Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Perils of Professor (and President) Newt

Newt Gingrich declared in 1995, “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.” If Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, we will see the first presidential contest fought by ex-professors in American history. But if Gingrich wins, what would his presidency mean for higher education? Gingrich's history as a professor certainly doesn't make him a supporter of higher education.

Gingrich was hired in 1970 as an assistant professor of history at West Georgia College, but he clearly had bigger ambitions. Within a year, he applied to be president of the college. A bid to become chair of his department also failed, so Gingrich turned to politics and took an unpaid leave to run for Congress in 1974. Gingrich lost then, and again in 1976. In the meantime, he was moved to the Geography department, and coordinated a new program in Environmental Studies.

Although some media outlets have reported that Gingrich was denied tenure, the facts are not known. According to a spokesperson from West Georgia University, “The personnel records we have on Gingrich, because they are so old, are incomplete, so it is not clear whether he sought tenure and was denied or never sought tenure.” However, it's clear that Gingrich never did academic research and showed little interested in winning a tenured position, and he left the college in 1977 before finally winning a seat in Congress in 1978.

One reason why Gingrich may have lost interest in academia was the lack of money. He never made more than $15,400 a year, and his idea in 1973 to start an institute and make money as a consultant selling services to local public schools was shot down by campus officials.

In 1977, when Gingrich's academic job was ending, a group of Gingrich's donors gave him $15,000 (that's over $50,000 in today's dollars) for a family vacation in Europe. They did it under the guise of Nomohan, Ltd., a limited partnership created solely to invest in Newt's proposal to write a futuristic novel which he would “research” in Europe. The man who organized Gingrich's novel vacation deal, his friend Chester Roush, received more than $12.6 million in federal subsidies for his real estate ventures in the 1980s, and Gingrich twice intervened with Reagan Administration officials to make personal appeals for his friend to receive government money. For a man who was paid to research a futuristic novel that was never published, getting money from wealthy donors was always a priority.

In the early 1990s, Gingrich came up with a scheme to return to the role of professor and teach a course called “Renewing American Civilization” that would be transmitted via satellite to a national audience with the aim of helping Gingrich expand his political influence. Gingrich started up the nonprofit Progress and Freedom Foundation to promote the course and raise money. Gingrich wrote to College Republicans across the country, declaring that the goal of the course was to define the future and “to explain that future to the American people in a way that captures first their imagination and then their votes.”

Gingrich concealed his explicitly political goals in order to get the non-profit group approved by the IRS, and the plan approved by the House Ethics Committee. Gingrich had helped Tim Mescon (dean of the Kennesaw State College School of Business) solicit consulting contracts from the federal government for the Mescon Group, so Mescon invited him to teach the class there. (Because state law prohibited elected officials from serving as state employees, Gingrich could not be paid for the class, so the money was used to hire a marketing staffer for the course.)

To help pay the annual $250,000 satellite fees for the course, Gingrich engaged in a vast scheme of product placement and influence peddling. Course donors were told that if they gave $50,000 they could be “sponsors” of the course and would be able to “work directly with the leadership of the Renewing American Civilization project in the course development process. (Donors who gave $25,000 or $10,000 would only have the opportunity to “influence” the course.)

A May 10, 1993 from one of the course's staffers reported that Richard Berman, a lobbyist for Employment Policies Institute (a restaurant trade group) offered to give $25,000 “if the course can incorporate some of the ideas” that “entry level positions are not necessarily dead end.” When Berman's $25,000 check arrived, it included the note about the information he'd provided: “I'm delighted that it will be part of your lecture series.” And Berman added a handwritten note at the bottom of his $25,000 letter, “Newt, Thanks again for the help on today's committee hearing.” In the course, Gingrich praised one of Berman's biggest clients, Chili's founder Norman Brinker, showing a promotional video made by his company to the class: “Whether it's his beloved game or polo or his magical success in business, Norman Brinker simply does not know how to lose.”

In return for donations to the Progress and Freedom Foundation to support the course, Gingrich often did favors. Ten days after the Georgia Power Co. gave $7,500 in 1994, Gingrich wrote a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission on the company's behalf.

After faculty at Kennesaw State objected to a course devoted to promoting a politician's career, Gingrich was forced to move the course to Reinhardt College, a small private school. But Gingrich's willingness to put the content of a college course up for sale to wealthy bidders showed his regard for higher education. To Gingrich, a university classroom was simply a tool for expanding his influence and helping him achieve his ultimate goal of becoming the president of the United States.

