Newt’s road to Marvin Olasky’s support is paved with many unanswered questions, and a speech like the one the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land suggests Newt deliver won’t be satisfactory. That’s the message of a cover story in the Christian magazine World is penned by Olasky, World’s editor in chief and author of, you may recall, the book on Compassionate Conservatism.
“Since Barney Frank, Gail Sheehy, and lots of liberals, perhaps including Bill Clinton, knew about Newt’s affair years before it went public, why didn’t they out him?,” Olasky asks.
Did he need to do something, or not do something, to keep Democrats from making the affair public? If what Dave Schippers and a lot of Republicans — Dornan, DeLay, others — say is true, and Gingrich pulled his punches (particularly during the impeachment controversy), he needs to admit that. Does Newt understand that his recklessness threw people under the bus? Furthermore, if Newt gets the nomination, and he was in some sense blackmailed during the 1990s and doesn’t want that story to get out, he could be influenced again. So this isn’t just about Newt being honest concerning his past: It’s also about the future.
Olasky talked to me further about his concerns about what Gingrich did in the 1990s, who knew what about his affair, why it matters to him and other evangelicals today, and what, if anything, the former speaker can do about it:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why is the question of whether or not Newt Gingrich drank Irish whiskey with Bill Clinton in the White House in the 1990s so important for you to know?
MARVIN OLASKY: It’s insignificant, except that I started down this trail because Dick Armey told me Newt and Bill Clinton had had secret meetings at which they talked about their girlfriends. That seemed preposterous or at least weird, so my first research question was whether there had been any secret meetings, just the two of them.
I talked with Steve Gillon, a U. of Oklahoma history professor who interviewed Newt a few times several years ago while researching a book. My question to Gillon: Had Newt ever talked about secret meetings with Clinton, just the two of them? Gillon said no — but he remembered one curious thing he hadn’t included in his book: Newt had mentioned a meeting where he drank Irish whiskey with Clinton. Gillon said in subsequent interviews Newt refused to say anything more about the meetings.
Next step: I talked with a Gingrich aide who had attended White House policy discussion meetings of not more than half a dozen people: Clinton, Gingrich, and several key aides. Did anyone ever drink at those meetings? No. So the Irish whiskey meeting was not one of the policy meetings. It sounds like Armey’s statement that there had been secret meeting was true: Specific detail is important in assessing credibility.
LOPEZ: Why does it matter if he apologized to his caucus in the House or not?
OLASKY: Newt said he “felt compelled to seek God’s forgiveness,” which is terrific, but — according to former Rep. Pete Hoekstra and others — Newt has not sought the forgiveness of those hurt by his recklessness and his contributing to charges of GOP hypocrisy. The issue is not whether Newt has truly repented or not — God knows, I don’t, and Newt deserves the benefit of the doubt here. But part of leadership is going to the people you’ve messed with and telling them you’re sorry.
The larger political issue is that Newt’s recklessness dramatically undermined his ability to lead. He betrayed the trust of hundreds if not thousands — members of Congress and their staffs, and many others — who made political and personal sacrifices to follow Newt and promote his ideas. Newt, since then, may have had a late maturing, but his selfishness the last time he had a leadership position is a cause for concern.
LOPEZ: So you say that “If Gingrich wants to show that he has changed, he needs to review what he did in greater depth and tell the whole story. He won’t win by showing himself as a master of public policy. He needs to show an understanding that honesty is the best policy. He needs to show that he has mastered himself.” How does he do that? Newt has to give a sex speech? Will that even be enough? It’s just talk, isn’t it?
OLASKY: Richard Land has suggested a speech, and I respect Richard, but a Newt speech of that kind could be just talk. More credible would be Newt meeting with and winning the trust of his former colleagues; I interviewed lots of them and heard huge negatives. If the people who worked closest with Newt when he was speaker still oppose his candidacy after he meets with them, it’s a bad sign. Newt has a lot to offer: I saw him perform a terrific public service in 1995 and 1996 when he led the way to reforming welfare, balancing the budget, and strengthening the economy. He has a good mind and creatively uses his broad historical knowledge. The White House, though, is about leadership of a kind he hasn’t yet demonstrated.
LOPEZ: You end with something quite alarming: Pete Hoekstra comparing Gingrich to President Obama, suggesting they may both have an “I complex,” a “fatal flaw.” How can this question be addressed?
OLASKY: Hoekstra gets at the key question: It’s not adultery, it’s what he calls the “I complex” and the recklessness that went with it. I’m not sure how this question can now be addressed: It’s just something that goes into the complicated computation of which candidate to support, when policy positions, experience, and character are all important, and no one’s perfect.
LOPEZ: You write that “many 1990s GOP leaders still wonder whether Gingrich’s private conduct affected the way he carried out his public responsibilities.” Is it possible for private conduct to ever not have something important to do with public responsibilities?#more#
OLASKY: I wrote an American history book in 1999 and concluded that the answer to that question is probably no, because everything we do affects our thinking in some way. But there’s another issue for prominent people like Newt: Secret activities do not remain secret for long, and those who find out may expose them, or may keep them secret because they find value in doing so. My probe into whether Dick Armey’s story made sense led to a bigger mystery: Since many Democrats, including Barney Frank, knew about Newt’s affair, why didn’t they out him? (They outed Henry Hyde, whose affair wasn’t even current.) What did Dems gain by not outing Newt? I don’t have the contacts or clout to find out the answer, but maybe someone else does.
LOPEZ: Do your questions and concerns represent a constituency that Newt had better address?
OLASKY: Clearly, there’s some concern among evangelicals about Newt’s two divorces and adultery, but he’s spoken about his repentance. Despite a reputation for being judgmental, most evangelicals are quick to forgive, and rightly so. That’s why adultery is not the key question at this point: Recklessness is. There’s also the broader American interest: What happens if Newt gets the GOP nomination and Democrats than reveal that they did have some kind of understanding with him during the mid-1990s? That would demolish his credibility and aid an Obama reelection.
LOPEZ: Does this Newt surge surprise you?
OLASKY: No, because the centrality of debates during this campaign season has worked perfectly for Newt, and he’s won just about every debate. It’s part of his brilliance (sometimes erratic) that he discerned a new strategy well before pundits or other candidates did. They were fighting World War I and he prepared for World War II.
LOPEZ: So what about Romney? Is a lack of comfort with Mormons behind this seemingly endless search for an alternative to him?
OLASKY: Concern about Mormonism is a factor, but another part is Romney’s history of taking liberal policy positions on issues ranging from abortion to government health care. I was a reporter on the Boston Globe early on, so I know it’s as easy to slide into liberal positions in Massachusetts as it is to slide into conservative positions in Texas. Past practice doesn’t necessary tell you how a politician will act once he’s in the White House and has a broader constituency to satisfy, but conservatives are of course more comfortable with someone from a red state or district who has been consistently conservative.
LOPEZ: Why aren’t Christian conservatives all about Rick Santorum? The issues and the character appear to be theirs.
OLASKY: Rick entered the race after losing big a senatorial contest. That happened in a bad year for Republicans, but he has to show people he could be a winner, and he’s had little infrastructure or money with which to do that. The debates have been his opportunity, but while Newt gained attention in early debates through his aggressive attack on mainstream media, Rick did not have a tactic like that, so he’s been relegated to the edge during subsequent debates. His message and character are solid, and we’ll see at the Iowa Caucus whether his visit-every-county trench warfare pays off, but he may be fighting WW I while Newt’s WW II tanks are rolling.