Friday, January 20, 2012

My Impressions of Newt Gingrich: From My Conservative Days to Now

A friend of mine (who is a liberal) asked what is the appeal of Newt Gingrich, considering that so many people know about the morally deplorable things that he has done in his life. Granted, after reading about what Newt’s ex-wife, Marianne, said about him in her interview with ABC last night, I doubt that I would want for Newt to be my best friend. But I would like to share here how I have found Newt to be an appealing figure, both when I was a conservative, and afterwards.

I first heard of Newt when George H.W. Bush was President. Bush was trying to hammer out a budget deal with the Democratic Congress, a deal that would include tax increases. And Newt as the minority whip in the House was boldly standing up against Bush and the Democrats. Although I had not yet seen Newt speak (I knew about Newt from Insight magazine), I admired him as a principled conservative, in a time when the Republican President appeared to be abandoning Republican values.

In 1994, when the Republicans took control of the Congress, I finally got to watch Newt on TV. I was watching him on Meet the Press, and there were many things that I was admiring about him at that time: his boldness, his mouthiness, his conservatism, his ability to answer questions in an articulate manner. I felt that the liberals (i.e., the media, the Clintons) were a powerful elite, which believed that it was beyond criticism, and so I enjoyed watching Newt abrasively challenge them. When the interviewer on Meet the Press told Newt that Hillary Clinton disapproved of Newt’s idea to put disadvantaged children in orphanages, Newt replied that Hillary was an elitist who did not realize that babies were being thrown into dumpsters. When the interviewer asked Newt about school prayer, Newt referred to a child who got in trouble at school for saying grace. Newt criticized Clinton’s Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, for her extreme views—-and, surprisingly, Elders left the office not long thereafter.

Then there was the whole Connie Chung controversy, where Newt’s Mom told Connie that Newt called Hillary a “bitch”. Connie promised Newt’s Mom that this would be their little secret, then she featured it on television. When Bryant Gumbel was interviewing Newt and was about to ask him about this, Newt stopped Bryant right there. Newt said that his Mom made Connie Chung brownies (perhaps implying that his Mom was naive when dealing with the media), and that this entire issue was being blown out of proportion. I loved Newt then, especially as I saw Bryant Gumbel’s arrogant, befuddled, “How dare you” expression on his face. And I loved the bumpersticker that said, “Newt’s Mom Was Right—-Connie’s One, Too”.

Over time, as Newt served as Speaker, my impression was that he was getting less confrontational, which disappointed me somewhat. I guess I was hoping that he’d be telling the Clintons and the media off throughout his tenure! But I found something that I admired about Newt even then: When he was found to be wrong (i.e., in terms of ethics), my recollection was that he usually came clean about it. Some of you may have different memories about that, but I’m just saying what I remember.

When I moved more to the Left, I admired Newt for other reasons. I thought that he was intelligent, and I also appreciated that he sought conservative solutions for problems that often disturbed liberals, such as the rising cost of higher education and health care, environmental problems, etc. I think that it’s a good thing when somebody points out why the status quo does not work, and what can be done instead. Something else that I have admired about Newt is that he is willing to debate anyone, anytime, and anywhere. Jon Huntsman was a minor player in the race for the Republican nomination for President, but Newt was willing to sit down and have a one-on-one debate (or, actually, it was a constructive conversation) with him.

And I liked it when Newt appeared before an African-American church in South Carolina and faced tough questions. Newt did not have to appear before that church, for many African-Americans do not vote Republican. But he did so, and that (in my mind) demonstrates character on his part. I remember an episode of The West Wing, in which a white cop shot an African-American kid. An African-American church was holding a memorial service, and Democratic candidate for President, Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits), attended and spoke there, whereas Republican candidate Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) did not even show up. I was a Republican at the time, and I was disappointed that Vinick did not show up to that. That’s why I was so impressed that, in the realm of real-life, Newt Gingrich spoke to an African-American church and listened to people’s concerns while he was there.

There are many things that turn me off about Newt: his opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque (the Cordoba Center), his mischaracterization of the history of Cordoba in opposing that Mosque, his hypocrisy, his belief that tax-cuts for the rich are a way to revive our economy, the way that he comes up with good ideas but does not follow through on them, etc. And then there are some things about him that I simultaneously like and dislike: his arrogance, for example. His pomposity can turn me off at times, but I doubt I would admire him as much if he did not have the chutzpah that he does! I may not vote for Newt Gingrich, but I can definitely see his appeal.

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