Friday, June 24, 2011

Meet the candidates: Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich (Gage Skidmore)
Newt Gingrich is a transplanted Georgian who was born and grew up in Pennsylvania.  Born in 1943, his birth name was Newton Leroy McPherson.  His mother and father divorced after a marriage of only a few days.  Newt’s mother remarried to a career army officer, Robert Gingrich, in 1946.  Gingrich adopted Newt and the couple had three daughters.

The family moved frequently as the senior Gingrich received new assignments.  Newt graduated from high school in Columbus, Ga. in 1961.  He graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in history in 1965.  He earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in modern European history from Tulane, graduating in 1971.  After earning his doctorate, Gingrich returned to Georgia, where he taught at West Georgia College in Carrollton from 1970 to 1978. 

Gingrich’s political career began with campaigns for congress in Georgia’s sixth district in 1974 and 1976.  He narrowly lost those races to Democrat Jack Flynt, but won in 1978 when Flynt decided not to seek re-election.  Gingrich served in the House of Representatives until 1998.  He was elected Minority Whip in 1989 to succeed Dick Cheney, who resigned to become Secretary of Defense.  In 1994, in the wake of the Republican landslide, Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House when Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Il.) did not seek re-election to congress.

Gingrich was largely responsible for the Contract with America that led to the 1994 Republican landslide.  During his tenure as speaker, Gingrich oversaw the passage of welfare reform, tax cuts (including the largest capital gains tax cut in U.S. history), and pushed for a balanced budget under President Clinton.  The budget was balanced in 1999 for the first time since 1969.  Gingrich’s reform agenda is a major reason for the economic boom of the 1990s.

Gingrich was also involved in the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996.  In a situation similar to the one faced today, the Republicans refused to raise the debt limit when Democrats balked at budget cuts.  Ultimately, the shutdowns resulted in the deal to balance the budget, but Gingrich suffered politically from comments that made it seem that he shut down the government in response to a snub from President Clinton.  After Republicans lost the presidential election and eight house seats in 1996, Gingrich resigned from Congress. 

Since leaving Congress, he has served on the Defense Policy Board for President George W. Bush and the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century.  He also teaches the Joint Warfighting Course to Major Generals at the Air University and is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Professor at the National Defense University.  In 2003, he founded the Center for Health Transformation to create free market health care reforms.  In 2007, he founded American Solutions, a conservative think-tank and action group.  Gingrich has also written a number of books on topics ranging from history to government policy to fictional alternate history.  After leaving Congress, he moved from Georgia to McLean, Va. where he currently resides.

There are several skeletons in Newt Gingrich’s closet.  In 1992, Gingrich was one of more than 450 congressmen who bounced checks written on the house bank.  The house bank covered the overdrafts, but many congressmen had thousands of dollars that were overdue for months.  Gingrich was not singled out by the Ethics Committee and was one of the Republican congressmen who decided to go public with the scandal, realizing that more Democrats would be affected than Republicans.

While he was in Congress, Gingrich also taught a course at Kennesaw State College in Kennesaw, Ga., an Atlanta suburb.  The course, titled “Renewing American Civilization,” led to an ethics charge and an investigation by the IRS.  The House Ethics Committee found no wrongdoing, but Gingrich did pay a fine for conflicting statements filed by his attorneys.  The Kennesaw State Foundation’s tax-exempt status was threatened after accepting $200,000 to televise Gingrich’s course across the country.  The foundation was exonerated after Gingrich resigned.

In 2008, Gingrich teamed up with Nancy Pelosi, another now former house speaker, to make a commercial advocating green energy to halt climate change.  In the past three years, Gingrich seems to have retreated somewhat on the issue.  A video on the New Hampshire Primary blog shows Gingrich saying “a topic large enough to change the behavior of the entire human race is a topic that is more than science and deserves public hearings with very tough minded public questions and we’ve had almost none of that on either side.”

Newt’s personal life may also be a problem for many prospective voters.  He married for the first time at nineteen to his former geometry teacher who was twenty-six at the time.  Six months after the 1980 divorce, Gingrich remarried.  Gingrich admitted to having an affair with Callista Bisek, a house staffer, during his second marriage.  He divorced for the second time in 2000 and married Bisek shortly after. 

In a 2011 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Gingrich admitted that his actions were wrong:  There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate. And what I can tell you is that when I did things that were wrong, I wasn’t trapped in situation ethics, I was doing things that were wrong, and yet, I was doing them. I found that I felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness. Not God’s understanding, but God’s forgiveness.”

Gingrich has also run into two problems since announcing his candidacy this year.  In the first, he angered conservatives when he referred to Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering.”  Gingrich apologized to Ryan and tried to repair the damage, but his comments probably did not endear him to Tea Partiers or deficit hawks.

Secondly, in early June, Gingrich’s entire senior campaign staff resigned.  The resignations came in the wake of Gingrich’s two-week cruise in the Greek isles.  The staff members reportedly were concerned that Gingrich did not take the campaign seriously.  The departure of his staff will likely affect Gingrich’s ability to raise campaign funds, since many potential donors will seriously question his ability to win if he isn’t supported by his own employees.

The most recent Real Clear Politics index of polls shows Gingrich in statistical tie for fifth place with Ron Paul.  He currently trails Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Rudolf Giuliani, and fellow Georgian Herman Cain.  Most of the current polls do not reflect the public reaction to the resignation of Gingrich’s staff.  An Insider Advantage/WSB-TV poll of Georgia voters in early June showed Gingrich in third place behind Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann.

Very few doubt Newt Gingrich’s intelligence and ability to make policy, but if he is to survive the primary season he has major obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is to replace his entire staff in the middle of the campaign.  Gingrich’s missteps and gaffes make it unlikely that he will win the contest to face Barack Obama in 2012, but he would be a valuable advisor and strategist to the eventual Republican nominee.

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