Politics & Policy

Citizen Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich in 2012 (Reuters photo: Eric Thayer; inset image via Amazon)
Conservative before it was cool, in a southern state that was still Dixiecrat: An excerpt from Craig Shirley’s new biography.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative by Craig Shirley. It is adapted here with permission.


They began in old shoeboxes, Newt Gingrich’s ideas. Some good, some cockamamie, some off the wall, some sound as a dollar, some, well, intriguing. All held his youthful and undiscriminating attention.

Over the years, Newton Leroy Gingrich had gathered up newspaper articles, columns, letters he’d received, academic papers . . . along with the notes he was forever jotting to himself. All these scraps of paper went into shoeboxes to be retrieved later for review, for lectures and talks, for college bull sessions, for the occasional interview. To be used for whatever. He didn’t keep a diary, but this flow of information sufficed for an intellectual chronology of the sometimes desperately modish academic.

It was 1974, a dying era in which educated men, autodidact and otherwise, were still truly men of letters, even if they were only posting notes to themselves. Gingrich, a young and exuberantly curious college professor, age 31, stood just under six foot, though he seemed taller, with his thick mound of hair, prematurely flecked with grey. He had the requisite long sideburns of most trendy young men of the era, wore steel-rimmed glasses and longish, though not unkempt, hair.

He was not an Aquarian and though he’d smoked marijuana once, Gingrich eschewed sit-ins and other faddish protests. Newt was an odd blending of middle class, academia, tree hugger, animal lover, alternative-energy devotee, and budding moderate-to-conservative; but he was moving away from the “New Generation” ideas of most of his colleagues and students. He was well above average in intellect, charm (when he so chose), and most certainly ambition, including politics.

West Georgia College, located in Carrollton, was at best a second-tier school in a sleepy, red-clay, dusty town. Gingrich was an “assistant professor of history and coordinator of the environmental studies program.” It did have its “real hippie aspects . . . weird psychology . . . touchy feely stuff,” said Chip Kahn, an eventual campaign aide.

Gingrich’s plans had never included the quiet academic life: a tenured sinecure, teaching lounges, lecture halls, endless seminars, the occasional sabbatical, the approval of peers, watching the country from the sidelines. But Gingrich was a very popular teacher at West Georgia College (later to be renamed the University of West Georgia).

He had won his undergraduate degree from Emory University with a GPA average of only 2.8, but he thrived in getting his doctorate from Tulane, earning mostly A’s. His 300-page doctorial thesis, “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945–1960,” was, mercifully, not published in book form. As of early 1974, he was thinking audaciously about running for Congress.

Newt was an odd blending of middle class, academia, tree hugger, animal lover, alternative-energy devotee, and budding moderate-to-conservative.

Running for Congress as a Republican in the yellowest of yellow-dog states — Georgia — in the year of Watergate, when the Republican party seemed on the verge of extinction, was not going to be easy for the bespectacled young man immersed in the culture of the campus. In his favor, Gingrich had been working for several years attempting to help other GOP candidates breathe life into a state party more dead than alive. Working against him was the state of William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” amid the recent unpleasantness, as some locals still told it.

The only Republican in the Georgia delegation was Ben Blackburn, but he, too, was fighting for his political life against the anti-Republican tide of 1974. Despite the odds, Gingrich decided he’d been on the sidelines long enough.

“I felt this was the time you had to put yourself on the line,” he told David Broder of the Washington Post. “As a conservative, I believe in organic growth.” He’d thought briefly about running for lieutenant governor, according to campaign aide Chip Kahn, but had decided on Congress instead.

The outgoing governor, Jimmy Carter, was fading from the scene after a lackluster term. Carter had fiddled at the edges of government reform and race relations but had left no real legacy. He had championed “sunshine laws,” which would allow citizens to know what their government was up to, though one opponent told the governor: “There are two things a person should never watch being made. One is potted meat, and the other is laws.”

Mel Steely, a local Georgian author, said if the state hadn’t had a one-term limit, then Carter would not have been reelected anyway. He was that unpopular. Georgia governors were charismatic backslappers, went to barbecues and Little League games, and socialized after church on Sundays. Carter did none of these things and the word spread quickly in the Peach State that Carter just wasn’t one of them.

Meanwhile, out in California, another governor, Ronald Reagan, was also exiting the stage after his own uninspiring second term. Unlike Carter, who was one-term limited, Reagan could have sought a third, but given the anti-Republican mood in the country and Reagan’s waning interest in Sacramento, it was open to question whether he would have won against the young attorney general, Jerry Brown, whose father Reagan had crushed in 1966.

