the long march of newt gingrich

Interview Paul Weyrich

Q: Many people described the Newt Gingrich of 1972, 1973, 1974 down at West Georgia College as a Rockefeller Republican. Is it your impression that he was ever a Rockefeller Republican?

Weyrich: Oh, sure. I think he was. I think that when he initially ran for Congress he ran to the left of his Democratic opponent, Congressman Flynt, who was a old-line conservative Democrat. And eventually, when he ran the third time, when he was running against Virginia Shapard, he ran to her right and picked up a lot of the people who had been for Flynt and who didn't want a liberal representing the District.



Q; So ideologically he arrived at the place where he is now more or less by the time he was elected to Congress. But do you know exactly what Newt Gingrich found on the Road to Tarsus--what was the transforming experience for him?

Weyrich: I don't know that it was a single experience. I call Newt an experiential conservative, as opposed to a deeply philosophical conservative. Newt has a deep knowledge and so he is somewhat professorial in that respect. But he does not have a deeply-held philosophy, say, Biblically-based philosophy as some of us do. And therefore, he is much more negotiable on a lot of issues and, as the old railroad time tables would suggest, 'subject to change without notice.' You know, simply because he arrived at his conclusions based upon what he perceives is happening in the community at large. He is genuinely against the welfare state and genuinely wants to end it because he believes that in his experience, it has been destructive to people. He is not against the welfare state for the same precise reasons that I am.

On the abortion issue: He initially sided up on the pro-abortion side, at least tentatively and then he encountered a radical feminist who backed him up against the wall and threatened him and so on and he said to me, 'If that is what they are about, then I'm with you.' And since that time he has had more or less consistent pro-life voting record.



Q: In other words, it is not a deeply-held and abiding belief in the sanctity of life that cast him on the side of pro-life --Distinguish for me, then, your conservatism from Newt's.

Weyrich: Well, mine is sort of scripturally based. In other words, I look at all the issues through the prism of the belief that I have based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, which of course, never looked to government to solve problems, but rather looked to individuals. In all of the teachings of the New Testament, you never heard Jesus Christ say that it's the responsibility of society or its the responsibility of government to take care of this. He always said, 'It is your responsibility.' When he talked to the rich man, he told the rich man it was his responsibility to divest himself of some of his riches to help the poor and so on. It was never a case of asking government to intervene to take it away from him. The way I look at it, we will be judged on what we do as individuals rather than what the government does for us.



Q: I see the distinction, but does it matter how you arrive at the position, as long as the position is ultimately arrived at?

Weyrich: Well, it doesn't matter in the short term because we have all reached the conclusion that the welfare state, as we know it, is very destructive. Newt seeks to end the welfare state. We are blood brothers when it comes to ending the welfare state.

It matters when you look at what you replace the welfare state with. Because I don't buy, for example, a lot of the New Age kind of Third Wave Alvin Toffler nonsense that Newt is very much caught up in. I think his faith in technology, for example, is misplaced. I mean, technology obviously is helpful and I am not a Luddite. I don't believe in turning back the clock or hindering technology, but I believe that technology must have a moral basis, because otherwise technology can turn into the great monster. I don't think that Newt has thought that through at this point. That isn't to say that eventually he might not come to that conclusion. But, right now I think that he sees technology as a solution. Ultimately, I do not. I see it as a means.



Q: Although he seems to have arrived at many positions that you-all hold, and believe in fervently, it is not for the same reasons...

Weyrich: I make the analogy, by the way, with the end of the Soviet Empire. Because, for example, Boris Yeltsin said, 'I am absolutely committed to the end of the totalitarian regime and so on.' And, it's true. He was. But what he wanted to build was sort of very nebulous and others are coming in now, in the post-Soviet era, to fill that vacuum because he was very good at destroying the old order but he was not the person to build the new order.


Q: Partly because, it's been said, he didn't have a strong, guiding vision about what democracy should be in Russia. Is that to suggest that you don't believe that Newt has a guiding vision?

