Newt Gingrich Transcript

Taped November 21, 2014

Table of Contents

I: The Gingrich Revolution 0:15 – 26:08
II: Beginnings in Politics 26:08 – 42:09
III: Gingrich Comes to Washington 42:09 – 51:59
IV: Educating Washington 51:59 – 1:16:14
V: Gingrich on the Presidents 1:16:14 – 1:46:49

I: The Gingrich Revolution (0:15 – 26:08)

KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to be joined today by former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

GINGRICH: Good to be with you.

KRISTOL: Thanks for being here. Let’s get right into one of the high-water marks of my time in Washington and my time following politics, which was the Republican victory in the House, both houses of Congress in 1994, something that was very unexpected at the time. People have sort of forgotten that. A real inflection point I think in American politics. For 40 years, Republicans had never controlled the House and what for 18 of the subsequent 22?

GINGRICH: 18 of the last 22 years.

KRISTOL: And until 2016, Republicans will have. So it’s a real moment, you know and young people kind of assume when Republicans control the House, that’s kind of the way things work. But it sure didn’t look that way to those of us who grew up when I grew up or when you grew up.

GINGRICH: Yeah I think even the night before the election, most reporters and most analysts thought, well, they gained 20, 30 seats.

Karen Tumulty who’s now at the Washington Post covered me for Time. I was her first big assignment, and she spent a week with me on the road. And at the end of it, the editor said, “We’re pulling you off because you’ve gone native, you actually think they can win.” She told me that day, she said, you know, she said, “When you’re out there and you saw it, you had this feeling this was going to be different but nobody inside the establishment had any clue.”

KRISTOL: And so when did you think it was going to happen, and let’s talk about the two years before and how you made it happen.

GINGRICH: Well, on September 17, Joe Gaylord who was designing it said – we were in a planning session on an airplane with Dan Meyer, who was my Chief of Staff, and with Dick Armey’s Chief of Staff, Kerry Knott – and I said, “Okay, are we planning Minority Leader or are we planning Speaker?” And Gaylord said, “Well, you better be planning Speaker because you’re gonna be.” And Dan Meyer, we were literally just taking off from National on a private plane to go on a circuit of fundraising. And Meyer said, “Wait a second, you know before we go a step further, tell us what this means.” So Gaylord started in Maine, went through 435 districts by memory and was off by one seat.

And it was the decisive moment and probably one of the mistakes of my Speakership was not stopping at that moment. It was probably because of the sense of jinxing things. I mean, we had not won in 40 years. You didn’t want to lift your eye up off the ball and assume you’re gonna win and be Thomas Dewey. And so we didn’t bring in the level of talent we probably needed to. We were jumping from Minority Whip to not just Speaker but leader of a national movement winning a decisive election. And that was too big a jump for the level of experience we had. And it’s one of the things I look back that clearly was a mistake.

KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s interesting. One forgets. I kind of think of you as, of course, you were the Leader before you became Speaker but you were Whip, you were number two.

GINGRICH: Yeah, Michel was still – but he was very generous.

KRISTOL: So Bob Michel had been leader for 10 years.

GINGRICH: Michel became leader in the fall of 1980 after the election, so he took over in ’81.

KRISTOL: So longtime leader. And then you got into the leadership in –

GINGRICH: Well, yeah, what happened was two-fold. One was that I had never planned to be leader. I had always assumed I’d be the chief planner. And I worked with Lott and with Cheney and with Kemp. And Lott went to run for the U.S. Senate. Kemp went to run for president and literally and Cheney was clearly the heir apparent, was going to become leader.

KRISTOL: So Michel is number one and Cheney is number two.

GINGRICH: Right, and Cheney was the Whip. And on a Friday afternoon, Rich Wolf of USA Today called me. I was in my Griffin, Georgia office. And he said, “What do you think about Cheney becoming Secretary of Defense?” And I said, “Well that’s crazy, I mean he’s going to be the next leader, why would you leave to become Secretary of Defense?” He said well – this was like 3:15 – he said, “Well, the press conference is at 4.”