No one was talking in 1974 about a Reagan presidential bid in ’76. Gone was the small and brief hype over Reagan seeking the White House that had pushed him into a late-starting and ill-fated challenge to Richard Nixon in 1968. Reagan’s star was fading fast.

Then Richard Nixon resigned in ignominy in the summer of 1974.

A brief, freshening breeze swept across the party when Gerald Ford assumed the presidency. In his first post-Watergate address to the country before a joint session of Congress, he called inflation “Public Enemy No. 1.” At last, a president was talking about what was on everybody else’s mind.

One month later, President Ford pardoned former president Nixon for all crimes, for all time. Screams of “political fix” and “corrupt bargain” echoed across Washington and the country, and Ford sank into his own quagmire of questions and accusations. The moment of post-Watergate bipartisanship and unity had passed.

Despite all of this, national Republicans were modestly hopeful about the uphill chances for young Gingrich. Gingrich, for his part, had gone public in his call for Nixon to resign as early as January 1974. Plus some minor scandals had attached themselves to the Georgia sixth congressional district incumbent, Democrat John J. “Jack” Flynt Jr., who hadn’t even had an opponent in 1972, even as Nixon was crushing George McGovern in Georgia by an astonishing margin of 75–25 percent. So into 1974 stepped Newton Leroy Gingrich: “Newton” for his birth father, “Leroy” for his mother’s brother, and “Gingrich” for his adoptive father. He was fresh-faced, articulate, boundlessly energetic, “a self-described ‘moderate conservative.’” To run, he took a leave of absence from his teaching position and a cut in pay by one-third of his annual $11,000 salary.

Gingrich had channeled the hit movie The Candidate about a young outside reformer running against an entrenched and odious old incumbent.

The Washington-based GOP organizations threw their nominee for Georgia’s sixth district a few meager resources, though they themselves were scraping along, trying to help dozens of endangered Republican incumbents who hoped to avoid the Watergate undertow. Since no other Republican came forward to challenge him for the nomination, Gingrich could focus on Flynt. Meanwhile, Gingrich had channeled the hit movie The Candidate about a young outside reformer running against an entrenched and odious old incumbent.

The Atlanta Daily World covered Gingrich extensively and avidly, even though it catered predominately to the region’s black community. The paper was founded in 1928 and was owned and operated by black Republicans, heirs to the post–Civil War party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. At its founding, the paper “served as a voice against the Jim Crow laws and lynchings prevalent in the South at that time” and was closely aligned with the Republican party, and “resented the racial demagoguery of white southern Democrats.” But by 1974, Republicans had lost their historic moorings, defending “Big Brother” government in Washington, which was running amok, spying on private citizens. Only liberals seemed interested in civil liberties, and the Atlanta Daily World, though still Republican-leaning, was less reliably partisan than it had been in 1960, when it endorsed Richard Nixon.

Gingrich’s opponent, the 60-year-old Flynt, had been in Congress since Dwight Eisenhower had clacked his golf shoes across the parquet floors of the Oval Office. Flynt was a run-of-the-mill southern Democrat, more or less a supporter of Jim Crow. A Dixiecrat, Flynt had never been seriously challenged for the House seat; some years the local Republicans couldn’t even find a sacrificial lamb to put his name on the ballot against him.

Gingrich was an underdog, but that was nothing new to “Newtie,” as his mother, Kathleen, affectionately called him. He’d been an underdog his whole life. His young parents divorced when he was just a small child. His mother remarried a recently discharged Army enlisted man, Bob Gingrich, in 1946, when Newtie was three years old. Five years later, when he was eight, his adoptive father, with a newly minted college degree, rejoined the Army, this time as an officer.

Newtie grew up an atypical “Army brat” in the shadow of the Cold War, spending his summers with his father, embraced — somewhat — by his adoptive father, a newcomer at school, once having to defend himself with his fists against boys challenging the new kid on the block. He’d lived on a half-dozen different military bases as a child, including ones in France and Germany. While in France, he visited a macabre World War I memorial as a child, which had a lifetime effect on him.

He hadn’t grown up friendless, but moving year after year, the nearsighted kid found joy and happiness in books. At one time he’d thought about being a paleontologist or a zookeeper. But reading and animals were just a few of his hobbies. Certainly politics, military history, American history, and writing had also animated the youngster.

And ideas.

Taken from Citizen Newt by Craig Shirley. Copyright © 2017 by Craig Shirley. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.CitizenNewtBook.com.


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Craig ShirleyMr. Shirley is the author of four books on Reagan as well as December, 1941 and the newly released Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, a member of the board of governors of the Reagan Ranch, and a frequent lecturer at the Reagan Library.


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