Since being forced out of his job as Speaker and resigning from Congress in 1998, Gingrich has continued to see higher education as a tool for politics. Because he regards colleges as too liberal, Gingrich wants to cut off funding and impose ideological control over them.

In a Feb 28, 2005 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich responded to a question about Ward Churchill with this answer: “Jefferson basically said every generation needs its own revolution. One of the revolutions we need is on campuses.” Gingrich called for imposing political control over colleges, abolishing tenure, and reinstating loyalty oaths: “I think we have to say to state legislatures, why are you putting up with this? Boards of regents are artificial constructs of state law. Tenure is an artificial construct of state law. So you could modify, you could introduce a bill tomorrow morning to modify tenure law to say, proof that you’re viciously anti-American is automatically grounds for dismissal. And it would be over.” Actually, Gingrich's proposal went far beyond the McCarthy Era loyalty oaths, since he wanted to fire professors who espoused ideas that he deemed “anti-American.”

The differences between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama as teacher is stark. Professor Obama (whose class on “Race, Racism, and the Law” I took at the University of Chicago Law School) was a consummate listener, a professor unusually interested in hearing what his students thought, and encouraging them to develop their own point of view. Professor Gingrich (whose “Renewing American Civilization” class videotapes I watched while researching my book about him) is the embodiment of the self-obsessed lecturer, someone entranced with his own bountiful fountain of ideas and largely uninterested in hearing the criticism of others.

During his current campaign for president, Gingrich has said that “higher education should become dramatically more productive and less expensive.” But he strongly opposes direct student lending, and wants to return to the era of government-guaranteed loans that cost taxpayers billions every year while adding to the profits of banks.

Newt Gingrich was a failure as a professor, and he now leads attacks on higher education and academic freedom. Ironically, Gingrich's intellectual pretentions might be his downfall among the anti-intellectual base of the conservative movement today, which denies the science of global climate change and views all former academics with suspicion. But if Gingrich is elected president, his contempt for academic freedom and tenure, and his view that the content of college courses should be influenced by corporate donors, would indicate a dark future for higher education in America.

John K. Wilson is the author of Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors (Common Courage Press, 1996). Crossposted at Academe Blog.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Presidential" Newt and the Futuristic Novel Vacation

Note: I'm scheduled to appear on the Ed Schultz radio show today at 12:05 central time, talking about my 1996 book Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors (now available on Google Books). Please tune in.

Who won the debate last night? From a purely technical standpoint, Rick Santorum won the debate, but it may be too late for him to be taken seriously. Mitt Romney got his hits in, but Newt Gingrich looked like the frontrunner, he acted like the frontrunner, and he didn't get knocked down.

On NBC, Andrea Mitchell and other analysts were talking about Gingrich looking “presidential,” essentially because he didn't act like Newt Gingrich. Whenever the words “presidential” and “Gingrich” occur in a sentence that's not the punchline to a joke, it's a victory for Newt.

Romney lost his one advantage on the far right he had, on immigration, by agreeing with Newt on the Dream Act and by talking about the rather ridiculous idea of “self-deportation.” Appearing more moderate on immigration might help in Florida, but it will hurt Romney with Republicans elsewhere. It shows that Romney is desperate to win in Florida.

Of course, everything Romney said about Gingrich is completely true. Gingrich was in fact a lobbyist, and Gingrich has been “influencing peddling” his entire career.

In fact, Gingrich began influence peddling before he ever won an election. One of my favorite stories from my 1996 book Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors is how in 1977 (after two failed attempts at Congress), a group of Gingrich's donors gave him $15,000 (that's over $50,000 in today's dollars) for a family vacation in Europe. They did it under the guise of Nomohan, Ltd., a limited partnership created solely to invest in Newt's proposal to write a futuristic novel which he would “research” in Europe. That's a lot of money for a vacation, especially for a man who never made more than $15,400 a year teaching at West Georgia College. The man who organized Gingrich's novel vacation deal, his friend Chester Roush, received more than $12.6 million in federal subsidies for his real estate ventures, and Gingrich twice intervened with federal officials to make personal appeals for his friend to receive government money.

So when Romney accuses Gingrich of “influence peddling,” it's not a futuristic novel, it's history—not the kind of “history” that Freddie Mac pays you $1.6 million to discuss, but real history.