And literally as I was hanging up the phone, I realized that I had to run for Whip because none of our guys – we had a whole group of great guys coming up – none of them were quite ready to run for Whip, none of them would have run for Whip. And as a result, the establishment would have put somebody in. And as long as it was Lott, Cheney, or Kemp, they had the drive, the energy, the toughness. I didn’t mind being their planner. But I didn’t want to get somebody who had no interest in becoming the majority to be the next leader.

KRISTOL: So this – I think people don’t know exactly how these internal competitions for leadership work. So it’s the spring of ’89 and so Dick Cheney is nominated by the President, he gets confirmed as Secretary of Defense, he, of course, leaves the House, and you just say, “I want to run?”

GINGRICH: Well, there’s a leadership race.

KRISTOL: Like an actual high school class election.

GINGRICH: It’s exactly like a class election. It’s a definable universe. It’s about 180 members, 178 members. And it was interesting because I literally was able – I had a very good team that time. Mary Brown was our administrative assistant. And I called her about quarter of four on a Friday, I said, “We need to reach every member we can reach this weekend.”

KRISTOL: Wow, as a Republican member of the House

GINGRICH: She called all the staff in and said, “Drop everything else you’re doing.” Broke it up alphabetically and said, “Find out where they’ll be.”

KRISTOL: Now at this point, you are, as I remember, being in Washington and knowing you pretty well at the time, I mean, you’re very prominent, you’re the leader of the kind of conservative resurgence in the House but you’re not actually a member of leadership, right? So –

GINGRICH: No. I had never won anything. And so in effect, Novak wrote at one point this was the biggest jump, to go from back bench to the second-ranking leader in modern times. But it was very –

KRISTOL: So you decided right away to run.

GINGRICH: I literally decided as I was hanging the phone up. And so by Monday morning – I was very lucky I had people like Joe Barton who – and Tom Bliley – who were very loyal and who said, “I’ll go get more votes”. I think Barton personally called 35 people that weekend.

And by Monday morning at 8 o’clock, we had 55 votes committed. Nobody else was running yet, and the establishment made a mistake. Michel had asked, Bob had asked Madigan who was the ranking member on Energy and Commerce, he asked him to step down and become ranking on Agriculture to block Jim Jeffords who was from Vermont and who was very liberal for a Republican. Well, so Michel felt he owed Madigan a shot, and Madigan called in an IOU.

If they had picked Henry Hyde, they’d have beaten me. But by not picking Hyde, you now have an Illinois Minority Leader picking an Illinois Republican who doesn’t have any particularly good ties on the right. And it set up a moment when the pro-Hyde people could say, “Well if you’re not, if Hyde is not allowed to run, I’m for Newt.” But they would have been for Hyde. And if you’d combined the Hyde conservatives with the establishment, they would have beaten me probably, oh, 100 to 75 or something like that.

KRISTOL: And so I can’t remember. How fast does the actual vote come?

GINGRICH: It’s about two or three weeks.

KRISTOL: Yeah, pretty fast.

GINGRICH: And it was a very brutal campaign. At one point, Steve Gunderson had the courage, he took 17 members over to see Michel and say, “Look, you’re going to literally split the party if you and the President keep doing this.”

KRISTOL: They were against you?

GINGRICH: They were deeply opposed.

KRISTOL: Publicly? I can’t remember, was Michel?

GINGRICH: Well, it wasn’t – I mean, it was publicly inside the House. It wasn’t – it’s not how White Houses operate in these kind of things. And Michel was semi-neutral except every person – for example, I had a very good friend who would have been for me but Michel had put him on Intelligence. Michel said, “Look, you owe me.” This guy said, “What can I do?” And it was that level of rough and tumble.

And I was told a great story. Literally, it ended up being a one-vote margin. You know, if one had split, it would have been tied. The day, the afternoon before, Bill Broomfield was a Michel loyalist, very traditional Republican, senior member ranking on Foreign Affairs. Got in a public fight with the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee who humiliated him in public in a meeting, just ran over him. And after the committee rose, Broomfield turned to his staff director and said, “I’m for Newt.” And the guy said, “You’re with Michel,” he said now, he said, “Newt is the only guy who will stand up to these people.” And so it was that kind of stuff where we were picking up sort of votes of desperation.

