the long march of newt gingrich

Interview Frank Gregorsky

Image of Frank Gregorsky Q: How did you come to know him? What was the beginning of the relationship?

Gregorsky: Kind of a fluke situation. I went to Georgia to resume my college education at age 23 in March of '78. He was teaching there. I didn't know he was teaching there, but I had told another teacher in the biology building that I was a Republican activist. I didn't know what that meant but she said, 'Well, there's some guy here who has run for Congress twice, as a Republican, which was unusual for Georgia in the '70s and he's lost twice, but he's running again. Why don't you go say hi and volunteer?' It took about a week. I had to go home and look in the Almanac of American Politics and I said, 'My God, there is this guy, Newt Gingrich' and he was right down the hall from where I was taking this biology class. So about a week later, I introduced myself and he just grilled me. He said, 'What have you done? What kind of books do you read?' At the end of it he said, 'Why don't you drive me around on Saturdays, my driver needs a break.' It may not have been that first day he said that. I may have to go and do some research or pass some little threshold of literacy or something....But within three weeks, I was his Saturday driver.

Q: Now, as you drove him around and then worked, I assume, in other capacities in the campaign as well, what did you come to think of this guy?

Gregorsky: That this was the opportunity of a lifetime. That he was a committee Republican intellectual, I think, somebody who was in it for the ideas, as well as for winning election victories.

He also started training me as he trains everybody from day one, to think in terms not of ideology or not even so much in terms of philosophy, but what the Republicans needed to do on a professional level, on an economic level, on a tactical management level, to become the stalwarts of American government, to become a majority. That was always a unifying theme--how can we become a majority? How can we do what Franklin Roosevelt did in the 1930s, what William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt did in the 1890s and the early part of this century?

Q: So even in the middle of a campaign for Congress in west Georgia, Newt is articulating his long-term broader strategy?

Gregorsky: And recruiting and training and testing and pushing the troops to behave this way, and eventually the great majority of his colleagues either got that message and changed, or they retired or got defeated. Now the whole party reflects parts of that, they're like an army with a strategic focus.

Q: What are some of your strongest memories of that campaign, that first campaign, '78?

Gregorsky: The tax cut bill of Jack Kemp and Senator Robb, now the finance chairman in the Senate. The fact that Republicans were running for the first time in my lifetime, maybe even in Newt's lifetime, as the party of job creation, hope and opportunity -- helping blacks get ahead. Now not all candidates in '78 were familiar with this, but dozens of them were and it was Jack Kemp's tax cut legislation in '77 that allowed the party to start changing its tone, during the Carter years.

People would say, of course, 'Well Reagan won because of Carter' and I agree with that, I mean, Carter had a very bad administration, high inflation, foreign crises.

The Republicans were going to win in 1980 unless they really screwed it up, but the point was, we won in a different way in '78 and '80 in those Congressional races and then in Reagan's landslide in '80 because Jack Kemp had redefined our economic message.

It wasn't just 'shrink the government, get rid of the welfare cheaters and increase defense,' though those things were still there. But Newt and a couple dozen other House candidates were saying, 'Hey, we're for prosperity, we're for a rising time lifting all the boats.' We quoted John Kennedy over and over again in 1978, just as Jack Kemp was doing on a national level. Most of the research came from Kemp's office. It was a change in tone.

Q: When I look at the Newt Gingrich campaign in '78 I see the symbol of the campaign being a shopping cart and commercials with Newt and his family going, 'We know what it's like to have to make a decision as to whether we buy meat or not.'

Gregorsky: Yeah, or macaroni and cheese. There was only money for one poll in '78 and it was taken in the second week of September '78 and it revealed that our opponent, Mrs. Shapard, had a strong lead among middle-class white women. The shopping cart, as I recall it --Weed would know better-- but as I recall it, the shopping cart was an attempt to say if we're going to swing this election --because we were 14 points behind in the middle of September, it was 50 to 36 with 14 percent undecided, Mrs. Shapard was almost at the critical 50 percent acceptance rate.

To swing the election --the themes and the symbol and the shopping cart was a direct attribute of that-- had to be: Newt's a working- class guy, not a working-class necessarily, but a middle-class guy. He was a professor, he was a Ph.D, you can't stretch this, he's not exactly a mill hand. But the point was, she's well-off, she's rich and she may be a woman and Democrat and a middle of the roader, but there are other things to look at if you're a Georgia voter and you're not either a strong liberal or a strong conservative.

We were going for that economically middle vote with the emphasis on the female. I don't know what the final polls showed, but we won by 8 points and that was always the target the swing voters would find in the last 6-8 weeks of the election.

