is the key part of the election. Well, under those standards we won. And as Dick Armey said today, based on what the Democrats said for a year was their standard, the country finally made a decision that it was okay. My party I think unanimously today elected me to be their candidate for speaker. I take it with a great deal of responsibility, and I’m certainly trying to learn how to do the job the right way, but given that we survived 80,000 commercials and we survived all of David Bonior’s ethics attacks, and we’ve survived all the other efforts, I don’t see why any Republican would want to back off now. We’ve proven that we’re capable for the first time in 68 years of representing the American people on a national basis in the House. Now we have to grow. We have to prove we can deliver on key issues.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: We have to improve the quality of life for the American people.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Mr. Speaker, again, congratulations.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: And my sympathies, again, over the death of your stepfather.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH: Thank you very much.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, sir.