KRISTOL: Yeah, one forgets just how much the Democrats controlled the House and how strongly, let’s say, they controlled the House. I mean –

GINGRICH: When we won, Jim Nussle was put in charge of the transition. Nussle went around with the architect finding offices. Because if you look at the Capitol, it’s a much bigger building because it’s so symmetrically designed and the windows are so perfectly matching the size of the building. It’s a huge building. I think 2,500 people work in it. Well, we –

KRISTOL: And a lot of hidden –

GINGRICH: We kept finding more and more spaces we didn’t know existed

KRISTOL: Is that right?

GINGRICH:  Because nobody had been – we hadn’t had a Republican in power in 40 years.  And the Democrats, if you were a senior Democrat, you got a little cubby hole in the basement, didn’t have to go back to your office, could hang out. You know. And so Nussle went around literally saying, “Now what was this one for?” We discovered all sorts of junk that nobody knew existed.

KRISTOL: So you won in the spring of ’89 I guess it was –

GINGRICH: The spring of ’89 I became Whip.

KRISTOL: You became Whip. And you get along okay with Bob Michel?

GINGRICH: It’s better than that. I mean, Michel, I tried once or twice, I got out of bounds, and he jumped on me, and he was right. I mean, I am the Whip to the Leader, I’m not the co-leader.

And we worked together reasonably well. And I think he was a little bit uncomfortable but he was a professional and you know this was the conference’s choice. And he protected me some against the White House and sort of communicated, “Look, you’ve got to deal with Gingrich.”

And the White House staff, the legislative staff actually worked in my office in the Capitol, so, which is something I wanted them to do so I could keep an eye on them and they could keep an eye on me. It made for an integrated team. And then frankly we got to the budget negotiations of ’90 and it all blew up.

KRISTOL: Yeah, let’s talk about that because people, I think again in the blur of 25 years ago and you have people today who weren’t around.

Well, you were a leader and then you became – then we won in ’94 and you became Speaker – but there was this huge intervening moment in ’90 when I think you went from being an important figure in the conservative movement and in Washington and the House to very important, I mean really, don’t you think a level of national fame and leadership, it was a leap?

And so talk about the whole budget deal. So President Bush convenes the leadership of both parties to discuss the budget?

GINGRICH: Well, what happened is, look, I mean to be fair to them and I’ve tried to describe this one to Bob Woodward when he was trying to write on this stuff. I said, “Look, if you were Dick Darman, who was the Director of the Budget, and you were John Sununu – Governor Sununu was the Chief of Staff of the President – and you came to me and you said, ‘Will you come in the budget negotiations?’ And I say to you, ‘I’ll never vote for a tax increase.’”

KRISTOL: President Bush having pledged – read my lips – no new taxes.

GINGRICH: And you say, “Well, of course, we really don’t want to get to a tax increase.” And I say “Well, I’m not going to vote for a tax increase.” Then in the Washington tradition, if I walk in the room, I’ve just signaled that, of course, in the end I’ll vote for a tax increase.

And so in a sense, they had a legitimate gripe that by Washington standards, what I should have said to them is it’s obvious you guys are going to sell out and I won’t participate. That would have been honorable, okay. And they would have said, “Gingrich is going to fight us.” Instead, they kept saying to themselves, “In the end, he’s going to cave.”

And so the last weekend, they called and they briefed me and I said, “That’s crazy, I can’t be for that.” And it was a very eerie moment. I mean, we went around all the Republican leadership and the President sitting in – and remember troops are in the desert, the whole routine is going on here, Bush is relatively popular at this point. And –

KRISTOL: What is this like September of 1990 or August?

GINGRICH: No. This would have been in, I think – the fight is in September, you’re right.

KRISTOL: Yeah I think so, because the troops already are there and on the way.

GINGRICH: And it’s already gotten, just gotten steadily worse, okay. And the truth is, in retrospect probably I should have left and said, “I’m gone, and this is crazy.” But they kept saying, “It’ll really be balanced by the time we’re done.” And I kept saying, “If it isn’t, I’ll vote no.” And so they thought we were dancing. And it was a pretty eerie moment to go around the room starting with the House and Senate leadership was there together. I was literally the newest person at the table.

KRISTOL: This is Democratic and Republican?

GINGRICH: No, no, just Republican.

KRISTOL: And this is at Andrews or at the White House?

