the long march of newt gingrich

Interview Pete Dupont

Image of Pete Dupont

Q: This is a man who, as I understand it, all through his life loves to plan for the future and thinks very strategically.

DuPont: Newt is one of the broadest thinkers I have ever met. He's constantly three moves ahead of me. He would be a very good chess player because he sees things that the rest of us don't see. He's a broad thinker, he's a strategist, and above all, he has a passion for ideas. If you offer him an idea, he wants to twist it and turn it and pull at it and see what it's made of. He's the best thinker we've had in the Republican party in a long while.

Q: To project a little bit into the future. You went through some of the rigors of a presidential campaign not so long ago. Do you think Newt Gingrich would be willing to subject himself to that sort of race?

DuPont: No question about it. Newt Gingrich will be a presidential candidate. The question is, when? Will it be in 1996 or will it be in 2000, 2004? He's a young man. I personally think that he will see, after he has done his job as Speaker, if the opportunity is there to lead the country. I'd be very comfortable supporting a Gingrich candidacy.

Q: Let's go back to the start. How did you first come across Newt Gingrich?

DuPont: I met Newt Gingrich when he was a young backbencher in his second term in the Congress. We were at an official event together and I knew that fellow across the room looked familiar. But I didn't know who he was. We introduced ourselves and had a couple of drinks that evening and have been friends ever since. That was fifteen years ago.

Q: In terms of philosophy, you have advocated many things in your '88 campaign. You were known as a populist conservative. Newt, from his early campaign, was calling himself a populist conservative. Did you make that kind of connection in those early days?

DuPont: Yes. Our policies are very much alike. We're both for smaller government, lower taxes, allowing individuals to make choices -- less central planning, more individual decision-making. So, in that sense, we're very much on the same wavelength.

Q: Tell me about the organization GOPAC. You founded it back in 1978. What was the purpose?

DuPont: I founded it when I was one of a dozen Republican governors. It's hard to remember that back in 1978 there were only twelve of us. We were a tiny little enclave, us Republican Governors. So we thought that if we want to elect a Republican Congress, we've got to help some young men and women run for the state legislature and then they'll percolate up, become congressmen, governors, senators and so forth.

So, a dozen of us put this together. We raised some money. We've now contributed, I guess, in the years since '78, at GOPAC approximately twenty thousand people have run for office. An enormous number of young men and women who we've helped get started.

And some of these people who are now freshmen in the Congress have said that we received GOPAC tapes back when we were state legislators.

Q: In the mid-1980s, you turned over GOPAC to Newt Gingrich. Why Newt Gingrich?

DuPont: When I began the presidential campaign in 1986, I recognized that GOPAC was helping the Republican Party but if it stayed hooked to me it would die because people would say that's part of Pete DuPont's presidential campaign. So we wanted to save it and we had to give it to somebody. We looked around and said who's got the energy? Who's got the ideas? Who would take this animal called GOPAC and carry on in the spirit that we had begun? Newt Gingrich stood out.

I took him to breakfast one morning and I said, 'Newt, I've got a proposition for you.' He said, 'What? You want to give this to me?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'I'll call you back.' Half an hour later he was on the phone and it was his. And he did a magnificent job with it.

Q: What sort of changes, if any, did he make in GOPAC, as opposed to your original conception?

DuPont: Our original idea was to help three or four hundred candidates in the first election run for the Ohio State legislature and the California legislature around the country. Newt said, 'We can do that, we can help young people, but why don't we put together some educational material and spread it widely through the country so that people will begin to understand the conservative message, the conservative philosophy?'

He took GOPAC from a somewhat narrowly-focused campaign vehicle to a broader vehicle to explain the Republican ideology and philosophy and he expanded it enormously.

Q: In this period that you were mentioning before, the late 70s, Jimmy Carter was President and the Democrats controlled Congress. It was kind of a bleak time for the Republican Party. Newt Gingrich was elected in 1978. And we know, from talking to many people who knew him at that time, he was already talking about not just the possibility, he believed in the reality of the Republican majority, and not that far in the distant future. Were there many people like him?

DuPont: No. I had finished serving in the Congress in 1976 when I ran for Governor. So, I left two years before Newt came. When I left, I figured in my lifetime I'd never see a Republican Congress which is one of the reasons I said 'Let's go back home and do something a little more constructive.' But Newt has a long-range vision. He has an understanding of what's coming in the world that I think the rest of us lack.

Q: You served in Congress. Newt says that when he first got there, the Republicans were so used to being a minority party that they had to kind of ''go along, get along " compromise on the edges. Describe the mood of the Republican leadership.