Everything Newt has done strikes me as audacious until he sticks with it enough to cause it to have a result. And in 1987 he and a small group of members put forth a resolution to have an outside blue ribbon committee investigate the House. This was before the charges against Wright and it got like 79 votes.

A reporter called me up and said, 'Isn't this a real defeat for Newt and his band of Young Turks? I mean they were humiliated, they didn't even get half the Republicans to vote for it.' And I said, 'I guess it is, but I have the sense they'll come back and do something either against Wright or against somebody else, and the ethics issue will rise again.' It was just an experiment. Newt conducts lots of experiments. At a superficial level they fail or they waste money or they make people angry, but he cheerfully says, 'Well, y'know, we jiggled the beast. We learned how it responds.'

That was an analogy he gave about the Pentagon in '83. He supported an amendment that cuts some military project and he voted with the liberals and the Democrats on that, and I said, 'What are you doing this for?' and he said, 'I want to jiggle the beast to see if it moves, to see what kind of response we get.' Cap Weinberger was Secretary of Defense at the time, and Newt was fooling around with Ron Dellums and the moderate Republicans trying to cut the defense budget. This was '81.

Q: So, on the one hand this was a guy who liked to experiment and on the other hand, this was also a guy who doesn't accept defeat. He'll go out, get smashed and he's back with a slightly new tactic to do the same thing the next week.

Gregorsky: Yeah. Whole campaigns in a sense become further experiments. The '74 campaign where he got 49 percent two months after his party leader, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon. Newt had the audacity to run as the ethics candidate. Even though he was a Republican and Nixon had just dragged the country through Watergate. I mean, it's vintage Newt. He said that he never expected to win, that he was startled that they came as close as they did and to his credit, years later he said, 'You know, if I had won in '74 at age 31, running that kind of off-the-wall, swashbuckling campaign it would have been a disaster. I would have learned all the wrong lessons.' Doesn't mean he was glad he lost, but we all rationalized our early defeats.

Q: Let's talk about the 1980 campaign. You were involved in that, the 1980 close call.

Gregorsky: It didn't end up being a close call. It ended up being an 18 point victory but that still startles me to this day. There was lots of gloom and doom. Bob Weed ran a good campaign. His management style hacked off a lot of people. He would fly in from Baltimore and be there uttering these strategic dictates, which were right, but it was a different--I mean it was the anti-epitome of the good 'ole boy. Newt turned to Weed and said, 'Look, I'm going through a personal crisis, I'm separated, I may lose, maybe I deserve to lose. You go down there and run the campaign. I trust you more than anybody --your strategic world view and competence in regards to running that campaign.' Somehow, he won with 18 points. A bigger margin than in 1978. By the way, this was the year that Jimmy Carter was at the top of the ticket and Georgia was the only state in the nation in 1980 that Carter got an absolute majority of the vote, 55 percent, so with that at the top of the ticket, Newt still won.

Q: And, if I'm not mistaken, just about two weeks before the election the local newspaper comes up with the story with all the messy details of Newt's divorce.

Gregorsky: From the deposition that was filed by Mrs. Gingrich, at the time, Jackie, it was a real story. I mean it was all the charges. It was money. It was debt. I think it was run in the Carroll County Georgian, on the 22nd or 23rd of October, two weeks before the election. I thought it was over. I mean, I thought that was it. But Newt still carried Carroll county, which was one of the bigger counties in the western part of the district at that time. Margin went way down. I mean, he carried it 2 to 1 in '78, only got 53 percent in '80, but he still carried it.

Q: Why do you think?

Gregorsky: That's a good question. The only theory I have is that the theme this is a bad guy and he has wronged his wife and he deserves to be chastised --that might have worked in the '50s but I don't think even in the '70s that was working in this electorate anymore. I think enough guys, men, had been through divorces, had lost everything, whether they deserved to or not, but there was maybe a secret or subterranean angry white male vote or angry male vote that could look at Newt and say, 'Well, the guy can't be this bad. I mean, we've all had problems with our wives and our girlfriends or what have you.'

Q: You actually worked for two years with Newt Gingrich, now Speaker of the House. What was it like to be on his staff?

Gregorsky: Mercury going around the sun. Yes, well, there are some people who have lasted longer. What I learned --a lot of people learned-- from my tenure as Chief of Staff is that if you're going to be a close associate manager, an administrator, a lieutenant so to speak, at the operational level of this man, Gingrich, you really can't have your own agenda. You can't want to argue with him about what is the meaning of conservativism, and what is the philosophically right thing to do, which I wasted a lot of time doing back then.

