the long march of newt gingrich

Interview Guy Vander Jagt

Image of Guy Vander Jagt Q: He came to Congress and established himself almost immediately as a bomb-thrower. But, help me get beyond that cliche --What does it mean when a guy like Newt arrives? Was there any real actual day-to-day effect?

Vander Jagt: There absolutely was. He came not necessarily as a bomb thrower, but as a dreamer. He was the only member other than myself that really believed that it was possible to build a Republican majority. He was sort of this Don Quixote, the impossible dream. And he believed that as he arrived, and he never stopped working for it with drive and enthusiasm. Because of that in December of '78, before he was sworn in as a member, I named him the Chairman of the long range Republican Task Force to create a Republican Majority, skipping him over sitting members, most of whom would have liked the job because staff and budget went with it.

But he brought that dream. He didn't come just to be a member of the House and be another politician. He came for the purpose of changing America. Renewing America by creating a Republican Majority in the House.

Q: What was it about Gingrich's ideals --that possibility-- that struck you as being not only bold, but realistic?

Vander Jagt: Number one, he was brilliant. The sweep of his intellect, I don't believe has been matched in the last half century among politicians. A tremendous historical foundation. But maybe even more important than that was his persistence. His belief in that dream. And if you drove hard enough and worked hard enough, you could make it come true. And in those early days he'd be laughed at by the old bulls for these quixotic ideas. I mean this guy actually believes Republicans can be a majority. And he always come up with another crazy idea.

But no matter how much he was laughed at or knocked down, he'd get up off the mat and start all over again. And in a sense, I was on my way to becoming an old bull by then and I think I provided him some respectability. I gave him some cover, that here was one of the leadership who believed in this guy and believed in his dream.

Q: Describe to me the effect on the old bulls of a guy like Newt.

Vander Jagt: Well, Newt made the old bulls nervous. He made them uncomfortable. He was for change and change is always an uncomfortable thing. It's easier to keep doing things the way you've been doing them for 30 years even though most of the way you've been doing them didn't produce any results. Didn't produce a majority. Still, it's difficult to do something new. So, for many of the old bulls, Newt made them uncomfortable and caused them concern and for many, he was nothing but a bomb thrower. There were many others, of course, that saw that one of the reasons that he was as controversial as he was, is because you had to be when you're on the back bench to get attention. If you just say what everybody else is saying and you're saying it from the back bench, nobody listens. So there was a lot of deliberateness in some of the rash things that Newt was doing and calling for.

Q: The nature of our politics now. It is said that it is coarser and nastier. You saw the spans of the political process. I wonder, could he have succeeded any other way? I guess what I'm asking you is, (a) Do you think our politics are nastier in some way because of Newt's arrival? and (b) would he still be Newt if it weren't for that fact?

Vander Jagt: Politics in the House today are much more partisan, much nastier than when I arrived. Both sides are more bitterly partisan towards one another than they were 25 years ago and there is much less gentlemanliness. That was not brought about by Newt. There is less respect in all of our institutions, whether it be universities or church politics. It's nastier today than it was 25 years ago. Newt could not have created a Republican majority without being con-confrontational. You had to show that there is a difference. It does make a difference whether the Democrats run the place or the Republicans run the place. And in a sense Newt has made it more confrontational today because he is, in his view and in mine, fighting for the soul of America. Which way do we go into the 21st Century? This is a fundamental issue. So the left, the liberal wing is fighting for their very life. They're fighting for survival. They really want government to get bigger and to spend more and to have more of an impact on the daily life of individual Americans. And Newt's taking it the other way, so they are fighting for their very life. And when you're fighting for your life you get desperate, and so, it is much more partisan now. For a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons is that they are essentially fighting over the soul of America.

Q: This moral view, which is another [thing] that is more pronounced than the partisan bias, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Vander Jagt: No. In fact, one of the things that I tried to do in the 18 years that I was Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee was to make it more partisan, to say, 'You know, there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats. By and large Democrats really do believe in more spending so government can do more good things for people. Republicans really do believe in less spending so the taxpayer can keep more.' Now that's a difference and I tried very hard to etch that difference. You would go down the list of issues and you'd try to show there's a difference. Now that's partisan but it's also good government.

