the long march of newt gingrich

Interview Eddie Mahe

Q: "The Eddie Mahe Company" ---tell me how that expresses the sort of ethic of the undertaking.

Mahe: Well, the way we express it to prospective clients who come in to see us and the 'What do you do?' question: If your concern is your image, call your public relations firm. If your concern is market share, call your advertising agency. If you're really in a battle and your ass is on the line, call us. We do confrontation. We do battles. I mean we come out of a political background. We understand confrontation in a way that people in the advertising or public relations business do not. We understanding interacting with an opponent in a way that those groups do not. The only other groups of people that really understand confrontation the way we do are professional athletes and trial attorneys. And most everybody else is generally on the field in an environment where they're the only ones on the field.

It's kind of like when you played high school football and this coach was all X's and O's. In theory, every play was a touchdown. Well, most of life and in most businesses, every play is kind of a touchdown because there's no real organized opposition. Well, in politics, that's not clearly the case.

So we do battles. Like we're involved in the Endangered Species Act. We're involved in Super Fund. We get involved in union negotiations where there clearly is a team on the other side.

Q: Is that an approach, a world view, if you will, that was particularly compatible with the world view of the Newt Gingrich that you met back in the 70s?

Mahe: Well, no one would ever question Newt being confrontational. We evolved this application, a translation of this political style to nonpolitical uses in the 80s after we'd met Newt and worked with him for several years. But clearly, Newt's core philosophy would be that if you have to do battle, if it takes confrontation to achieve your goals, then you should be confrontational.

Q: When you met him, your status was what? Where were you in the field?

Mahe: I was Executive Director of the Republican National Committee.

Q: So part of your job was to find up-and-coming Newt Gingriches. Do you recollect that moment when he crossed your screens?

Mahe: Yes. And clearly in that kind of job you meet a lot of candidates. I only actually remember two that precisely. The other one I won't share the story with you because I remembered him for quite the opposite reason of why I remember Newt. But I had a very outstanding executive assistant and she kind of did all these things, and all of a sudden this person shows up in my office, dressed in the style of the 70s with the double knits and the checker coats and all that. And a college professor running in the South, who obviously was not from the South. And for the first few seconds or minute or two, I said to myself, 'Why did Jackie let this person in my office? This person can't be serious. Why is she wasting my time?'

Well, it did not take very long before you realized that you were in the presence of someone with a remarkable mind who really had a good sense of what he was doing and how he was going to do it. So I started to pay attention and I've been paying attention ever since.

Q: It wasn't his ideas so much that got him elected, but positioning, wouldn't you say?

Mahe: Yeah. Yeah. Ideas have very little relevance if you don't put them into the context of positioning. Because you have to relate ideas in the context of the audience that you're talking to and usually in the language or a simile that they can relate to. Newt does that very well. But in point of fact, he would have been elected in '74, I think, without Watergate. He would have been elected in '76 without Jimmy Carter, and '78 was the first time he had a clean shot and, once he had the clean shot, he did get elected.

Q: When Newt finally made it in that first term, it was at once this great moment in time, but at the same time, shortly after he raised his hand and took the oath, it was a disastrously awkward moment in his personal life. Remember for me that moment in the life of Newt Gingrich, whether you ever thought it might derail his prospects. Or how you saw how that moment affected him.

Mahe: Oh yes, that was an extremely difficult time for Newt. Coming the way it did, right, as you say, in the moment that his life was changing and his relationship to his daughters was extraordinarily close. That was part of what was happening at that time. I don't know that I could say that he contemplated going back home, but I know it was a period of time when his attention was clearly diverted because of what was going on in his personal life.

Q: Had he by then in your mind, arrived at a guiding, defining political philosophy or was it still fluid? At that time he arrived in Washington.

Mahe: Well, I think his philosophy has been remarkably consistent ever since I've known him. There are many who say it was different before 1974. That may be true. I did not know him before 1974, but since he first sat in my office in 1974, he has been consistently right of center on issue after issue after issue.

Clearly he has refined his capacity to explain those issues. He has refined the way to make them more salient to more people. Clearly new issues have arisen that we were not talking about 20 years ago, that have required new positions. But I don't believe his fundamental sense of the country, the role of the federal government and the role of the individuals within that government has substantially changed.

Q: You don't agree with some of his colleagues, professors for example and associates at the time, that he was sort of the essential Rockefeller Republican?