The issue is how many projects can we start? How many experiments can we run and learn from? How can we minimize the damage so that is doesn't kill us but otherwise let's just laugh off these failures? A lot of people had problems with that. I mean, we either were control freaks or perfectionists or people that liked to run a little bit of a tighter ship. People like that have always been driven crazy by Newt Gingrich and in my opinion, if he becomes President, half the administration will be driven crazy by that. So I was driven crazy by that, that's the punch line. And I wanted to go off and be a writer and work at home.

Q: You've written recently about how Newt's politics, his vision, is misunderstood by some conservatives and by liberals. What do you mean by that?

Gregorsky: Newt, in my opinion, doesn't have any fundamental philosophical interest in abolishing government for the sake of abolishing government. He's interested in a lean, mean, effective sort of corporate transformed government based on Demming and Drucker and a lot of his other heroes. But my prediction is that the conservatives in two, three, or four years from now are going to be shocked and deservedly so, given the way they think, by the fact that Newt Gingrich is a Teddy Roosevelt-style Republican. He is an activist, he is a reformer, he is a leader.

He is not going to be somebody who wants to, as Dick Armey and Phil Gramm do, run entirely on shrinking the government and cutting spending. So you know their interests are in tandem now. But once enough reform has happened, and once the budget is closer to balance and once we've eliminated a few cabinet departments, then I expect Newt will still be speaker or maybe even President.

At that point, you're going to see a Lincoln/Roosevelt-style Republican leadership. Not a Hoover or even a Reagan-style government bashing Republicanism. Anyway, so that's what the conservatives don't get yet. And some of them do and they don't want to get it, but that's the reality in my opinion.

Liberals have a completely different problem. They really would like to stigmatize Newt in the same way that the conservatives want to idealize Newt. I mean, the conservatives want to idealize Newt as somebody who is really going to deliver all of our fantasies of fifty years --of wiping out the New Deal and the Great Society. Nothing like that is going to happen. Maybe half the Great Society will go, but most of the New Deal will stay. And we'll get some other things.

So, if liberals portray Newt as uncaring, anti-humanitarian, a troglodyte, antediluvian, all this sort of stuff, they don't get the fact that this guy is probably the most intellectual activist and, in some ways, a bleeding heart conservative a la Jack Kemp. But he's tougher than Kemp.

He shares a lot of Kemp's desires to empower the poor, to bring the blacks into the Republican party, to do all these things that are really kind of idealistic. And so, we need to see more of that side of Newt and I think we will once we get through this budget cutting, Medicare reform sort of pain and sacrifice stuff, which is necessary. The bond market likes it, I mean, and Clinton's going to sign most of it. But I'm not sure that's the core Newt. And I think the liberals will be less disappointed in the long run than they are now. And I think that the conservatives will be shocked two or three years at the level of pre-government or pre-governance in this guy 'Jingoish.'

Q: What sort of books was Newt 'Jingoish' telling you to read?

Gregorsky: It's an interesting thing about those books. None of them are works of philosophy. They are management books, they are futuristic books and they are biographies. In '83, he told us to read Ted Morgan's book, "Young Man in a Hurry," which is a partial biography of Churchill from his birth in 1874 up to 1914. He said, 'Look, you guys, you'll see a lot of me in that.' I mean, Churchill was rambunctious, was bumptious to some extent, changed parties twice, not that Newt's going to do that. But the point was it's possible to be even more of an experimenter than Newt. You could change parties, Churchill did that.

Intellectual, pro-technology, studied history and eventually led England through its great crisis, so we were told to read that and the strangest recommendation I got was to read Isaac Asimov's book, "The Foundation Trilogy." I understand there was a fourth, fifth and sixth volume later, but at that point there were three and it was a science fiction book. Of course, I read it and I came and I said, 'I don't understand this reading assignment. I mean, I don't understand what I'm supposed to get out of this.' I mean it was an interesting book, but what does that teach us about Republican majority or balancing the budget or reforming Social Security? He said, 'It may not teach you anything about those Frank, but what I'm trying to convey to you is that I'm a figure who thinks in terms of 100-year increments and I think in terms of civilization's rising and falling over 500-year increments and that's the level of thought and change that I would like you to get in sync with.' That was an interesting expansion of the job description. It was accurate. He wasn't being a megalomaniac about it. I thought maybe he was, but I know now that he wasn't.

Q: Didn't Democrats underestimate Newt Gingrich for a long time?