Q: What do we take from the effect that Newt had, that guys like Bob Michel didn't want a Republican majority badly enough?

Vander Jagt: They wanted a Republican majority but a lot of them didn't believe it was possible. And some of them would even draw charts and [yeah, I'm] up in the inner cities and it would never in a thousand years ever go Republican, and what's left, you gotta win two-thirds or three-fourth and they'd say, 'You know, Newt has this impossible dream.' And so they didn't believe it was possible.

Also, the House had been a comfortable place. You kind of protected one another. That's why it was so dramatic when Republicans went against the bank scandal in the House where you had all these overdrafts and it was just a way of getting the interest free loans. It was Newt and his band of people who wanted to change things that led the fight to have this public.

If it hadn't been for the new people that came in, personified by Newt Gingrich, they would have been swept under the rug, they would have issued some report and slapped the wrists of ten people and would have forgotten. Now some people say that's tearing the institution down. Now I say that's letting the sun shine in. And it did need reforming, but in order to reform it you have to show its flaws and its warts.

Q: Give me a picture of how GOPAC played into the idea of 'let's rethink our status and how to change it.'

Vander Jagt: Well, I was one of the creators of GOPAC. I recruited Pete Du Pont, former Governor of Delaware, former Presidential candidate to become the head of GOPAC, and had to almost take him by the hand to former President Jerry Ford to solicit Ford's signing of a fund-raising letter and I made our lists available to him.

So I helped build GOPAC, but Newt was brilliant in terms of tactics and strategy. On election night, he had called a couple weeks before and said, 'Guy, you know, it might happen. In two weeks that impossible dream is going to be a reality. And that could happen just because of the foundation that you laid, and I'd like you with me in Georgia on election night.' So, I was there and the night before election night he had a little party for his family and his inner circle and my wife and I were there. And he took me aside and said, 'Remember one time in the airport in Miami, we met? I'd been hounding you that the NRCC had to do more, or we're never gonna get to be a majority?'

And I had been saying [for] years [to Newt], 'On a scale of a 1 to 100 the NRCC is functioning at about a 93. If somehow by working 27 hours a day instead of 20 I get it from 93 to 99 that's not gonna make that much of a difference. For example, we can only give $50,000 and in a $600,000 campaign, $50,000 isn't decisive. The things that you're saying must be done, go beyond what the NRCC can do. It goes to what happens on the floor of the House. It goes to places like GOPAC. It goes to talk radio.' And he said, 'Do you remember we sat down and on a map, we wrote down and plotted the strategy of what it would take to produce a Republican majority? You know, that turned out to be our blueprint. That's what we did in this election.'

So yes, GOPAC played a very important part of it. Through Newt's tapes --150 candidates all over America were listening to Newt's speech wherever they were driving to the next event. So that you had Republicans all singing from the same set of music and it was educational. In the early years, GOPAC recruited candidates to run for state legislatures, so we Republicans would have a farm system where we could recruit Congressional candidates.

Q: The ideology that Newt enthusiastically forwarded, how did that sit with the old bulls of the Republican Party? Aside from his personality, and aside from the quixotic nature of his impossible dream, do you think that in any way he offended them with what he believed and thought?

Vander Jagt: It is difficult to generalize, but I believe that Newt's philosophy is basic, fundamental Republican philosophy, so the vast majority of the old Republican bulls in the House were not offended by Newt's ideology. There were those who took exception to some of the stands that he took, but by and large, what Newt stood for is what I think the Republican Party stands for. The old bulls had problems with his method of getting there, but I don't think they had problems with the goal that he wanted to achieve.

Q: Well, in that line, how I should measure the audacity of coming into Congress as a freshman, as he did, and then leaving straight for caucuses?