Weyrich: Yes, he has a guiding vision. But I think it is one which will ultimately prove to be a problem for him because it's not based in truth. It is very technologically oriented. It is very much oriented not in the Judeo-Christian principles that are the only principles that work, but in some more nebulous notions of contemporary philosophers.

Now, you know, Newt is a very smart individual and if he finds that some of this experimentation doesn't work, he'll change. I mean, one good thing about him is he does not stick to error forever as some people do. He's willing to look at a different alternative.



Q: But it seems to me that it's inevitably so, and that every movement needs men and women of ideas and men and women of action, and they're not always necessarily embodied in the same person. You-all have a distinct view of the revolution --it's not over I gather in your mind?

Weyrich: Oh, no. No.



Q: There are still things to be done?

Weyrich: Oh, absolutely. Got a long way to go. In fact, I question the term 'revolution' because revolution suggests a really fundamentally different way of doing things in Washington and that's not really what's happening. I mean, there are changes that are taking place and some of them are significant. If in fact a Welfare Reform Bill that does away with AFDC is signed by the President, that would be very significant. But, it is not revolution. Many of the most troublesome programs have survived and it remains to be seen whether, when all is said and done, the troops that Newt has behind him will have the stomach for the long haul.



Q: Do you have any indication of what degree Newt is devoted to carrying on reform --if we shouldn't use the word 'revolution.'

Weyrich: Oh, I think he wants to carry on reform. I think that is the primary objective that he has in mind. The question is whether he would carry this on in his current position or whether he would attempt to become President and carry it on. I think that's the issue. But I don't think there's any doubt about his devotion.



Q: To what do you attribute this solidarity and loyalty in this freshman class to Newt?

Weyrich: Well, they believe that he was very much connected to their victory when all other political analysts and even Party officials were writing off the chance to win a majority in the House of Representatives. Newt Gingrich was there telling them, 'No, it can be done, and if you'll just push a little harder, and win your seat and the other guys win theirs. We're gonna do it.' He was the only one that was telling them that. And if you're out there and you're battling against odds, and you're 22 points behind and it's three weeks before the election and you're having trouble raising money because nobody thinks you can win and Newt Gingrich says, 'No, I think you can win. And furthermore I'll come to your district and I'll campaign for you and I'll try to help you and so on.' I mean, you can't buy that kind of loyalty.



Q: I was not suggesting that he was doing it for cynical reasons, but even if he was, it certainly paid off.

Weyrich: I don't think it was cynical. I mean, I think he is the one person who actually believed that this was going to happen. I have to confess to you, I did not. I mean, I thought they would gain significantly, and I thought that Newt would probably have operating control of the House, but I did not think the Republicans would get a majority in this election.



Q: I wonder to what degree you believe that Newt seized upon the conservative urge as a conveyance toward the end of his own attainment of position and power.

Weyrich: No, I think it's more complicated than that. I don't deny that ambition is connected with it, but I think that Newt has genuinely wanted to reform the way things have been done in Washington. That was true even in his Rockefeller days. There is a large coincidence between the need to reform and the conservative agenda. For a long time, he never referred to himself as a conservative. It's only very recently that he speaks of being a conservative. He always spoke of him being an ally of the conservative movement. And I think his words were very carefully chosen because I think he understood that convergence between the conservative agenda and the reform agenda that he represented. Now he sees himself as the leader of conservatives in the country, I think primarily because conservatism is so much more mainstream than it was when he began in the political process 20 years ago.


Q: The battering that the Christian Right regularly gets in the daily tumble of politics and the media --Do you ever have a sense that Newt's ever been afraid of getting too close to the Christian Right as it's called or the Religious Right, as it's regularly referred to in the Op Ed pages?

