Five myths about Newt Gingrich

Nov 23, 2011

Just a few months after his campaign seemed to implode amid staff resignations, Newt Gingrich sits atop the GOP presidential polls. Yet 13 years have passed since Gingrich stepped down as House speaker ? plenty of time for older voters to forget him, and for younger voters to not know him at all.

Chat with John J. Pitney Jr. as he separates Gingrich fact from fiction. Ask questions and share your opinions now.

Read: Five myths about Newt Gingrich

Happy to talk about Newt.  The one thing that one can always say with confidence about the former speaker is:  It's complicated.

Was Gingrich a serious teacher, or was he too busy trying to be The Coolest Professor on Campus?

By all accounts, he was a popular professor.  But because he never published, he would not have gotten tenure.  Colleges and universities require publication because it's a form of professional development.  Faculty members who fail to do serious work will eventually go stale as teachers as well.

When Gingrich was Speaker of the House the use of earmarks grew dramatically. Will this hurt his credibility with Tea Party activists?

Even before he became speaker, he was not averse to bringing home the bacon.  Here is what George Will wrote in his 1992 book on term limits:

[Gingrich] said: "if you had the choice between the No. 2 ranking Republican in the House or you can have a freshman who doesn't have any idea who the Cabinet members are, has never met any of them and has never worked with the President, which one do you think can do more for Cobb County?"

With an almost -- only almost -- admirable forthrightness, he was asking: Which one of us is more of a well-wired, pork-producing, inside-the-Beltway operator?

Expect his opponents to cite that passage and many more like it.

Why does Gingrich continue to refer to himself as a historian when he's been in politics since 1974? Also, do you think Gingrich will run in this election on a "family values" ticket when his record of marital infidelity is well documented?

By citing his status as a historian, he tries to give authority to what he says.  But by doing so, he makes his academic record -- or more exactly, his  lack of published scholarship -- a legitimate object of scrutiny and criticism.

Newt is unpredicable and at times unlikable but he does seem well informed on the issues and competent to speak intellignetly about them. The debates and the obvious flaws of his amateur opponents have helped lend to Newt's reputation as a scholarly, professorial type of candidate. In you analysis of the myths, you claim Newt is not any of these things because of his lack of a rigourous academic record. While this is certainly true, he is, after all, a politician and not a professor. Should he be judged by the same criteria as if he was in fact a professor? Seems to be a harsh standard.

Gingrich constantly refers to his background as a professor, just as Cain and Romney cite their backgrounds in business.  So just as it is legitimate to look at the Cain and Romney business records, it is equally appropriate to consider the Gingrich academic record.

Newt, known as a proficient orator, has promised to challenge Obama to extended Lincon-Douglas style debates. If he was elected as the Republican nominee, do you think such a debate is an actual possibility? Does Newt have the capacity to challenge Obama'a speaking prowess better than other candidates, in your opinion?

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, one candidate spoke for a full hour.  The second candidate then spoke for an hour and a half.  Then the first candidate had a half-hour rebuttal.  (For excerpts, see this.) Gingrich can certain speak for extended periods of time.  But here's the problem:  the longer he talks, the more likely it is that he will say something that could hurt him.  In his book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, he is surprisingly candid about some of his gaffes.

Professor Pitney, you once wrote for Reason magazine that Gingrich was Whitmanesque. Do you stand by that assessment?

Thanks for remembering!  I would not compare him to Walt Whitman on a personal level, but "Song of Myself" (a Gingrichian title if ever there was one!) contains a number of passages that seem to apply.  Here is one:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In Newt's first race for Congress, which he lost, he was the liberal environmentalist candidate. Is that ancient history or will his early positions be dug up if he becomes the serious GOP candidate?

A passage from All the King's Men comes to mind:

For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smeared lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound ... And all times are one time, and those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us.

That is what all of us historical researchers believe.

And we love truth.

Gingrich portrays himself as a Renaissance Man - politican, author, pundit. What are your thoughts on Gingrich's accomplishments in these areas?

As I said at the beginning, it's complicated.  On the one hand, he's an extremely bright man who has read widely and can talk about many subjects.  On the other hand, there is a scattershot, undisciplined quality to his work.  Political danger comes when he lets his speaking get too far ahead of his thinking.

Has Newt yet apologized for suggesting poor kids would be best served by having them work as janitors in their own schools?

This issue is a good example of how Gingrich can start with the germ of a sensible idea and then give it a spin that makes it sound bizarre.  The sensible idea is that there ought to be greater part-time job opportunities for people in their late teens.   But by suggesting that even younger people could do the work -- and replace adult janitors -- he took it a huge step too far.

Assuming that you will answer questions that do not praise your fellow Republican, why should the citizens of The United States of America trust the word of a man who, throughout his life, breaks his sacred vows of marriage as he routinely commits adultery and then lies about it? This may be trivial behavior to you, but the majority of people find such behavior to be indicative of a man without morals. Care to defend him?

Gingrich has acknowledged personal transgressions, but there is little doubt that they will hurt him politically. 

In This Chat
John Pitney
John J. Pitney, Jr., is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. He received his B.A. in political science from Union College and his Ph.D. in political science from Yale, where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow. He has worked as an aide in the New York State Senate,a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association, senior domestic policy analyst for the House Republican Research Committee, and deputy director of research at the Republican National Committee. He has written articles for many publications, including National Review Online, The Weekly Standard and The Los Angeles Times. With Joseph M. Bessette, he is coauthor of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.
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