Crossposted at DailyKos.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Rise of Newt

Newt Gingrich resurrected his political career in South Carolina last night, and he did it by returning to his roots. Gingrich is one of the greatest negative politicians ever to hold power in Washington. As I noted in my 1996 book, Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors (available on Google Books), Gingrich rose to power based on his C-SPAN attacks on Democrats in the 1980s, and used the hatred of corrupt Democrats to accomplish the Republican Revolution in 1994. Gingrich was the expert at the smear campaign.

Newt's success in the Republican debates had little to do with any skill at debating. Gingrich doesn't win debates with sound arguments; he does it with easy applause lines before solidly conservative audiences, by denouncing the “elite” media. Public Policy Polling found that 77% of South Carolina Republicans had an unfavorable view of the media, compared to only 14% who had a favorable view. Instead of attacking his rivals, Gingrich attacked the media, and he won voters by seeking to appease the conservative base.

Gingrich called his victory “humbling,” which is exactly what Gingrich says when he's not humbled in the least. Gingrich wasn't humbled when confronted about his thinly-disguised racial language. He delighted in the attacks, playing the race card by lecturing African-Americans about work habits and denouncing Obama as a “food stamp” president, then angrily feigning racial innocence.

Gingrich still faces an uphill fight to win the Republican nomination. Romney has a huge advantage in fundraising and organizing. If Gingrich is as bad at running a campaign as he was at running the House, he may still lose. But if Gingrich can consolidate the anti-Romney conservative vote, no amount of money and establishment support can give Romney the nomination.

Back in 1996, I regarded Gingrich as the pseudo-intellectual on the fringes of the far right, an accidental Speaker whose political incompetence eventually brought him down. As the Republican Party has lurched even further to the right and became even more anti-intellectual, Gingrich has struggled to find an identity. His early failure to appease the far right (by criticizing Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare) and his rambling speeches on the future gained little support. But Gingrich returned to his roots: he denounced liberalism and attacked the media, using the debates as his platform for a revival once the rest of the not-Romneys failed.

Gingrich is living his dream again, using harsh attacks on liberalism to secure his place at the top of the conservative movement. Gingrich's personal baggage, nasty personality, and far-right ideology will bring him almost certain defeat against Barack Obama. But that won't stop Tea Party Republicans from picking him over Mitt Romney. Gingrich helped to create the far right wing that has taken over the Republican Party, and now he may reap the benefits of the movement even while he leads it again to electoral defeat.

Crossposted at DailyKos.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors

My 1996 book, Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors is now available via Google Books. Re-reading the book this past weekend, I was impressed (if I may say so myself) at how thorough it is, and what a terrible president Newt would make. There's not merely the corruption and the unquestioning devotion to failed conservative ideas; there's also the sheer incompetence of Newt as a leader.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why Newt Will Win, and Then Lose

Newt Gingrich has become the latest Not Romney to rise to the top of the Republican polls, but many pundits assume that he will meet the same fate as Bachmann, Perry, and Cain before him: a rapid swoon as soon as voters realize what a flawed candidate he is.

It's true that Newt is a deeply flawed candidate, something I know quite well because I wrote a book about him in 1996, Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors. But being deeply flawed and almost unelectable is no longer a disqualification for Republican nominees in the age of the Tea Party. Yet so many people assume that history will simply repeat itself and Newt will go away like the Not Romneys before him. That's a terrible political mistake to make.

Michael Tomasky writes at the Daily Beast about Gingrich, “The idea that he’s a serious presidential candidate is preposterous. Even if he were the nominee, he’d get about 44 percent of the vote. He’d say crazy things. He’d reignite the whole Obama-is-a-Kenyan-anticolonialist business. Or he’d think up something newer and weirder. He’d be a disaster...He could conceivably do worse in a general election than Herman Cain.” That might be true, but it won't stop Republicans from nominating him.

Tomasky claims, “This Gingrich boomlet is the same thing as the Michele Bachmann boomlet and the Rick Perry boomlet. It’s just people not wanting to say yes to Romney.” Yes, that's true, too. But there are good reasons why the Gingrich boom won't fade. First, Gingrich is a much more serious candidate that Bachmann or Perry. After all, Gingrich was second to Romney (and occasionally first) in the polls throughout most of 2010. Second, there are no more Not Romneys in the Republican bullpen. Rick Perry continues to embarrass himself, only to have attention diverted by Herman Cain continuing to embarrass himself. There is, literally, no one left to be Not Romney.