GINGRICH: This is at the White House. Everything has been done, the deal has been cut.

KRISTOL: At Andrews Air Force Base.

GINGRICH: And we’re now sitting there with the President and he makes his pitch, and the Secretary of Treasury makes his pitch. And then they start with, I guess, Senator Dole who was the leader at that point. And they go around from the most senior, Bob Michel, and so I’m the last guy. And when they get to me, I just say, “You know I can’t do it, this breaks your word, it is a huge mistake and I won’t do it.”

And so CNN, which was the only news channel at that time, has this split screen and so does CSPAN, and you have all the Republican leaders and the President walking into the Rose Garden and me walking out of the front door.

KRISTOL: Wow.

GINGRICH: And up on the Hill where they’d be watching all this, Bob Walker who was my deputy at the time, had assembled our Whip operation. And so when I walked in, they all knew exactly where we were. And I said, “Look, this is if you want to side with the President, you can, it’s legitimate.” And I think nobody in the Whip organization sided with the President. And we beat him in the Republican conference by something like 109 to 70.

KRISTOL: I remember that so vividly because I was Dan Quayle’s Chief of Staff, and they were so confident in the White House. I was, of course, against the deal, I mean, not that anyone cared what I thought. Dan Quayle was very publicly loyal but was very skeptical and worried about the deal.

GINGRICH: Well, my favorite moment was Cheney called me. Kemp wouldn’t call me although he was Secretary, he just wouldn’t, he wouldn’t argue for the tax increase. So Cheney called me. I said, “Dick, I’m so glad you called. I was just re-reading your speech against the Reagan tax increase of ’82.”

KRISTOL: That’s funny.

GINGRICH: And he said, “Good speech wasn’t it? Talk to you later.” And that was it. That was the total, the total amount of lobbying that went on at that point because just we’re old friends, it’s just obvious.

KRISTOL: But they thought they were going to win and they just didn’t appreciate, I think, what  –

GINGRICH: No and it created a permanent break with both the President and with George W. I mean, there’s a sense of Gingrich is a guy who when it really mattered – because their theory was if I had taken a dive, it would have been over in two days and we go on to the next thing. And by fighting, it became a two-week national story, and it heightened the awareness that he had broken his word.

KRISTOL: Right. And it somehow kept alive I think the Reagan/Bush split from ’76 and ’80 sort of then got – which people might have thought had been put –

GINGRICH: Which was frankly a Bush split in ’89 when they fired all the Reaganites. I mean –

KRISTOL: Right but it kept that alive and visible, which then led to the subsequent insurgent versus establishment kind of –

GINGRICH: Well it probably was – yeah, it’s probably a part of why Buchanan could run in ’92.

KRISTOL: Very much so, I think that’s right, that’s right. Not that you supported him.

GINGRICH: No. In fact, I remember at one point I was in Florida on Spanish radio for President Bush in the primary with Jeb Bush as my interpreter.

KRISTOL: Oh, that’s good. That’s good. So you led – and so how much, what does it mean when the White House sort of puts pressure on you or on members? Many people don’t really understand from the outside how that works, so –

GINGRICH: Well, it’s everything from they’re not going to sign any more fundraising letters for the NRCC, which ultimately collapsed. They won’t come and campaign for you. You ain’t going to ride in Air Force One.

To really serious things. I mean they’re cutting out a project or they’re – your two friends aren’t getting the appointments you thought they were getting. There’s a fair amount of muscle in any White House. And it depends partly on how ruthless they are and how willing they are to play hardball.

I mean, I think when you have – I was always fortunate that Michel really saw himself as the leader of the conference, not the dictator. I think a Nancy Pelosi would have been a totally different kind of person to deal with and would have been infinitely more ruthless. And Michel just wasn’t. I mean, Michel is a very effective minority leader. And if you look at the Reagan victories, they all involved getting one third of the Democratic Party to vote with us and Michel did that. I mean, he was very good at that. So Barone once wrote that Michel was probably the most important minority leader in the 20th century because he got so much done in the minority. But part of the way he did that was that he was a genuinely nice man. And so he wasn’t going to turn and say, “I’ll destroy you.”