DuPont: The moderate Republican Party of the 1970s were basically eighty percenters. They said, 'Democrats, we're for everything you're for--but only 80% of it. Yes, we'd like federal aid education, but not so much. Yes, we can help people on welfare, but not in as expensive a way as you want to do it.' So, as [some wag] once said, 'There wasn't a dime worth of difference between the two parties' and that was true. We were just for a little bit cheaper welfare state.

Newt comes to town and says, 'We're not for the welfare state at all. It's not a question of steering a little to the right, it's a question of turning the whole organization around and going off towards opportunity and individualism as opposed to collective decisions by government.'

Q: Another problem that the Republicans had was that for a long time it was seen by many Americans as a country club party, a party for wealthy people in the United States, Wall Street, whatever, and not a party that would ever have any kind of majority following in the United States. What was your thinking about trying to change that?

DuPont: Well, Ronald Reagan was the person who changed it. There were these wonderful people called Reagan Democrats who are really conservatives like Newt Gingrich is, like I am. And for the first time Ronald Reagan gave our party a bowling alley image as opposed to a country club image. We were suddenly talking to the people who go bowling on Thursday night and they were understanding what we were saying.

One of the tragedies of the Bush administration is that we went back to business as usual, make a deal with the Democrats, let's all be friends in Washington philosophy. So, we needed Newt to come along, to stand up against the Bush tax increase and the Bush budget deal, and to say, 'No we are still for the working people of the country, and I hope that we can keep our focus on representing the people who fight the wars and build the industries and do the work in this country. Because if we do stick with them, we can be a majority party for a long while.'

Q: You must have offended some people along the way. I know George Bush, at one point, said he felt betrayed by Newt Gingrich on the budget deal. Newt deliberately came in with a plan to kind of upset the apple cart, go after the establishment, not only the Democratic Party but the Republican Party as well.

DuPont: And Newt Gingrich was right. George Bush paid with his presidency for a very bad decision that Newt was right about. The apple cart needed to be upset. I would have thought that Newt couldn't have done this--but he would have done better to just walk out of there with his House delegation and have nothing to do with the agreement. He did shoot it down once and it came back again and he couldn't stop it the second time. If we're going to be a party of populists who believe in individuals having power, we've got to turn that power over to them. We can't raise taxes and we can't regulate more and we can't create new departments. We've got to begin closing down the collective side of the government and opening up the individual opportunity side.

Q: Who were the people who financed GOPAC?

DuPont: The GOPAC organization and the new Newt Gingrich conservative party is a party of small business: of the hardware store owner who has four employees. Of the fellow who's running his own service station, or dry cleaning company. We really don't represent the General Motors type anymore as much as we do the small businessman on main street America.

Q: It seems, also, a lot of very successful, some very wealthy people donate to GOPAC, but they seem to be self-made or newly made.

DuPont: They're the entrepreneurs of America, the people who have come forward with a better idea, they have built it into a business and suddenly say, 'If we can do this, everybody can do this given the opportunity.'

Q: Isn't this a little ironic for you since you come from one of the older and more prosperous American families?

DuPont: Well, it is, I suppose, ironic. I do come from a family that has been here for almost two hundred years. But, after all, my ancestors started a very dangerous gun powder business in 1802 and my great grandfather and his father were both killed in gun powder explosions. So, there were some entrepreneurial DuPonts that are a little different from the heads of the corporations today.

Q: Newt's staff tends to say, 'We have a hundred ideas a day,' and they put them in the 'Newt bad ideas/Newt good ideas'--and then he changes them a lot. Is that your experience?

DuPont: Newt is one of those people who has more ideas in the morning than I have in a month. Some of his ideas are not quite the ones you want to pursue in the interim. But that's the way it is with entrepreneurial people. You try one thing, it doesn't work, you try another. Didn't Thomas Edison once say that he knew eleven thousand ways not to do something and now he was going to get it right?

Well, Newt's a little bit the same way. He offers an idea, he tests it in the public opinion. It gets a bad reaction, it's over with. It gets a good reaction, he develops it further. So, he's the kind of creative thinker that the party needs in order to stay in the majority.

Q: A man who ran Newt Gingrich's first successful campaign was telling us that what Newt had to do, and GOPAC was a central part of this, was to create whole new structures to transform the Republican Party. Do you think that's accurate?

DuPont: It is because if you're going to try to win an election at either the local or the national level, you can't be 80%. You can't say I'm for what my Democratic opponent is for but not quite so much of it. People say, particularly if it's Democrat incumbents, 'Why shouldn't I vote for the real thing? Why should I vote for who's the pale copy?' So Newt had to get into the minds of Republican candidates that we didn't disagree with a little of the Democrats liberal program, we disagreed with all of it. We didn't think taxes ought to go up. They ought to go down. We didn't think the census ought to be weakened. We thought it ought to be strengthened. We didn't think it ought to be done in Washington. -- we ought to pass the responsibility back to do it at home.