Vander Jagt: That's very audacious indeed. I remember in those early years, maybe not in 1980, but probably as recently as '83 or '84, we would have weekly leadership meetings, and we would all troop into the Whip's office, which was then Trent Lott, and have our weekly meeting with Newt. These weren't just lackeys that he was summoning for this weekly meeting. Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp [chuckles], don't jump through hoops for people.

We would come because Newt would call these meetings and after every luncheon we all would get our reading material. The old history professor would assign reading. None of us ever had time to do it, but it never stopped him. Enthusiastically and with effervescence he would always give us our homework assignment. Now that is audacious to summon the leadership to your luncheon once a week and to have them attend and to have them at least go through the motions of reading these homework assignments that he dished out.

Q: You say that Newt used to actually give you guys reading assignments?

Vander Jagt: Every time. If I were to bump into Dick Cheney today off in Iowa, he would say, 'Hey, Guy, has Newt given you your papers to read yet this week?'

Q: Why would you all accommodate this?

Vander Jagt: As I say, politics in at least this last half century has not had an individual like Newt Gingrich, in terms of the sweep of his intellect, the historical breadth, the determination, the dream, the ability to articulate. He also had the Conservative Opportunity Society, which represented a lot of votes. And he kept recruiting people --the new freshmen that I was electing to Congress, many of them would join in the Conservative Opportunity Society. And Newt was their leader and the leader gets elected by votes of the Republican Conference. So Newt, even as a very junior member, had a political impact on the House of Representatives and he had a group you didn't want to alienate.

Q: Could you measure for me the degree to which, practically speaking, Newt was an outsider or an insider in the political process here? How would you characterize that?

Vander Jagt: If you measure insider by the skill with which you can operate in the process, Newt was a consummate insider. He understood the process and he knew which buttons to push and how to make things happen. If you measure outsider by what you're bringing from out of the establishment or outside the Beltway into the process, then he was a consummate outsider. He was both. He was an outsider, fresh from the grassroots people, bringing into the establishment and bringing inside the Beltway an insider's consummate ability.

He was masterful when he first became Whip, serving under Bob Michel. He didn't just charge in and say, 'Now, Mr. Leader, you got to do this and that.' He would kind of direct the meetings and finally the group would reach the conclusion that Newt wanted us to reach and then he'd say, 'Well, I take it then, Mr. Leader, that there's no objections, this is what we'll do.' I mean he would take a long, long time to make sure all of us, including the leaders, thought it was our idea. He was very, very good that way and he, in addition to the qualities I mentioned, he had the tremendous capacity for growth. The backbencher Newt in the early days was not the same Newt that was Whip. He had a different role, a different mission.

Now, Speaker Newt is not going to be the same Newt that was Newt the Whip. You saw that in his Inaugural Address, when he was sworn in as speaker. It was very much a conciliatory reaching out sort of speech. Now once in awhile, the old effervescent Newt will pop up, probably to the chagrin of his advisors. You can't repress him forever. But he does have this tremendous capacity for growth and I think he will continue to grow and will go down in history as a great speaker.

Q: The person whose name and face and presence is the one that negotiated with this group of individuals who collectively became part of the Congress, that he now leads -- it helps to have that loyalty, doesn't it?

Vander Jagt: Yes. And Newt has the tremendous overwhelming loyalty of his troops, and especially of those 73 freshmen who came rolling in, having all signed the Contract With America and it was Newt who was travelling at 3 o'clock in the morning to get to a 6 o'clock breakfast. He was out there raising money for them and they were listening to his tapes. There was a tremendous loyalty and it goes back to what a skilled insider he was in a way. As you know, he replaced some of the committee chairmen. Now again, he could dictatorially, brutally go in and say to this one who was in line, 'You're out. Somebody else is in.' They would go to some of the old bulls that are some of my dearest friends, and he would call them in and they would make their case that, 'Hey, Mr. Speaker, I've been waiting here 16 years for my turn and I've been loyal and I voted right and I've done everything I've supposed to. You can't just skip over me.' And Newt would say, 'Well, maybe we're right. I tell you what we'll do. We'll take it to the Conference. And we'll let the Republican's Conference vote on it.' And the old bull would know that there were 73 freshman Republicans ready to vote however Newt told them to vote and they would say, 'Well, let's not do that, Mr. Speaker. Let's see what we can work out.' He is a consummate leader.