Gregorsky: Yeah and they still do. They underestimate him in different ways. They say things like, 'Well, he's his own worst enemy. Well, he's going to self-destruct. Well, he goes after us on ethics but he's sloppy on his own book deal,' and stuff like that. They're entitled to go and make hay and sort of get even, if they can. But in my opinion, the people that really hate Newt, the Dave Boniors of the world, should hate him because he means to destroy the liberal ideological establishment and the Democrats as a functioning institutional majority.

So, if you're a west coast Democrat and there are software writers and tech people on the west coast who are liberal on abortion, liberal on gay rights, but they think Newt's sort of an interesting guy, at least he's not a troglodyte and he talks cyberspace. Those kind of Democrats can get along with Newt. But Democrats like John Dingell and Dave Bonior, almost the exact paradigmatic opposite of Newt, they know that Newt means to destroy them and so they are trying to destroy him.

People say, 'Why can't these guys work together?' In this case, they're not supposed to work together, they really are scorpions in a bottle. They know who they are and in the case of Bonior who wakes up, in my opinion, every morning thinking, 'How can I destroy the speaker,' they're doing it for a reason and the reason by their lights is not illegitimate.

Q: One of the criticisms of Newt Gingrich is he's letting corporations rewrite environmental laws in this country and there is going to be less environmental regulation and so forth. Doesn't sound like Teddy Roosevelt.

Gregorsky: And I think if you scratched down deep you might find that Newt has some problems with that. I think environment in another two or three years is going to be an issue that is redefined by Newt, almost single-handedly. Two factual points. In 1979, Newt along with John Anderson and a few liberal Republicans, was one of the small groups of Republicans who voted for the Alaska Lands Conservation Act --Jimmy Carter's, he says, biggest intellectual achievement as President. Most of us on the staff were appalled at that. We wanted oil wells up there. We had an energy crisis at the time and Newt said, 'No, this is a Teddy Roosevelt bill and I'm going to vote for it.'

Now you could say that's ancient history, but a more recent departure from orthodoxy was the fact that Newt, along with Gerry Studds, who, let us recall, Newt tried to expel seven years earlier, the two of them in 1990 introduced the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. Newt did this as House Republican Whip and at that point, a leading conservative light in the country. So yes, there are regulatory reform cut-backs going on now, but if I were a middle of the road environmentalist, not a real Luddite who wants to go back to the Stone Age, but somebody who is a mainstream Sierra Club person, not a tree-spiker, if I was one of those people, I wouldn't give up on Newt Gingrich yet.

Q: He had just gotten together with Marianne Ginther --she became Marianne Gingrich. What was that relationship like --to the extent that you ever saw any of it?

Gregorsky: I met Marianne in December, 1980 and she was different from what I thought she was going to be. I think it was Newt going back and being a teenager again. There was a general consensus then and now that Newt had married his mom, or married the mom he didn't have. Well, he did have a mom, but he married a mother figure in a lot of different ways. I don't want to go into too much detail about Jackie. But Marianne was younger, more impressionable, more willing to sort of...humor is not the right word. But to take Newt seriously when he said, 'My goal is to save Western Civilization.' She didn't want to necessarily go cut and save Western Civilization, so she wasn't, in that sense, an ideological soul mate or mission soul mate. But she understood that this was a colorful guy who wasn't talking through his hat. And I think Newt needed that.

Q: Let me ask you just one question about Jackie. In the '78 campaign, how would you describe her involvement?

Gregorsky: We did radio spots. I wrote and taped local radio spots for her on the local radio. She held over, she presided over basically beans and lemonade supper a Sunday before the election and that was a deliberate contrast to Rosalyn Carter coming in and doing a $50-a-plate dinner for Mrs. Shapard. That was our populist angle.

She sat in the strategy sessions. She didn't meddle but she knew what was going on and she made suggestions very tactfully. She was a skilled political person. I mean she knew the district. She knew the people. She had, I think, a better sense of individuals and personality than Newt did. She was a good balancing force.

Q: Tell me about Newt and the military in your experience with him.

Gregorsky: One of the talks I sometimes give, talks about all the similarities between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, there's lots of similarities which are beyond the point of this interview, but one big difference, the one huge night and day difference, is their attitudes toward the military, toward the armed services generally. Newt has always been enthralled and fascinated and sort of vicariously part of it. Whereas Clinton has sort of loathed it and in '93 had a hard time even getting the salute right as Commander-in-Chief. So there's a big difference between the two and I think, well, first of all it's strategy. Where in civilization is strategy most embodied and tested? In military circumstances. So anybody who was a natural strategist like Newt was at age 10 or 12 is going to gravitate toward battles and doctrine, tanks and soldiers and stuff like that. It may also have been a way to try to earn approval in the eyes of his father and the step-father, so he may have been compensating --psychological behavior to some extent.