So, that required an entire reeducating of the moderate Republican mindset. I think that is the primary thing that Newt accomplished for the Republican party. He changed the frame of reference of all of our candidates. That's why we won so big in 1994.

Q: That was a phenomenal event. How do you think Newt has handled the transition from being the person who was the outsider, from being the rebel to now, himself, being the establishment. He's Speaker of the House.

DuPont: Newt has got two transitions behind him. And he's got one to go. First he had to capture control of the House. Nobody said he could do that. Well, he did. Then he had to deliver. He had to get the Republican budget through. He had to get the Contract With America through. He has done that.

Now he's got to stop being the Thomas Paine of the revolution and he's got to become the George Washington of the revolution, the leader who's a little less bombastic and a little bit more of a leader of all the troops.

He's made the first two transitions. He'll make the next one as well.

Q: Recently there have been some interesting stories about how effective he has been as an inside legislator political guide negotiating with people one on one, saying, 'You need this part of the bill, we've got to stay on track but I'm willing to be pragmatic. I'm not just an ideologue.' Do you see that side of Newt --when it comes to actually trying to pass big pieces of legislation?

DuPont: He has done an extraordinary job that shows a side of Newt Gingrich that a lot hadn't seen. He not only has the philosophy right but he has persuaded Republicans from the liberal and conservative camps to each give a little, to each move a little and he's welded that Republican majority, a very small majority, into a powerful political force. That's not one of the things we ever saw in Newt Gingrich but he's done a brilliant job.

Q: Do you think that he's a person who can overcome the high negatives that he has--if you believe the polls--and run for national office?

DuPont: He can when he finishes the job that he has to do that requires those sharp edges to be there. Newt Gingrich's job to capture the Congress was to give Republican candidates an edge and a distinction from their Democratic opponent. That required a very high profile, some very strong language. As Ronald Reagan said, 'Painting your vision in such bold primary colors that nobody can misunderstand what we mean.'

Now Newt's job is shifting. His job is now to build this coalition to take the center in America. When he does that, his rhetoric has got to calm a little. He has to become more the father figure than the pugnacious brother. That will come in time.

Q: What would the effect be on Newt Gingrich and the conservative revolution if Colin Powell ran for president?

DuPont: I think the struggle that you see in the Republican Party today is once again the country club Republican versus the bowling alley Republican. Colin Powell brings us back to the country club image. He's an insider. He's a moderate. Newt is an outsider, bowling alley conservative. There is a real dichotomy there. What you're seeing played out in the Republican primary process, if General Powell runs, is this old struggle that has been going on since 1952 when Eisenhower and [Taft] began the argument.

Things move very slowly in politics. We seem to fight the same wars over and over again.

Q: Newt Gingrich, like Jack Kemp, has argued for quite some time that the Republican party should make more of an effort to attract black voters. Do you think that's a lost cause or is he on to something there?

DuPont: There's a very big gulf between the black civil rights leadership in America, and the black middle class in America. The black middle class are conservative people --They basically believe that the government takes too much of their money. They basically distrust remedies like buffing. I think many of those minorities can be persuaded to be members of the Republican Party. We run very strongly with the Asian community, very well with the Hispanic community, not as well yet with the Black community. I think that's coming. I think Newt and Jack Kemp are both right, if we put forward a program of individual opportunity that appeals to a black family just like it appeals to a white family.

Q: It's been forty years, up until 1994, since the Republicans controlled Congress. Now they do. Do you get the sense that this is the beginning of a real change in American politics? Or is 1994 more of an aberration?

DuPont: The sea change that has come, I think, is the information age. We don't have to just read The New York Times anymore. We can pull up something on the internet and get any news that we like. We can end run all of the organizations and deal, as individuals, in the information age. That is changing the way people perceive politics. So, it is possible, that there'll be a sea change.

The 1994 elections was part of that. But I also think that the 1994 election was really a revolt against a corrupt Congress that people saw as dishonest, as not representing their views. So, it's a little soon to tell. The next election will tell the tale. If the Republicans gain four or five seats in the Senate, ten or fifteen seats in the House, and the Democratic Party sees that 1994 wasn't an aberration, that it was a beginning of a trend, then the Democratic Party will change, that part will be gone. There will be a new conservative leadership. The message of the party will change and then the sea change will be with it.

Q: How important was your role in establishing the kind of financial basis of GOPAC? In truth, you brought it a lot of the early people who became charter members.

