Interview David KramerQ: What was Newt Gingrich like when you met him in graduate school?
Kramer: Well, he was sort of a typical graduate student in a southern university in those days. Not terribly cool. Not terribly witty. But quite powerful in intellectual interests and that's what I thought was interesting. A place like Tulane in the 1960s was not exactly an intellectual Mecca. Many of the people who went to Tulane were there to basically party. Newt was not there to party. He was there to read books. He was there to have discussions. He was there to do political experimentation and he did all of this in terribly outmoded clothes and thick horn-rimmed glasses.
Q: What were his relations like with his fellow graduate students?
Kramer: Well, I would say socially awkward. He was very eager to improve his social skills and I viewed one of my roles as informing him that he was on the verge of becoming obnoxious when he would talk too much, and he accepted that. Newt is a learner. He's very clever. He has obviously become very smooth. He no longer wears his horn-rimmed glasses.
Q: 1958. Rockefeller, why not Nixon? Tell me about this Rockefeller campaign.
Kramer: Well, I think that one of the things that gives me confidence in Newt is that he is willing to take risks. There are people who consider him an opportunist. I believe that they're wrong. I think that Newt actually tries very hard to understand what is right and if he's convinced that it's right, in that it can also lead to political success, he's willing to take great risks to do what- ever that is --and that's not the same thing as opportunism. It was extremely audacious for a young man who was trying to establish his roots in the Republican Party in Georgia to basically take on the Republican establishment in Louisiana and we got a great deal of pressure. I can tell you that, in particular, the Nixon forces were extremely unhappy with what we were trying to do in Louisiana. Newt did not flinch at all. I think that's typical. He thought at the time that it made a lot of sense to try to elect a moderate Republican and he thought it made a lot of sense to try to attract black people to the Republican Party in Louisiana, particularly in Orleans Parish.
Q: Were they [Jackie and Newt] a partnership then? We've interviewed many people who have said that in the early campaigns in Georgia, she was very, very involved. Did you get that feeling then?
Kramer: Well, I think in those days, Newt had married a woman who had been something of an authority figure in his life and I think that one of the difficult things that happened was, as he began to find his own adult and professional life, there were conflicts there and unfortunately they were not able to solve them. It was clearly a marriage that reflected the fact that he was very young when he went into it and as I say, I don't want to speculate on it. Many of his friends from those days were very unhappy about what happened. And I think it was a great strain on Newt, of course, not to mention Jackie, and I certainly would not want to get publicly into it any more deeply than that.
Q: I have read that you had to introduce Newt to some of the basic elements of popular culture in the '60s. Were you a little more advanced, coming from California?
Kramer: That's right. And well, it's all silly stuff. Newt at that point had heard vaguely that there was a rock group called the Beatles. I remember one afternoon taking the 'White Album' over there and playing it through and explaining to him what was significant about this whole experience. I'm not sure he ever figured it out. One night we went to a Jefferson Airplane concert in New Orleans and he found that very interesting --there were a lot of people there who were very excited and of course, his question was, 'Is there any political value in this?'
Q: There was a Free University there for a while too and Newt taught a course on the future.
Kramer: Right. Since I first knew him, he always had this sort of science fiction part of his personality and as this Free University thing started to develop, he wanted to start as a historian teaching the future of his kind. He likes paradoxes. Basically at that point I told him, 'Newt, that's no paradox, it's just ridiculous. Why should a historian be teaching about the future?' But it was an interesting point of departure and it did begin to reflect some of his efforts to figure out what are the impacts of information technologies and what are the impacts on the way people live. It was about that time, that was '70, or '71, he ran into the Tofflers and that science fiction aspect of his personality began to take a pretty definite direction. But he was always interested in the film "2001- A Space Odyssey" or whatever it was. He always had this fascination with technology, the future, it began to take shape at that time.
Q: He is a very important political figure in the United States already. What's the most important thing we ought to know about him?
Kramer: Well, I think the most important thing is that he is a man who has spent most of his life preparing for public service. He is a man with a great deal of intellectual flexibility. I think to the extent that serious intellectuals, the media, and other people will engage him in intellectual and political debate, you'll find out that there is a much more complex man than most people think. I think that to the extent that he is denounced and repudiated and cast in a false light --that simply makes it more difficult for Gingrich to show the kind of leadership that I think he is capable of. And I say that because, as I mentioned earlier, for years, once his political ascension started, I have been bombarded by people wanting to know smut on Gingrich. That's the way these things were presented and I've never participated in them.
That is a level of political dialogue that is idiotic. I really think that one of the things that should be happening and will inevitably happen is that people should explore with Gingrich the direction in which this country will go in the future. And how we are going to get out of this crisis we're in. You can't do it purely with slogans but you also can't expect a man who has been, in some cases, portrayed very unfairly. I mean, I think it's ridiculous to portray Gingrich as particularly small-minded, particularly greedy, none of this is true. I mean, he's a fairly interesting character. He's certainly the intellectual peer of Bill Clinton or Lyndon Johnson or Calvin Coolidge, I mean, let's give the man a break.
And I think if that would happen then you would find that the quality of leadership and character that Gingrich brings to the table is at least up to the American average and maybe considerably above.
Q: What's your fondest memory of Newt from the days at Tulane?
Kramer: Oh, gosh, do I have a fondest memory? Now you surprised me with that one. Well, I don't know if this is my fondest or not. I told my mother this today. It was really funny. I had a daughter at that point and he had two daughters and they were all roughly the same age. My daughter was in between his and we would take them out trick-or-treating, Newt and I and these three little girls. Well, Newt would usually carry on the whole time with one of his lectures on the Battle of Verdun or, you know, the end of slavery in the United States or the economics of the computer industry. I've told my daughter --who is also kind of an accomplished historian of the sciences-- too bad she can't remember back to her early trick or treating years when she heard all of these lectures, 'cause I don't think Newt ever really knew what the kids were doing.
He was holding his lectures and they were out doing their trick-or-treating in New Orleans. I happened to think about that today, so I'll pass that story on as one of my favorites.