Mahe: Well, as I say, he may have been before '74, he has not been since '74. And 21 years is a long enough track record for me in terms of consistency.

Q: As a political operative, what work did you perform or what function did you serve for the up and coming Newt Gingrich?

Mahe: Well, for openers, I've never been involved in any of his personal campaigns. I think, at times, I have functioned as a sounding board for him, someone who would help him expand and challenge his ideas. Over the years he's had different people that he tended to reach out to on a personal basis for advice and counsel. Not advice and counsel so much as just an opportunity to have someone to discuss things with. And there was quite a period of time when very regularly on Sunday afternoons I was one of the ones that Newt would call. I'm sure there were others. As I said, when I was up with Newt on the book tour I was in Boston, and I had my daughter who lives up there now, come by with me to see if she'd met him and she said, 'Oh, yes, I used to talk to you every Sunday afternoon when I was in high school.' So it was, it was that kind of a relationship.

The one thing that I believe that I contributed to, that made the greatest difference in where we are now, is that there were two of us, myself and Owen Roberts of Florida in a GOPAC meeting several years ago, who promoted the idea of starting the tape program for GOPAC. Which I believe did more than any single thing that we ever have done since Newt came up here to parlay his language, his vision, his positioning, his rhetoric, his knowledge out across the country to 10,000 people. Ten thousand up and coming political leaders every month, most of those freshmen, listened to those tapes every month because we sent them to everybody each month. And, Owen Roberts and I were the two strong advocates for doing that, and I feel very proud of having done that.

Q: So what was the practical effect of that idea? It was a brilliant idea as far I know, nobody else has done it even now. So what was the practical effect?

Mahe: We got 10,000 people on Newt's message. Ten thousand people who understood his energy, understood his thinking, understood how he analyzed issues, understood how to explain national issues. And we solved a lot of our problems in our party with those tapes because we had rhetorical problems as a party. We scared people. Our description of the role of government scared a lot of people. And especially when we started this six or seven years ago. And Newt worked people through this, a lot of state senators, state reps. Those tapes were kind of what they used to help them. Because we did them on state issues, global issues, it was a powerful series. But it got most of the Republican activists elected officials thinking and speaking --to some extent-- in the same language about the same issues.

Q: Is it wild to suggest that the '94 Republican majority in the House is sort of the fruit of that?

Mahe: I would say it's a direct result. I think it's really sad that the tape program is not being continued. I mean we get them very sporadically now and I understand he's very busy and everything. But I still believe the audience that we're getting is singularly the most important audience to be communicating with in terms of a philosophy of government. Because these are the people that are putting government into place at the local level and I think if they were to continue to get these tapes from Newt --even if it was every two months-- it would connect them to what is happening in a way that they cannot possibly be connected to at this time.

Q: In casting back to the moment when the tape effort was just in full flower, what exactly did it do, if you could imagine for me the typical candidate?

Mahe: Well, bear in mind this tape program was a companion to some aggressive training programs that GOPAC also had under way. Not all candidates who got the tapes got the training but there was a lot of overlap. But it seemed to me that what they did, perhaps, is they gave conservatives a language of consensus to be able to articulate conservative ideas. Cause still in the 80s it was very difficult to talk conservative language without getting massacred fairly badly by either the media or your opposition and he helped conservatives understand ways to frame their arguments so that they were not immediately attackable. He taught them how they could defend their arguments or counter-attack when they were attacked.

And a lot of what Newt did during those days and with those tapes is he framed some fairly strong counterattacks and he would oftentimes go way out front with them, far beyond what a candidate running for the state senate in Mississippi might be able to do. But if that candidate saw it happening and saw Newt doing it, he obviously was against less of a competition so, even though he could only go this way, rather than this far, it was far enough to get him confidence to keep going in Mississippi.

Q: You are one of the people who was a consultant paid by GOPAC. So that meant you really did what? GOPAC pays you and you go and do what?

Mahe: Sit in meetings. I mean, the planning sessions and the strategy sessions. And I think that's correct. We never, ever had an operational role within GOPAC. We weren't paid that much money. But basically there were meetings. There were just lots of meetings because when you're working your way through the challenges that we were confronting, of trying to take control of Congress and trying to take on the monolithic Democrat Party and its resources. When you are trying to take on our supposed allies, the business community, who were supporting the Democrats, in addition to taking on the press, who was substantially, universally hostile to our thinking in those days, you just don't kind of willy nilly, just kind of stand up and say, 'Oh, I think I'll do this and I'll do that.'

