Why, then, would Republicans choose him as a leader? Because he is a rare and compelling politician.
In public meetings and speeches, Gingrich is an extremely engaging fellow. His defense of his book deal before the National Press Club (no pit bulls, but not exactly the Young Republicans, either) prompted thunderous applause. He takes complete possession of the room, even when he's speaking what one critic calls "GobbledyNewt"--his philosophical mix of futurism, high technology, free enterprise, and space. A former college professor, he has the instructor's command, rather than the lawyer's equivocation, a compelling directness in a world of frayed smiles and glazed expressions. But most of all Gingrich has something that is of great practical value to the Republican just now --the zealot's single-minded drive.
It is grounded in a childhood that was divided and rootless. He was born Newton Leroy McPherson near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1943, his parents' only child. His father was in the navy, but his parents broke up after the war, and his mother married a career army officer, who adopted Newt when the youngster was five. Both of Gingrich's parents had children in their second marriages, and although Newt was an army brat, following his mother and stepfather from base to base, he stayed in touch with his natural father.
Then, as a fifteen-year-old high school student in France, where his stepfather was stationed, Gingrich was "called" to politics.
"I got active in this business of politics and self-government in 1958, when my father, who was serving in the U.S. Army, took us to the battlefield of Verdun." The boy stared at the bone pile left by the great battle, and "over the course of the weekend, it convinced me that civilizations live and die by, and that the ultimate margin in a free society of our fate is provided more by, elected political leadership than by any other group. That in the end it's the elected politicians that decide where we fight and when we fight and what the terms of engagement are, and what weapons systems are available." That awakening, he says, led to a 180-page term paper on the balance of world power. When he turned in the paper, he informed his teacher that his family was being transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he would become a Republican congressman.
It is a story that Gingrich tells at least three or four times a week. It is his self-explanation, his Genesis. It is possibly even true. Who would make up a story like that?
In any case, Newt Gingrich was a driven lad by the time he arrived at Baxter High School, and politics was his passion --as a junior, he passed out campaign literature for Nixon's 1960 campaign. His singular determination was perhaps best seen in his first successful romance, a schoolboy crush he developed on his high-school math teacher. Lots of boys get romantic notions about pretty young teachers, but Newt Gingrich didn't let go of his. After graduation, when she moved to Atlanta, he went to Atlanta too, enrolling at Emory University. Gingrich pursued his former math teacher, seven years his senior, until Jackie agreed to become his wife. They were married at the end of his freshman year, and soon they had their first child, Kathy. Gingrich then entered that hazy passage through ambiguity experienced by the majority of young American men during the 1960s. Like most of his generation, Gingrich was moderately anti-Establishment (he tried pot, and participated in a campus protest at Tulane University) and chose not to go to Vietnam, opting for deferments available to him as a father and a student. But unlike most young men his age, Gingrich would be haunted by his decision. Later, when, as a hawkish congressman, he would lash out against the "weak-on-defense left" and espouse universal military training, his opponents would investigate Gingrich's own military background.
Sure enough, he found himself listed among a sizable group of noted conservative hawks (including George Will and Richard Perle) who had managed to avoid the war-the "war wimps," as they came to be called. In 1985, he told Jane Mayer of The Wall Street Journal that he still believed that "Vietnam was the right battlefield at the right time." Why didn't he go? "Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over," he allowed. But, recovering, he added, "Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made."
After graduating from Emory, he and Jackie and Kathy moved to New Orleans, where the Gingriches had a second daughter, and Newt worked on his graduate degrees in history. He ultimately earned his Ph.D. from Tulane, but maintained his vivid interest in politics throughout. He took a year off in 1964 to manage a congressional campaign in Georgia and worked on Nelson Rockefeller's presidential quest in 1968. In 1970, Gingrich moved his family to Carrollton, a quiet town south of Atlanta, where he took a job teaching environmental studies.
One of the things Gingrich liked about the job was its location-in Georgia's Sixth Congressional District, which Gingrich soon identified as the seat of his boyhood visions. The seat, which had been solidly Democratic since Reconstruction, was held by a longtime incumbent, Jack Flynt. Gingrich's first two campaigns, both against Flynt, were unsuccessful, but it was a measure of his political acumen that the races were even close. In 1974 he was hurt by Watergate and Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon-a political act that he later termed "just unbelievably dumb. Gerald Ford personally cost me a Congressional seat...Just utterly stupid." And in 1976 he was hurt by the presence at the top of the Democratic ticket of a native Georgian, Jimmy Carter.
But Jack Flynt retired after his 1976 term, and 1978 was Gingrich's year. His Democratic opponent was Virginia Shapard, a state senator. The campaign was so rough that Shapard is still more than a little bitter about it. "It was, early on, that same sort of technique that you saw in this last campaign at the presidential level," she says, "the Willie Horton type of thing." Gingrich, seeking to drive Shapard to the left and carve out the middle and right for himself, campaigned as a hard, no-tax, anti-welfare conservative. One Gingrich ad, which Shapard says was particularly effective, showed hands reaching out and grabbing at a pile of dollar bills-taxpayer dollars-"and this voice-over said, 'Virginia Shapard says she's against welfare fraud, but she voted against...' and then they cited the bill number, and it was absolutely devastating."
Another Gingrich theme in that campaign was moral leadership and family values. He drove the point home with an ad claiming that if Shapard were elected to Congress she would leave her husband, a local businessman, behind, while Gingrich would keep his family together. This issue was a subject of particular irony among the Shapard campaign staffers, where gossip about Gingrich's roving eye was widely believed and it was assumed that the Gingrich marriage was on the verge of breaking up. "As the days dwindled down in the end of the campaign," Shapard says, "the campaign workers had an unofficial pool going on to see how long it would take him when he got to Washington to dump [Jackie.]"
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