Q: It reminds me sort of the way that you were talking about what you felt with the leadership when he first arrived.

Vander Jagt: No. In his triumphal entry into the Speakership, he went out of his way to praise Bob Michel and to tell how much he had learned from Bob Michel. It was always my feeling while he was there, that Newt as Whip made Bob Michel a better leader than he was and certainly Bob Michel as leader made Newt a better Whip. They were a tremendous team. Leadership is more than just imposing your will or your agenda, which most people associate with Newt. Perhaps Newt's greatest strength is his ability to listen. He has a sign on a wall in his office that read 'Listen. Learn. Help. And Lead.' Lead comes last. And that isn't just a slogan to Newt. Newt really, truly listens and therefore has a capacity to grow.

Q: The last Congress when he was Whip and was basically running the show for the Republicans, when he was organizing the opposition to the Clinton Crime Bill, and yet there was still sort of a deference there. Can you tell me about that?

Vander Jagt: That's a very astute observation. Before the last election, Bob Michel announced that he was not going to run again. And from that moment on, Newt became the de facto leader. And I don't believe the triumph in November of 1994 would have been possible if Newt for two years hadn't really been the leader, because it galvanized and made the Contract With America real and the issues real. And so I think it was a tremendously gracious and generous gesture for Bob Michel to allow Newt to become the de facto leader. But it was also a great and generous thing from Newt to never then impose on Bob Michel the surrendering of any of the trappings of leadership. They were two big giants in how they handled that transition, both of them giving up a great deal.

Q: I have the impression that you believe that Newt is exactly where he should be at this particular time. Do you think that he means to be, or wants to be President of the United States?

Vander Jagt: I'm all alone in this and I know nobody watching this would agree with me. My closest friends, my wife doesn't agree with me. But I believe Newt doesn't care if he's speaker or not. Newt cares about renewing American civilization. He cares about saving America. Changing the direction that we're traveling. And if there was somebody as speaker who could do it better, Newt would just as soon have that person. What he cares about is that his agenda is going forward.

Now, I think the reality is that there isn't anybody else who can do the job that Newt can as speaker, but in all of his years as head of the Conservative Opportunity Society, he never led the meetings. He always sat in the back and looked. When he was Whip, he never chaired a meeting of the Whip Organization, he'd just sit there and let somebody else chair it. He would see how the conversation was going, drink it in and then would step in and kind of bring about a consensus. Now, since I know nobody is going to believe me in considering the fact they think he really has this huge ego, I do believe that Newt recognizes that where America needs him right now is as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and I therefore believe he will stay there.

Another reason I believe he'll do that is, though I think he is so humble, that he wouldn't necessarily have to sit in the speaker's chair. I believe his ego is big enough that as the speaker he can shape the agenda of a Republican President, whoever that Republican President is. Now, I also have the theory that, in spite of everything I've said, Newt might be our Presidential nominee, because who presides over the Republican Convention? And if it's an open convention, the presiding officer is the Speaker of the House. And who as Presiding Officer will give the Opening Night 45 minute speech, a speech that I predict will absolutely turn the convention into bedlam because Newt stands head and shoulders above anybody else with his ability to communicate with an audience. And it is possible that a stampede could occur without Newt ever having campaigned for the Presidency.

Q: You really think he can hold an audience as well as Tom Foley did or--?

Vander Jagt: [Chuckles] The only Republican who can compete with him in terms of turning an audience into absolute standing on their chairs, is Colin Powell. Powell also has the ability to move an audience.

Q: [Reagan?]