Du Pont: We did. We had a huge base of direct mail donors and twenty or thirty. He took GOPAC, which was small and effective in its sphere, and tripled the size of it and made it ten times more effective than it was when we started it.

When I came back to GOPAC charter meetings after Newt became the chairman, I was meeting people that I had never seen before. He really broadened the base just as he has broadened the base of the Republican Party

Q: You've been in politics a long time. How often does someone like a Newt Gingrich come along?

Du Pont: Very seldom. In my political lifetime we've had Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich in twenty-five years. Two people who really had a very different vision of the government of the country. Maybe two in twenty-five years is a lot but they don't come along very often.

Q: When Newt Gingrich starts talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt as one of his most impressive heroes, does that make you a little nervous?

Du Pont: No, because Franklin Roosevelt was a President who had to govern at a time of crisis, so was Abraham Lincoln, so was Winston Churchill, the leader of the British, at a time of crisis. And if you're going to make fundamental changes in the way a nation thinks, you have to have the ability to take the crisis of the moment and use it to shape an agenda.

Franklin Roosevelt was very good at that. We don't particularly agree with the way his agenda turned out, though to tell you the truth, I think it was more Lyndon Johnson's fault than Franklin Roosevelt's. Nevertheless, he was a great leader. He saw how to use the levers of power to affect change. No wonder Newt appreciates that because that's what he sees too.

Q: You mentioned Johnson. Newt says we've got a great American history; we're American exceptionalism; we're an extraordinary country. We take the great detour, sometimes with dates like 1965, sometimes about '67 or '68, but in any case, it's Lyndon Johnson where it all went wrong. And now we're trying, as he puts it, to renew American civilization. Would you agree with that?

Du Pont: I would agree with that. American public policy had a nervous break down in the late 1960s and 1970s. We lost our way. Now we're just beginning to find it back again. I think Newt correctly assumes that the American public is beginning to look down the road and at least distinguish the landmarks on either side and know where it wants go. We have a chance to lead it there.

Q: There's some comparisons that can be made between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, not politically but somewhat in their histories, their personal histories,. They're also baby-boomers. They're of a certain generation, a generation that has only newly come into power in the United States. That generation has several things that some people would consider flaws. It has a nature, maybe too much experimentation with whatever back in the 60s and 70s -- the 'I'm not quite yet grown up' generation. Does any of that trouble you? Is Newt fully grown?

Du Pont: Well, everyone matures. I'm sure when I was Newt's age that I thought I had the right answer to things. But as I've gotten older, of course, I continue to change. I think the baby-boomers as political leaders are still on trial by the American people. Politics move very slowly. Bill Clinton's vacillation hasn't helped the image of baby-boomers. But you can't categorize fifty million people as all the same.

So the baby-boomers will lead America in the next few Presidential elections. Bob Dole is the last of the World War II generation. I expect some uneasiness with the baby-boomers is why Bob Dole is doing so well in the Presidential campaign. He's tried and true, we know what he is, and the baby-boomers were still saying, 'Let's wait and see.'

Q: Someone we interviewed said, 'Liberals see Newt as the man who is taking away their cookies from the cookie jar and if they're afraid of him, they have reason to be afraid.' Should moderates be afraid of Newt Gingrich?

Du Pont: No, moderates shouldn't be nervous about Newt because he has a vision, he's laid it forward. If you don't agree with all of it, try and get him to change it a little bit. But he's fundamentally leading us in the way that middle class Americans want to go.

Liberals should be terrified of Newt Gingrich because he has an alternative vision. He's good at selling and he's now got enough of a majority that it's beginning to sell. And we may be seeing the death of liberalism, particularly if Republicans gain in the House and the Senate in '96.

Q: Newt is a master, it seems of getting everyone singing from the same page of the hymn book...

Du Pont: Well, Newt is a history major and he understands the importance of language. When he began the campaign with GOPAC, the serious part of building a majority, he said, 'The first thing we've got to do is, we've all got to use the same language. We've got to start talking about.' Newt said this hundreds of times, 'start talking about a conservative opportunity society replacing the liberal welfare state.' And he'd say, 'Bang that language into you head. Use it every night. Use the same words and pretty soon it will permeate the American people.' And that was the right strategy. Language is important; messages are important; and Newt understands.

Q: And Newt, it seems, is also very adept at identifying new sources of getting to the public through the media, making an end run around The New York Times for example.

Du Pont: Well, talk radio, of course, has made an enormous [end run] around establishment media. But the next one that's coming is the internet. It is making an [end run] around talk radio. Suddenly we're faced with an information age in which you and I as individuals can have access to all the information that only the elite had in the beginning and they would decide how to parcel it out to us.

Newt's on the cutting edge again. I'm sure he'll have an internet strategy before he's done.

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