The conservative segment of the Republican Party tried out every plausible candidate, and a few implausible ones, too. Gingrich is their last hope. Santorum, the only Not Romney conservative yet to take a swing, has fallen behind Jon Huntsman in the polls, which is a clear marker of insignificance. Paul has a core base but his libertarian values simply can't sway conservatives.

There will be no Sarah Palin or Jeb Bush riding in to save the day; it's too late in the process to get a campaign started, and no real enthusiasm for the alternatives. There will be no resurrection of Bachmann, Perry, or Cain: Republican voters have looked at them and found them wanting.

Gingrich is the last, best candidate to fill the position of Not Romney, and Not Romney beats Romney in a landslide. The reason is simple: Romney has been unable to break the 25% barrier in recent polls, and his numbers have sometimes fallen well below that level. His only hope for victory is to have the conservative candidates divide the rest of the vote.
Unfortunately for Romney, the Republican Party changed its primary procedures following the 2008 election where McCain quickly took winner-take-all primaries to secure the nomination early. Winner-take-all primaries might have allowed Romney to squeeze by his conservative competitors in enough early states to prevail. But the proportional allocation of delegates means that the 2012 Republican primary will resemble the 2008 Democratic primary, a lengthy process where two candidates battle it out for months. The problem for Romney is that he can't win a one-on-one battle with any conservative candidate in the current Republican Party.

Is Gingrich the latest Not Romney? Why, yes, of course he is. But he's the last Not Romney, and the best known. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain each fulfilled the Not Romney role this year, but all faltered as voters learned more about them and they fell apart under the pressure. Gingrich, by contrast, is already a known commodity. Republicans who support him now are unlikely to learn anything new about him.

According to the latest Quinnipiac poll (Nov 14-20), Gingrich leads Romney 26 to 22% nationally, and in a head-to-head matchup, Gingrich's lead expands to 49-39. That's deep trouble for Romney. In fact, Romney's position is so desperate that he needs to abandon Iowa because if he defeats any of the conservative candidates in Iowa, they will probably drop out quickly. Romney has to maintain two or three viable conservative candidates in order to divide the Not Romney majority.

Gingrich has good name recognition and unlike all the other Not Romney candidates, his rise to the front came after his major goofs had occurred. Gingrich still faces many problems, the most notable of which is himself. But after his early errors, Gingrich has run a brilliant campaign: attacking the media rather than other Republicans, espousing conservative ideas, and spouting crazy right-wing ideas at every turn.

Unless Republicans make electability the primary basis for picking a presidential nominee, Gingrich is likely to be their candidate for president. And that will be a disaster for the Republican Party. It is hard to imagine Newt Gingrich beating Barack Obama. The current Quinnipiac poll found that Obama beats Romney 45-44, but he leads Gingrich 49-40.

Obama's re-elect numbers are weak by historical standards, but we live in very different political times today, where the hatred of politicians is unprecedented. The public may not like Obama, but they hate every other politician even more. And Gingrich is a politician who is very easy for people to hate.

Despite three years of relentless attacks on Obama by the conservative media, and virtually no press coverage of Gingrich's long history of bad ideas and disturbing behavior, current polls show Obama easily beating Newt.

The only hope Republicans have to defeat Obama is a repeat of the 2010 elections, when Democrats failed to show up for the polls. But if anything can motivate Democrats to vote in 2012, it's the nightmare of imagining President Newt.
To defeat Obama, Gingrich needs a perfect storm: a double-dip recession in an economy that seems headed toward a slow recovery, an unblemished campaign run by Newt the human gaffe machine, terrible mistakes by a president who is one of the best campaigners in recent political history, and billions of dollars in outside spending by conservative billionaires to offset Obama's fundraising advantage. None of these seem likely, and all of them will probably be necessary for Gingrich to stand a chance.

The establishment Republicans are terrified of an Obama vs. Gingrich match-up in 2012, but the Republican Party has been taken over by the far right wing of the party, and they would rather lose to Obama if they can preserve conservative purity. Gingrich, despite his many mistakes and his flip-flopping on previous rational positions (global warming, health insurance mandates, etc), offers the purest form of conservatism. He will win a long battle against Romney for the Republican nomination, and then crash and burn on November 6, 2012.

Crossposted at DailyKos.