Newt Gingrich became chairman of the political-action committee GOPAC in 1986, the year that its founder, Gov. Pete du Pont (R., Del.), resigned to seek the party’s presidential nomination. Its mission was to incubate Republicans in local offices and state legislatures so that they could later run for higher office. Determined to win a majority in the House of Representatives, Gingrich accepted the charge with gusto, and du Pont eagerly awaited the results.
“[He] was much better and [more] creative with GOPAC than I was,” du Pont recently told William Corkery, a college student who interviewed him for a senior thesis.
The new chairman’s innovations were classically Newtonian: He recorded a series of lectures on campaigning that candidates could play in their cars as they drove through their districts. Although GOPAC had produced similar tapes for years, Gingrich increased the pace: Before his tenure, the committee mailed a tape to members roughly four times a year. During his tenure, however, the committee sent new material monthly.
On one side of a tape, Gingrich gave tactical advice on topics such as fundraising and direct mail. On the other, he offered philosophical musings about the fate of the republic — and the candidate’s role in its survival.
“It was Newt’s vision that a candidate needed tactics but also a philosophical grounding in the issues,” says Lisa Nelson, who served as executive director of GOPAC from 1993 to 1997. “We addressed both of those things in every tape.”
The tapes were popular. In 1994, GOPAC’s mailing list rose from around 2,000 to 18,000 members. Of the 136 freshman Republicans in the 104th Congress, half had consulted the committee’s materials.
Former congressman Todd Tiahrt remembers listening to the tapes as a state senator while driving from his home in Wichita, Kan., to the state capitol in Topeka. “I found them inspirational and effective,” Tiahrt tells NRO. “They were part of the process of my deciding to run against an 18-year incumbent [in Congress].”
To this day, Tiahrt remembers Gingrich’s exposition of the American ethos. “He’d say, ‘Who’s the hero in America? It’s Bruce Willis — when he goes against police protocol and takes out the bad guys. What books sell? The books about the CIA guy who drags the terrorist through the pigsty. Americans love the people who challenge and stand for the values, faith, and hopes we have.’”
Gingrich broached all sorts of topics in the tapes, many of which appeared in the Contract with America: a balanced-budget amendment, welfare reform, taxes. He also included guest speakers, ranging from political consultant Joe Gaylord to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Former congressman Greg Ganske says he found learning Gingrich’s method of answering a question most helpful: “First, reformulate the question, explain that you understand the problem, discuss some of the alternatives, and then give reasons for why you might have chosen a particular policy position.” Gingrich’s approach was “very orderly and logical,” Ganske adds.
The tapes had less of an effect on other candidates. “It wasn’t my Bible, but it was something I listened to,” says former congressman George Nethercutt.
“I did not use them,” says former congressman Michael Flanagan, who represented Illinois’s deep-blue 5th Congressional District. “They didn’t play well in Chicago.” That said, Flanagan gives Gingrich and GOPAC credit for reaching out to him — unlike the national party, which wrote him off.
One video Gingrich recorded in 1993 summarizes his advice. In it, the list-happy congressman divided his lesson into his characteristic enumerated points. Each campaign needed to have the five c’s: confidence, creativity, contrast, controversy, and capital. Each candidate needed to make use of four types of issues: wedge issues, magnet issues, shield issues, and turf issues.
A shield issue, for example, was one a candidate used to defend himself against his opponent’s attacks. In his distinctive candor, Gingrich counseled Republican candidates that “you know your opponent is going to attack you as lacking compassion,” so he advised them to “show up in the local paper holding a baby in a neonatal center.” For women, whose weak spot was crime, Gingrich suggested that they be “seen in front of [a] jail saying ‘Let’s be tough on criminals.’”
An efficient lecturer, Gingrich also recycled material. The “five pillars of progress and freedom” he named in the lecture were later resurrected as the “five pillars of American Civilization” in his college course, “Renewing American Civilization.”
At times, Gingrich’s advice was more stirring — and it bordered on the hypnotic. “You favor a political revolution,” he said in another tape. “You want to replace the welfare state with an opportunity society. You favor workfare over welfare. You want to lock prisoners up and you’re actually prepared to give up some political pork barrel to build as many prisons as you need.”
Although Gingrich’s lectures were colorful, former congressman Mark Souder is skeptical they had as large an effect on Republicans’ electoral success as others believed. “While it had an impact, I believe it has been overrated,” he tells NRO.
In 1995, Gingrich retired from the chairmanship. He was too busy to run the committee any longer. He had just been elected speaker of the House.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.