Vander Jagt: [Reagan?] I've stood on the steps of the Capitol with every candidate for the House and the Senate and we took a pledge, and we said, 'If you give us a chance to govern for the first time in 24 years, we will (1) strengthen defense, (2) cut taxes, reduce about five things.' Well, Newt did that. And he couldn't get the Reagan campaign to go along. He couldn't get the Senate campaign to go along, but he got it going so well in the House that pretty soon the Reagan campaign said, 'Can we join in with you?' which Newt had predicted when we got the first turndown from the Reagan campaign. He said, 'They'll be with us.' But that was Newt back in '80. And that was the baby Contract With America.

Q: One of the things he agreed to do when he first came to Congress was to go on the Administration Committee which is a sort of an unsexy place to be, but useful in some ways. Would you tell me about that?

Vander Jagt: The Administration Committee is thought of by most Congressmen as a dog, you know that it's a bone you throw at somebody. It's a throw-away because it is not thought of as a legislative committee. However, the House Administration Committee doles out the perks and privileges of members, things like the parking spots, which become enormously important in some cases. In fact, Wayne Hayes, who was one of the most powerful members ever to serve in the House, achieved that power largely as Chairman of the House Administration Committee, and he used that power brutally and arrogantly in order to bend the institution to his will. I suspect that way back then Newt was smart enough to realize that the House Administration Committee, which doles out things that members really care about, was not a throw-away committee. But it was very important indeed.

Q: Help me understand this GOPAC. It's not just 'Here's GOPAC. Here's another way to shovel dough down the throats of these campaigns.' Rather it was another way of sort of providing political assets that had nothing directly to do with money but with --what? How could you guys help then and now to get a guy elected to Congressman?

Vander Jagt: Most of the media across America absolutely misses the point regarding GOPAC. They think it was a device to funnel money into campaigns. We developed ways of doing that in other ways. GOPAC was not the instrument.

So they all missed the story on GOPAC. GOPAC was originally established to recruit Republican candidates to run for state legislatures, some city councils, in order to create a farm system of Congressional candidates. Newt took it beyond that. And it was primarily an educational and instructional organization where Newt would send out the tapes. He is an eloquent speaker and usually his speeches are the result of a tremendous number of focus groups and getting just the right language. So in 1994 you had hundreds of Republican candidates driving from campaign appearance A to campaign appearance B listening to Newt on those tapes and so the net result was that Republicans were running a unified whole. They were all singing notes from the same set of music.

Q: And one result of that is a certain discipline and a certain uniformity of purpose and I guess in some ways that can be traced back to what you just told us--

Vander Jagt: Absolutely. They were being educated by the speaker on the party line, even before the speaker was the speaker. So they came, filled with his instruction. They also caught the vision that I had in 1978 of Newt, this Don Quixote, who believed in an impossible dream. He somehow communicated that to them through GOPAC. Just last night I was with a group of Congressmen talking about how things are going and it never ceases to amaze me that they want to win this next election. But they don't really care. Their purpose is not to get reelected. They came here to change the direction of America. And if it means that they lose, fine. A lot of them just believe that deeply. A lot of them also don't even like it here. They don't like Washington. They'd rather be back home. It's a totally new breed. Until this time, most Congressmen were dedicated night and day to their own reelection. [But] it isn't that important to the heart and soul of that Republican freshman class and many others who share that Newt Gingrich dream of changing America's direction.

When the Congressmen are doing that, by the way, it's closed, there's no staff. This is a little group like Chowder and Marching and SOS and it's just Congressmen. And you go and you really let your hair down. So they're not trying to impress anybody --'This may cost me my seat. I don't care. I want to get this done.' I think you always have to take politicians with a grain of salt, when they say things publicly, like, 'I'm not running again because I want to spend more time with my family.' And they would say things like that out on the stump. But you know America's future's more important than my fate. But here they're really saying it from the heart and a lot of them are different.

Q: And you get the feeling that with many of them, that is quite literally the case and were it not the case, much of what has happened wouldn't be possible. Some of these folks have come from a sense of 'I'm here to cast this vote and go home.'

Vander Jagt: That's exactly right.

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