Q: Though he himself never seems to have wanted to be a soldier. He never signed up to run off to Vietnam for instance.

Gregorsky: No, and there's no evidence that even early, well, '62, '63 that he considered doing that. It was politics. Newt determined after going through the Verdun battle field and sort of being scarred and inspired by that, that he didn't want to be one of the sacrifices, one of the enlisted men that were sent to die for a stupid military leadership or a political leadership. Neither did he want to be one of the ignorant leaders like the British, the French, and the Germans, you know, 60 years before. So I think you can take a commitment to military excellence and a commitment to strategy insight and take that into politics.

Starting around '80, maybe '81, Newt arranged every year to go out and speak to the graduating officers class at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. Sort of like Churchill, Newt was inculcating himself and his ideas in with each successive generation of military commanders, starting from the age of 22 or 25 or whenever you graduate from that institution. And he's done that every year since 1981.

So there are thousands of mid-level, junior-level, maybe even senior level military people in the American establishment that got a dose of Gingrich at a very impressionable time in there lives. If he ever becomes President, even if he doesn't become president, that's an invaluable network, an invaluable set of sources, sounding boards, contacts, people to call him up and tell him if they don't like what Secretary Perry or President Clinton are doing, I'm sure that some of them do call. That showed real commitment to the military as an institution but also as strategic positioning.

He'll go wherever it takes to learn something new at a large level. He once said, 'I don't care who's in the Lebanese government this month. I don't waste parts of my brain memorizing data, information or facts that are going to be irrelevant in two months.' But he said, 'If it's the command culture of the United States military, yes, I'll spend a lot of time studying that and I will remember it and I will use it thirty years from now. That's the way it works.'

Q: On the one hand, he's the maverick, the outsider, a person shaking the establishment. But, he's also proven to be a Speaker of the House --I would argue, in this last year, the ultimate insider. He's bringing these factions together, holding together a coalition to move legislation through Congress.

Gregorsky: And a lot of the old timers, myself among them, never thought, well, we had doubts that he would ever become this kind of skilled manager of a large diverse group. I do maintain, however, that the friends who look at Newt's effectiveness as Speaker and say, 'Well, therefore, he should become President,' are missing a huge fundamental point about this man. What Newt has, having 233 Republican colleagues, is sort of a board of peers, a board of directors who are peers. They went out, they got elected, many of them are in awe of Newt but they have bled just like he has, they've got the same sanction, they took the same oath, they have the same vote on the House floor.

The fact that he has 230 plus of those people around him is a disciplining mechanism, is a way to do what staff never could do and what allies and consultants can't do, which is to keep his own worst enthusiasms from getting out of control. I would like to go on record and say that if this man becomes President, you don't have that anymore. You don't have any peers. Your peers are in Germany and France and they don't know all the details. They can't stop you from going crazy in the Oval Office. Clinton would have been a good legislative leader if he had been speaker of the House. Clinton's style would be good.

By the same token, I'm not at all sure that if Newt became President and was surrounded by two thousand appointed political types, all of whom basically want to kiss his behind, I'm not certain that is the kind of structure that would allow Newt to be effective as a manager.

The Foreign Policy Quote Project was reading into the record dozens of quotes that I found in the Congressional Record and other places, quotes that elected Democratic officials in the Congress and outside the Congress had said about Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua -- places where Communists had taken over, like in Angola, where the rosy scenario didn't turn out to be the reality once the Communists got into power. We simply read all these wrong-headed predictions into the record.

Tip O'Neill viewed it as an attack on his colleagues and as McCarthyism. We read a quote by Ed Bolin in the record from '72 during the harbor mining of Nixon and that personally offended Speaker O'Neill, and then the week after Newt had done this, O'Neill came and said, 'This is the lowest thing I've seen in the 32 years in Congress, you deliberately stood in the well of the House and assaulted their patriotism.'

And then on a point of personal privilege came back and answered the next day, answered the assault of the Speaker and then for three hours, this was May 15th, 1984, from about noon to about three, there was an old fashioned, partisan intellectual and ideological shoot-out. Henry Hyde was involved. Jack Kemp was involved, Jim Wright, then the majority leader, was involved. They all sort of came at Newt and Newt had some defenders, but it was really a hell of a gunfight. I mean he was holding off the big guns of the Democratic Party simultaneously. It was one of his finest hours.

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