And a lot of ideas, like that satellite conference we did, didn't work out very well. It wasn't what? 600,000. After the fact everybody said, 'Geez, that wasn't a very good idea.' But at the beginning, it seemed like another vehicle that might work. Paul Weyrich is now making it work for Century with his NET Network. But it never worked at the time we tried. But it's just a lot of meetings.

Q: And part of what you all were doing was literally the meat and potatoes, the stuff and substance of figuring out, what is the conservative philosophy? How do we articulate it, what are some of the things we can say back?

Mahe: And, trying to figure out --we know that about 65% of the American people have genuinely been in accord with us for the last two decades or more. Probably nearly three. The American people figured out a long time ago that the liberal welfare state was not working. It's now becoming manifest and you see it much more dramatically. But people are not dumb. They saw what was happening in the inner cities. They saw the educational system collapsing. But figuring out how to position against that, how to try to define the alternative. How to take on this very, deeply embedded institutional fabric that had permeated all levels of government. By the time you get into the 80s, government, state legislatures, mayors, city councilors, Congress. It's everywhere.

There's one man, Ronald Reagan, out there that's kind of standing apart and everything is fairly well dominated. And that's what we were talking about and with absolute conviction. That was what the Contract was about, if the American people were on our side, if they could ever understand the choice. The fact that they did not was not the American people's fault. It was our fault because we had not yet figured out how to define it or how to give it to them.

Q: What made Newt the vehicle for this transformation?

Mahe: He had, and has, the mind and the energy to do it. But, as I assume you have come to know with your intense investigation in his life, he is an expert on military strategy. Military strategy being the only 'quasi-scientific' area that is remotely translatable to politics.

He's a historian and he knows about any battle or related military history. He understands that. His area of expertise, I assume, is domestic history, U.S. history because he seems to know about every election and why, and what happened there. And you bring those two bodies of knowledge together, and he has an instinct for strategy on top of that and you get a perspective. You get a perspective that you don't get from anybody else that I'm aware of right now. The reason I want him to stay where he is because I think the Presidency is irrelevant for Newt Gingrich. You only lead out of the House. Up until the 1930's, the most powerful office in this country was the Speaker of the House. I think it is again, and that's the way it should stay.

Q: It doesn't necessarily hurt Newt or the cause if Bill Clinton's reelected, does it?

Mahe: No, I don't think it does. I think the President, the only problem with the President is he appoints judges. If it wasn't for that, who cares?

Q: Newt --he is something of a general if you will, marshalling them, and the way he thinks strategically and practically, just sort of a bloodless war --that is one way of looking at it, isn't it?

Mahe: Yes. Very much so. That's what it is. That's what we have been in for a long time. And marshalling the army, determining your strategy --a lot of the [soldiers] that we depend on don't even realize they have a link to us.

This is one of the significant differences between the Republican and the Democratic Party. Our 50 Republicans are totally independent. There is no chain of command downstream from the Republican National Committee. The National Committee cannot do anything at the state level except in some instances, it cannot recognize the delegates. Equally true, except in Oregon and a couple of other states, the states have no control over the county parties, so you got in, setting aside Oregon and a couple of others, 7,300 independent organizations on any given day that can do what the boss wants or, not do what the boss wants, depending on their whim. Well, now think about trying to organize this and make something happen through this kind of structure. It's really difficult.

I mean the fact is that when you're playing in this kind of game you gotta play hardball. This is not tag football. And the Democrats are a lot tougher on any given day than we ever have been and that's been part of the problem. And their allies make our allies look like bush league. So we've been in a tough game. That language is critical. I mean we define who we are and what we're about by words. And the choice of words are critical. Newt understands words. And when we had questions about words, we would focus group words to try to make sure that the language we were using, i.e., the words, was communicating to people out across the country the same thing we were saying here.

We also find, what you know in your business, a dramatic regional difference in words, so if you find a word that in New England tends to mean left and in California tends to mean right, you better take it out of your vocabulary and use a different word, because you can't use words that have mixed meanings nationally. So the use of language, and Newt, he is a master with words. He very rarely uses a word, or uses a word that's less powerful than the one that could have been used. I mean he is an absolute master.

Q: He has the reputation of occasionally voicing an idea that he hasn't quite thought through, and occasionally speaking off the cuff, which is a different thing.