Weyrich: Well, I think that he recognizes that where they are on a lot of questions he is not. And he's intellectually honest, so he doesn't want to embrace them as if he were one of them, when in fact, he is not exactly. So, again, he regards them as allies. He knows that they have a coincidence of interests on a lot of different issues. But you know, he isn't going to pretend that he is Senator John Ashcroft when he's not. I give him credit for that, because you have a lot of people in this business who are so phony that they would tell the Christian Right precisely what they wanted to hear, adopt the language and not have it inside. And so, I much prefer this, frankly.



Q: I wonder, would you enunciate for me the historical differences between Newt's position and the Christian Right's position and, in addition, how Newt's world view diverges from yours?

Weyrich: The point is, we start at different points. When I hear about an issue, or when I'm considering a policy, the first question I ask is, 'Does this conform to the Judeo-Christian teachings on whatever subject it is we're talking about?' Does it conform to the Scripture and tradition, because those are the twin rails upon which I ride.

He does not start at that point. He starts at a different point. Is this good for the country? Is this good for the Republicans? Is this going to strengthen his majority? You know those sorts of questions. Often times you come to the identical conclusions when you start analyzing at that point as opposed to the point that I'm analyzing at. But there are times when you do not. And there are times when, if you are able to be faithful to the Father, so to speak, of the Church, then you will diverge from the expedient political point of view. I think that that's where the difficulty lies simply because he doesn't analyze things that way. But, to his credit, he is open to that analysis. In other words, if I come to him and say, 'Look. The path that you are about to take is wrong for these reasons,' he will at least hear what we have to say and consider it and, sometimes, even agree with it.



Q: Can you envision a break with Newt Gingrich?

Weyrich: Well, certainly not immediately. I mean, in other words, our position is not to just jump the minute we hear something we don't like. Were that the case, we'd be on fire every day of the week in this city. What we do with somebody that is definitely in the same orbit as we are is we sit down and talk with them and try to persuade them that the point of view that they embrace has flaws in it. Ultimately, if decisions are being made that put somebody on a divergent path, then of course if you are true to your principles, you will have to disagree with them. But I think we're a long way away from that period of time. I don't really want to engage in endless speculation about this because I think we're a long way away from that point at this stage.



Q: You all aren't going to get that many Speakers of the House who are born-again Christians.

Weyrich: Well, one never knows, but again, the important thing here isn't, at the moment, division. The important thing is that we are working together towards the same objectives. A lot of people want to make divisions between religions, between backgrounds, between orientation and commitment and so on and it's easy to make division. It's more difficult to bring people together.



Q: Absolutely. I don't mean to be trying to do that. But one way of understanding somebody is separating them out from what he is not. And I think there might be a perception out there that Newt is an instrument of the Religious Right and you've made it plain that there is a coincidence of interest that we've witnessed so far. You've known him for how long?

Weyrich: I've known him for over 20 years.



Q: So does that mean you are close pals?

Weyrich: No. We get along fine. From time to time he asks my advice and I'm always willing to give it, but I'm not a pal of his like say Bob Walker, congressman from Pennsylvania. We don't think in exactly the same way, but we do a lot of things together because we're right now traveling down the same freeway.



Q: And to some degree he has gotten to that fast lane on that freeway in part because of his association with you, hasn't he?

Weyrich: Well, he asked a lot of advice early on. I gave a lot of advice. Some of it he took and some of it he did not. He tells me that I was helpful to him, but, you know, we work with each other. I'm willing to work with anybody that's willing to do the right thing from my perspective. I also can't take the position that because somebody does something that I don't like that I will refuse to work with them because if I did, I wouldn't have anybody to work with.


Q: You don't, I assume, hesitate to express your disappointment on those occasions when you feel it.

Weyrich: Oh, he has felt my wrath on many occasions, some justified, some not. But I never hesitate to let him know and I was very pleased recently when he called me about a matter and he said, 'I'm calling you because I know that you will tell me what I don't want to hear, if you know, if it's true.' And there's no higher compliment that you could pay me than that. And if I have that kind of relationship with him, then it can't go wrong. That doesn't mean, however, that he's going to listen to every piece of advice that I give him.

And by the way, every piece of advice I give isn't right because I don't have any infallibility connected to my views. It's simply that I've been around a long time, I've seen a lot and I'm less inclined to get caught up with fads than many in this city.



Q: Would it significantly hurt Gingrich if, in fact, you publicly broke with him on any given issue?

Weyrich: Well, it wouldn't hurt him if I broke with him, but it would hurt him if the religious conservatives who are involved in the political process broke with him because that's part of his base in Georgia. There are areas of his district that would be troublesome for him if that occurred. But, you know, it wouldn't hurt him. I'm not a household word, so if I personally opposed him I don't think it would have any impact. But if a number of different organizations opposed him, then I think it might have some impact, especially if he had a viable opponent.



Q: So that's a pretty handy substitute for a bedrock belief, right? I mean, he may not absolutely come from the same place, but if he realized a political obligation and the practical reality of the circumstances...

Weyrich: Well, I don't know because, for example, I warned him about involving himself in the pay raise. I told him that this would be death for him in his own district and I told him that setting it up so that anybody who went against their party on the pay raise would get punished would be used against him and he disbelieved me. He went ahead and did it anyway and it doggone near defeated him in 1990. So, Newt does what Newt wants to do. And I don't think our coming in to him and saying, 'Look if you go in this direction we're going in the other direction. We're going to come out publicly.' I don't think that would influence him. Not if he was determined to do something. Because he simply does it.



Q: I wonder what your advice was when it came to, for example, going after Jim Wright --when Newt was newly-arrived and had no particular standing.

Weyrich: Well, originally Newt lacked focus. He would be onto one project and six weeks later he would be onto a totally different project and then another three weeks he'd be onto a third project and so on. And he began to lose credibility because every time he would describe this project as the most important project on the planet and by the time people got cranked up to help him on it, he was off to something else. And I told him very candidly, 'You have a problem'. And eventually after we had discussed this a couple of time he said, 'What do I need to do to be taken seriously?' And I said, 'Look. John Williams of Delaware might be your role model.' Senator Williams was a chicken farmer. He had a high, squeaky voice. He represented the tiny state of Delaware. He should not have been a great power in the United States Senate. But he was a great power and people in both political parties quaked every time he came into the room.

Now the reason is because John Williams took on powerful corruption. It was John Williams who exposed Billy Sol Estes. It was John Williams who exposed Bobby Baker and others. And so, having toppled some of these people, people didn't want to tangle with him. I said, 'There's plenty of corruption in this city that goes unnoticed and unchallenged. If you want to be taken seriously, look in that direction.' That is something that he did. Now, I don't know that he did it because I suggested it to him. Others may have well suggested it to him. But that is something that he did end up pursuing and because he took on Wright and won, he became a serious political figure. Up to that point, he was regarded as an interesting political figure, somebody that was very good for a quote, but not somebody who was perhaps going to be in the power structure. But when he took on Jim Wright and he won, he was regarded very seriously from that moment on.



Q: You say one of the things you admire about Newt is that he is a conservative, that he is not hesitant to use power. What do you mean by that?

Weyrich: Well, most conservatives hate power so much that they don't use it even for the common good. And therefore if they get in a position where they can do something, they don't do it because they don't really want to use power and authority. Newt doesn't have that problem. He knows what he is capable of doing if he gets into a position. He uses that position and so he has become a very powerful speaker. Many other conservatives would be in that position and would not be powerful speakers because they would be trying to accommodate everyone and they would never remove somebody from a committee or they wouldn't reach down under the seniority system to pick a committee chairman. He's consolidated a lot of power onto himself and he has used it wisely. And not everybody's happy about it, but the fact is, he knows how to use power and he knows this because he has studied important historical figures who used power. Figures in British political history, figures in American political history like Teddy Roosevelt. He greatly admires Teddy Roosevelt. He has really studied how they did it and he emulates what they have done.