In fact, after the fight was over, we had about two weeks of the White House being jerky. And then Michel called Sununu and Darman down, and we had a meeting in Michel’s office, and he said, “You know you can’t do this.” He said, “You’re going to split the party and lead to a civil war, and you guys got to get over it and just got to work with Newt because he is the Whip, and that’s a fact.”

KRISTOL: And I suppose if you hadn’t the majority of Republican support in the conference on that key vote when the first budget deal went down, I wonder if there would have been an attempt to remove you, or that the fact that you took a solid majority of the members meant what are they going to do?

GINGRICH: Well, the fact was that it was a psychological transfer of power from Michel to me. And Michel couldn’t take me head-on. On the other hand, I didn’t want to take him head-on. I mean it wasn’t – you know by ’93, we had been around long enough, we knew each other well enough. He was – and I think this has not really been reported enough – he was extraordinary. Starting about July of ’93 in basically saying, “Look, you’re the next leader.”

KRISTOL: So let’s walk back. So he had announced at that point he was going to not –

GINGRICH: No. Just the two of us talked.

KRISTOL: Quietly.

GINGRICH: We talked quietly.

KRISTOL: So you go through ’91, ’92. Bush loses the presidency in ’92. Suddenly, the dynamic changes of 12 years of a Republican President. And now you guys are the leader of the Republican Party in the House and the Senate.

GINGRICH: And then the question is how can you be effective against Clinton and I’m getting – I mean, and our system is getting bigger and bigger.

I mean, part of the reason that we were able to do all this is that starting in ’78, we got more of each entering freshmen class than the old order did. And so there was just a gradual transfer of energy and drive and talent that made a huge difference. And Michel was very, I thought very generous and very statesmanlike in saying about July of ’93, you have a real shot in ’94 and it wasn’t this formal because Michel didn’t talk formally. But it was the essential understanding was you run the politics of the place and I’ll back you up, I’ll run the legislative side and you’ll back me up. And so we had a division of authority, if you will, that was really good.

And an example was I really insisted against –  started against the Bush White House, I said in ’92 we have to have a health task force, we’ve got to get ahead of the issue on health care. And Michel agreed despite real opposition from the White House that did not want this. But he then said, “Hastert is going to run it,” he said, “You’re not going to run it, you’re already the Whip, I want somebody else running it.” And Hastert was his protégé. And that’s a step towards Hastert ultimately becoming Speaker.

KRISTOL: I hadn’t thought of that. Both from Illinois –

GINGRICH: But frankly that really mattered because when HillaryCare came along, we’d had two and a half years of the team working on health care and we were prepared to debate her on the facts and we would not have been had we not had – had Michel not agreed to that.

KRISTOL: So I can’t remember. So when did Michel announce he wasn’t going to run for reelection?

GINGRICH: Sometime in July, August of ’93, he indicated he would not run in ’94. And there was a very brief flurry of – Jerry Solomon who’s a friend of mine from upstate New York announced for about 24 hours. But –

KRISTOL: That he would run for Leader for –

GINGRICH: But the way legislative bodies work, the first ground rule to remember is, let’s say you have 200 members and 101 is the majority. The minute you get 101, you get 160 because people just get it.

And if you are the Whip, you have an enormous advantage because you’re the one person who has an organization that counts every day. So you have every single member of the conference already in the system. And if you’re also the most active political figure, that means you’re going to have the maximum impact with freshmen. And so the combination of the two makes it a real uphill battle to beat somebody who’s the number-two person.

KRISTOL: And I want to come back to ’78 and all the groundwork you laid from when you first came to Washington and even before that. But in ’93/’94, I was a little involved in – we worked pretty closely together on some of those things, fighting HillaryCare.

But what do you think were the key moments when it was Clinton who came in – after all, one forgets, with great hopes, promise, praise – you could have made a lot of money betting in January of ’93 that after two years of the Clinton presidency, the main thing that’s going to happen is Republicans are going to win both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. That was not the mood. The mood was Republicans exhausted, Bush collapses to 38 percent, fights within the party, Buchanan. When did you really realize that it could become a huge –

GINGRICH: Well, you know it’s very interesting because both Clinton and Obama suffered from the same problem. Both won talking about being in the center, bringing us together. In Clinton’s case, I think the key deciding point was around Thanksgiving when he had Greenspan and Foley and Gephardt and Mitchell down to Arkansas. And they basically said to him, “Look, all this stuff’s been pent up for 12 years, if you’ll stick with us, we’ll pass all this liberal program, we can get all of it through the Congress. We’ll be happy, you’ll be happy, the country will love you.” And he bought it.