Mahe: That is true. And instant brilliance is, I think, a problem that all bright people have to deal with. And it's very tough, I wouldn't be surprised if you suffer from the same problem. You're sitting in a discussion and you get some great idea and it's good because you're having it and you have great confidence in your own ideas. Well, that works well if you're not Speaker of the House. [Chuckles] If you're Speaker of the House, I told him once, a couple years ago, this was even before he was speaker, you really have to do away with instant brilliance behind the podium.

Q: Are you at all surprised by how well he has taken to this role?

Mahe: No. I can't think of a reason I would be surprised. He has spent a long time getting ready for it. He clearly has the capacity to do it. He has done and is doing an outstanding job. He is filling the role of speaker as it was traditionally filled for the first 200 years or so of this century. Those people who didn't expect him to succeed in the job just really did not know, I think, Newt Gingrich and what he was about. And the fact is, at this point in this nation's history, Newt Gingrich is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is on his shoulders if you accept, as many of us do, that our government really is screwed up and is no longer fitting our people and our country very well. He alone, in my opinion, has had success in leading to change it.

Q: Can we suppose, given the pipe that y'all have laid through GOPAC and Newt's work in the last decade and a half, that there will be a continuing stream of many Newts coming up through the party?

Mahe: Oh, I think so. Yeah, I think so without a doubt. And I say this in no way demeaning everybody elected and/or running for public office. One of the biggest crises that Newt faces and we face as a country is that the best people in this country are not running for public office now. Because running for and/or sitting in public office has become too painful and so you're kind of getting, kind of the less than the best that are running. I mean you don't see many CEOs or heads of local organizations or big corporations. You just don't see a lot of those kinds of people running. We need to improve the political process enough and get a lot of this burden off of the process so that the best people in this country once again are prepared to consider civic duty.

Q: You have a good perspective on the whole Republican Party...where are things heading and, is this all really going to change?

Mahe: I would argue three points. One, the role model that we should follow in terms of turning this government around is what I call the Waxman-Metzenbaum Model. Every two years you just keep nibbling away. Waxman substantially destroyed the health care system in this country two years at a time by things he kept adding to the Medicare, Medicaid legislation. We can't change everything that needs to be changed in two years. If we attempted to, we'd bring the country down. We need more time. We need time to just slowly and methodically undue the damage that's been done. So, to that extent, I think the revolution is over, it is a matter of consolidating, of bringing in new people, of cleaning out. It's going to be a long, tough battle but last year I thought we maybe just had a beachhead. I think we're a little stronger than just a beachhead now. The willingness of the majority of both the House and the Senate to vote 'yes' for a lot of things that were making the left or the right within both bodies very uncomfortable. We are going to pass the reconciliation bill. Everybody understands, whatever their personal philosophy may be, how important it is for us to do that. We will do that. I think ultimately that will resonate with the American people and we will bring in more people, we will replenish this government over time. But it is going to be a slow, tough battle.

Q: You have no doubt at all about how once the general achieves the beachhead, about how he will govern? I know there's still this string to be played out in terms of the revolution being complete and all that.

Mahe: Well, I respond to that this way: changing our government has to be done at two levels. The first is at the government level itself. Laws, regulations, rules, bureaucrats. You have to clean out the underbrush before you can make real change in direction. Because you can't change in direction if your wheels are locked. Get that done quick. I think that's what Newt has to do for the next five years.

I would then argue, you have to change this culture, you have to change the thinking of the American people. That's when I think Newt would best serve the country, maybe running to President and using that massive podium to access the American people and not worry so much about the intricacies of government. Not like a Clinton and too many of our Presidents, kind of trying to tinker with the mechanics of government, but really trying to lead the American people back to the culture, again close to what we were, which is the culture of individual responsibility, a culture of caring for ones neighbors, a free enterprise kind of culture rather than this collective, regulatory climate that we've created over the past 30 years.

Q: Do you think that Newt similarly has a long-term view of it, in that same way? Covering what period of years?

Mahe: I don't know where it ends. I think he would not be adverse to the idea of running for President in five years, but I have not had that discussion with him.

Q: I'll give you his phone number, and we could --[Laughing]

Mahe: That would be an interesting call, wouldn't it? [Laughing]

more about newt . interviews . his work and writings . his reading list . a chronology
bibliography . feedback . tapes & transcripts . FRONTLINE online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation