The Long March of Newt Gingrich
Vin Weber
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Q: C Span. C Span comes to Congress about the time Newt Gingrich arrives. You guys made very effective use of C Span.

Weber: Bob Walker, who was probably the third member of COS, was really the person who was most in tune with C Span and argued the strongest that it needed to be a fundamental part of our constituency.

It's important in a second way to understand that part of Gingrich's strategy, and all of our strategy, was to understand that while we created a faction within the Congress, we could multiply its strength beyond its numbers if we also did something outside of the Congress to create a faction, if you will, in the country.

There are a number of things we did then. One of them was to form the Conservative Opportunity Society group outside of the Congress. We met every Wednesday [at] noon at Paul Weyrich's offices at the Free Congress Foundation. It consisted mainly of conservative activists, sort of a cross-spectrum of issues from the Washington area to become the troops outside of the Congress supporting what we were doing inside of the Congress. Paul [Weyrich] is a really important figure in all of that. The 'inside/outside operation,' I believe, was his invention. It was the notion that if you wanted to succeed inside the Congress, if you're in the minority party, you needed an outside operation of activists and organizations to support you and lobby the Congress and write on your behalf.

C Span really fit into that in a very big way. It was a potential to expand the 'outside operation' in ways that nobody had thought about. We understood that however many people were in the chamber of Congress, there were always a lot of people watching C Span. I don't know what the current ratings are. But I remember one prominent Republican in the Congress who was pretty sympathetic to us. [He] would never engage in special orders, for instance, at the end of the day, when the formal business of Congress is over because he said there was nobody there watching. Bob Walker said to him, 'You're wrong, there's half a million people watching.' Because at that time, that was the best ratings we had showed, that at any given time you only have about half a million people.

I remember Newt Gingrich argued to Jack Kemp, 'If you could be guaranteed that you could have an audience of half a million people in a stadium listen to you, you'd never turn down a speaking engagement.' But because you can't actually see them in front of you, they're home in their offices and living rooms watching, there's a sense that you're not talking to anybody.

We found out, real quickly, that they were out there. Wherever Bob or I or Newt or Duncan Hunter went, we shortly found out that there were all sorts of C Span junkies, if you will, that watched us, that identified with COS, that paid attention to what we were saying, and that were ready to contact their Congress people. We found a lot of the senior members who were not part of COS, maybe some who were quite hostile to see us, would find themselves going home, speaking to a Republican audience and afterwards, a number of their own constituents and supporters would come up and say, 'Isn't it great what those guys on COS are doing. I hope you're helping out Newt and Vin and Bob.' So the reach of C Span was tremendously important in that way.

Q: That was a real leap of imagination to be able to, as you say, look at an empty chamber in the House, but realize you had a half a million people out there. Also, in understanding new technology.

Weber: And it's still developing. When we go interactive there'll be other opportunities there. What amazes me was how long it took the Democrats to figure that out. The Democrats really never quite understood what was going on there. Tip O'Neill, when he got so angry at Newt Gingrich for, in his view, defaming a member of Congress in front of an empty chamber. He really never understood that that was not his intention. He wasn't trying to play any games. It was just an ongoing set of communications that we were aiming at the American people. The response of the Democrats to try and diminish the quality of that forum by panning the chamber to show that nobody was sitting there, really missing the whole point and missing it for a very long time.

They had the same opportunities to communicate with a home audience that we did, but they instead found it threatening, which is sort of a symptom of the problem that, ultimately, ten or twelve years later, led to the Democrats losing their majority status.

They really were very uncomfortable genuinely communicating their agenda and their vision to the American people. We only wanted to communicate part of it. If you actually start going outside of the very controlled environment of the Congress, which they controlled, it was quite threatening to them.


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