And so he really moved from a centrist Democrat, you know, “We will change welfare as you know it, we’ve got to get to a balanced budget” to “Let me ram through everything the Left wants,” forgetting that huge chunks of the country are deeply opposed to this stuff.

KRISTOL: He had only gotten what 43 percent of the vote actually, and the Perot voters were not wild liberals.

GINGRICH: That’s right. And I think frankly the crime bill was the final blow because it guaranteed that all of the rural NRA voters would swing against the Democrats. And we wiped them out in much of rural America and they’ve never recovered in Congressional races.

Obama did the same thing. I listened to Obama’s first inaugural, which really built on his Grant Park speech on election night and on his speech in Manassas in Virginia on the Saturday before the election. And Callista and I were at the Capitol for the inaugural and I turned to her on the way out and I said, “If he’ll govern the way he just spoke, he’ll be Eisenhower. He’ll split the Republican Party, he’ll dominate the country.” And within six weeks, Pelosi and Reid had convinced him to go to the Left, write totally partisan bills, close out the Republicans. And he just threw away the chance to be sort of the great re-unifier.

But in his case because he’s very different than Clinton, Obama is a genuine ideologue. I mean, if he had to choose between a unified America that was center-right and a totally fractured America in which the Left had executive power, there’s zero doubt which he wants. I think Clinton is much more complicated, and Clinton actually wanted to govern and if that meant he had to be a centrist, fine, he didn’t care.

KRISTOL: Well, and he adjusted. I mean, this is the huge difference it seems to me just obviously after ’94 – after 2010, President Obama didn’t go to the center. After ’14, it will be even less, it looks like. Whereas President Clinton, I mean, you never heard a word about HillaryCare and the radical overhaul of the taxpayer system.

GINGRICH: It took about six months.

KRISTOL: I guess it did but –

GINGRICH: It was in June of ’95 that Clinton finally turned and said to the White House staff, “If I do what you want me to, I’ll be a one-term president, I’ll be like Carter.” And that’s when he brought in Dick Morris, which Hillary insisted on. And Morris said, “Look, you’ve got to triangulate.”

There have got to be liberals over here, conservatives over here, and you’re here, and that’s how you end up with school uniforms in the State of the Union which is a very deliberate rifle shot to Catholics, and you’ll end up with “The era of big government is over” and a whole range of –

There’s a great scene which is captured on CNN, I know has a good – we’ve used it and I think it was captured by CSPAN by the pool feed. But in, I think it’s in ’96. I don’t think it’s ’95, it’s ’96. Clinton wanders in. And you always hand the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate who’s there as the Vice President, who’s there as the co-host, you always hand them a copy of the speech. And so he walks in and he hands me this little, this document which is clearly not the speech. And I open it and it’s a letter, and it says from William Jefferson Clinton to Speaker Newt Gingrich. “You are right, I resign. William Jefferson Clinton.”

KRISTOL: Is that right?

GINGRICH: And I look at it, and I’m showing it to Gore.

KRISTOL: This is as you’re sitting up there in the State of the Union.

GINGRICH: Yeah, you can actually see it on the TV. And I’m looking at it, I’m showing it to Gore, and we’re both laughing and Clinton says, “I gave you the wrong document.”

KRISTOL: That’s fantastic.

GINGRICH: He takes it back.

Now there is a sort of childish frat boy humor that is really helpful. Arthur Link wrote about Woodrow Wilson that he never understood “the sinews of good fellowship which bind men unbound by any other tie.” And a friend of mine wrote that down for me when I was in graduate school and said, “If you want to be successful in politics, think about this all the time.”

And I think Clinton understood it. That if you and he could laugh, you were halfway to a deal. And I don’t think Obama has a clue about the human side of the business.

[Log in to read more.]

Sign Up to receive free access to subscriber-only content, including additional footage, podcasts, transcripts & more.

Not a Member? Register Now!

Already a Conversations member? Login