Q: I wonder if I could get you to guess your impression of how Newt sees himself as a man in history.

Weyrich: I think he sees himself as a historical figure who is leading a campaign to undo a lot of wrongs that have occurred over a long period of time in the society. And I think he recognizes that anybody in that position is probably an unpopular figure to some degree. So he is less bothered by unpopularity than many simply because he knows that everyone who has shaken things up goes through that particular stage. Often times people are only appreciated in retrospect, like Harry Truman who was an extraordinarily unpopular President in his own time but today is greatly revered, precisely because he stood up.



Q: You've known Newt and thought about him and dealt with him for a number of years. I wonder if you would help me distinguish between a crusader, a man who comes and beholds a crisis and becomes a crusader to rescue a nation from it --and a crusader who helps to create crisis so he'll have something to crusade against. Which is Newt --a little bit of both?

Weyrich: He's a little bit of both. The nation has had a crisis. It's not Newt's creation. He has stepped into the breach. But on the other hand he hasn't hesitated to put himself forward as somebody who can solve some of these problems that others might be unwilling to do, so you know he's not totally in one camp or the other as you describe it.



Q: Is there another Newt out there sort of waiting to...?

Weyrich: No. I wish there were. I wish that we had lots to choose from, but we don't. He's very unique. And as a matter of fact, I've been very concerned that he might run for the Presidency because, while I admit that the people who are running are not my cup of tea, nevertheless, I think he plays a very unique role in keeping that very diverse group of Republicans together in the House and if he leaves, I think that they will not be together. I think that if he leaves, he runs the danger of not only not getting elected President, although he might get the nomination, but also of losing the House of Representatives. If that happens he will also get blamed for losing the House of Representatives and disturbing what I think will be a rightful place in history. So I'm among those who have urged him not to run, but he's getting a lot of contrary advice.



Q: You of course have no way of knowing whether he will, but I bet you don't have any doubt that he wants to.

Weyrich: Oh, I think he wants to in one sense. He learns a job very quickly and I think he's already intellectually a little bit bored with being Speaker of the House and therefore would welcome the higher challenge. On the other hand, I think he also recognizes the extraordinary risks to himself and to things that he does want to push were he to run. So, I'm not sure that it's a total burning desire to run. I think at times, when he looks at the existing field, and he hears how they handle issues, he thinks to himself, and very rightly so, 'Were I in that position, I could do a far superior job than what they're doing.' And you can't blame him for that because he could.



Q: Given his secular nature, given some of his personal difficulties in the past, is Newt Gingrich, in your view, suited to be President?

Weyrich: Well, a lot of people have failings. The real question is not whether he has failed in the past. There is no man who lives who does not sin. The question is whether he has acknowledged these failings and intends to do something about them. So I don't consider him unfit for office because of what he's done. A lot of people would be disqualified were that the case. I think it's unfortunate. I think he thinks it's unfortunate. I'm not sure that he would do the same thing today that he has done in the past.

Temperamentally, there is nothing that suggests that he wouldn't make a decent President. Contrary to all of the fol de rol of the sparks and fury that he creates, he is very pragmatic underneath and he does not do things that are terribly foolish. Most of what he does, he knows precisely what he's doing. Occasionally, he says something at the spur of the moment that he shouldn't say and as President he would have to curb that because he could cause an international crisis or bring a stock market crash or something by doing that. But he is even learning now as Speaker of the House to be more cautious with what he says. So I don't know anything about him temperamentally that suggests that he would make an erratic or foolish or impetuous decision that would endanger the country.



Q: Would your answer be the same if I asked you that question as regards to Bill Clinton, then?

Weyrich: Well, I think Bill Clinton is far more dysfunctional than Newt Gingrich. Newt has been able to translate much of what he believes into reality. I think Clinton has a disconnect between his very high intellect and his ability to absorb data and his ability to translate that into reality and then to stick with it. So, between the two of them, I personally think that Newt would make a better president.

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