The Revolution with Steve Kornacki
Bonus episode: An Interview With Newt Gingrich
After releasing the first six episodes of The Revolution we heard from our main character: Newt Gingrich. It turns out he had listened to the show and when he got through the last episode – the one where we convened a panel of journalists who covered him while he was in the House to debate his legacy – Newt decided to weigh in. So Steve Kornacki made the trip to Northern Virginia to get his thoughts on the 1994 Republican Revolution and American politics since.
Steve Kornacki: So I’m about to get on the Amtrak train in New York.
Steve Kornacki: Last week, I took a short trip. So if you're wondering why I was on this Amtrak train to D.C. and for that matter, if you're wondering why this episode just popped up in your podcast feed, well, here's what happened. We originally taped and released the first six episodes of the series, which hopefully you've already heard, and we thought that was the end of it. But then we heard from our main character.
We had asked Newt Gingrich to take part in an interview for the first six episodes and we've been unable to arrange anything. You probably heard that during the first six episodes. But once we released all six of them, the Executive Producer of Newt Gingrich's podcast reached out, and we settled on a time for me to interview him.
Steve Kornacki: Thank you very much.
Security Guard: Thank you.
Steve Kornacki: Have a good one.
Security Guard: Have a nice (inaudible).
Steve Kornacki: I also agreed to be on his podcast at a later date. I was thrilled we were going to get this chance because obviously Newt Gingrich is central to the entire story we told.
Unidentified Male: Oh, Gingrich?
Steve Kornacki: Yes.
Adam Noboa: Yes.
Steve Kornacki: But it turned out he had listened to all six episodes of the podcast and he had plenty of thoughts about our story and about everything that's happened in American politics since. So my producer Adam and I got off the train in D.C., took a short car ride to Northern Virginia.
Unidentified Female: Hello.
Adam Noboa: Hi.
Steve Kornacki: Hi.
Unidentified Female: How are you all?
Steve Kornacki: And we found ourselves in the office of Newt Gingrich.
Newt Gingrich: Hello, hello.
Adam Noboa: Hi.
Newt Gingrich: How are you?
Adam Noboa: I'm Adam. Nice to meet you.
Steve Kornacki: Mr. Speaker, Steve Kornacki.
Newt Gingrich: You, too.
Adam Noboa: How are you?
Newt Gingrich: You did a good series of podcast.
Steve Kornacki: Appreciate hearing that.
Newt Gingrich: Very impressed. I thought number six was wrong, but --
Steve Kornacki: Number six, that's episode six, when we convened a panel of journalists who covered Newt while he was in the House and tried to sketch out his legacy. Newt heard that, and he decided he had something to say.
Newt Gingrich: I would argue that while we were winning the political wars, we were losing the cultural wars, and that the society culturally was moving much further to the left. At the very time, politically it was moving to the right. And that's the tension we're currently living in.
Steve Kornacki: I'm Steve Kornacki, and this is "The Revolution," Episode 7, Newt Gingrich.
Before we dive in, I should say that this interview has been edited for time and clarity. This was an unexpected surprise on our part. We hoped obviously and anybody who's listened to the first six episodes know we reached out a couple of times trying to get you in the mix. I'm curious why did you end up reaching out to us afterwards.
Newt Gingrich: Well, and I think we sort of wanted to do it and scheduling kept interfering in the election, and the campaign, and all that stuff. And frankly, when I listened to the first five episodes, I was so impressed with the authenticity and the balance of the program that I thought it was appropriate to sort of become part of it. And then when I listened to the sixth tape, I decided that you needed the balance of somebody who wasn't an automatic critic, if I can put it that way.
Steve Kornacki: The sixth episode was a roundtable discussion.
Newt Gingrich: But I do want to commend you and your team. I think it was remarkably useful contribution to history to have the way you guys did it.
Steve Kornacki: I appreciate you saying that. So the sixth episode, obviously, that was a roundtable discussion.
Newt Gingrich: Yes.
Steve Kornacki: And we’ll get your take on everything that was raised in that episode, I think, in the course of our conversation. I think maybe a good starting point though would be taking the sixth episode aside, the first five. The story we tell of the path from the late 70’s to 1994 to the Republican majority, are there particular aspects of that that resonated strongly with you and you thought that was right? And were there aspects of it that you looked at and said they got something wrong there.
Newt Gingrich: The biggest thing I think that I reacted to was this notion that we had somehow failed somewhere between welfare reform, the capital gains tax cut, Medicare reform, Food and Drug Administration reform, telecommunications reform and finally, four consecutive balanced budgets (inaudible) only time in your lifetime. I thought we were pretty successful.
We had fundamentally changed the balance of power in Washington for the first time in 40 years. And you could argue longer than that because we were the first reelected Republican majority since 1928. The majority we created lasted until 2006 and was big enough that, even in defeat, it was capable of coming back in 2010. So from my perspective, both on a policy front and on a political front, we've been really successful.
And frankly, I didn't think I had more than four years when I got elected because I was elected as a genuine revolutionary. I was taking on the entire national establishment. And I figured it was a half-life of doing that. And I would argue that while I personally paid a price for that, that was more than worth it because we had fundamentally shifted in the direction of the country. And I think had George W. Bush had a clue what we had done, that it would have sustained itself far longer than it did.
Steve Kornacki: So you're talking about the speakership itself and the years to follow. And I want to come back around to that, but I guess maybe start out here revisiting the road to the majority of (inaudible) --
Newt Gingrich: Right.
Steve Kornacki: -- because a few things I want to ask you about. One is this. You get to the House in 1978, and you believed there can be a Republican majority someday. And that is as we try to get across the folks in this podcast, that's a pretty radical belief to hold in the 1970’s. When you got there in 1978, how long did you think it was going to take?
Newt Gingrich: Oh, I don't think I thought in those terms. I mean, I thought, first of all, mathematically it was very unlikely that would continue a one-party dominance forever. So by definition, at some point, we’d be a majority. I think that I probably, if you would ask me in ’78, I probably thought it was a four to six-year process.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah. This is what occurred to me while we were putting this together. All of these major events they're playing out in the House that you're central to in this period, in the 70’s and the 80’s. Your fight with Tip O'Neill on the floor, and there’s C-SPAN’s arrival and Jim Wright, you get into the early 90’s and numerically you are no closer to a majority than you had been a decade earlier. Was there a point in there when you're saying this isn’t going to happen?
Newt Gingrich: No, I think one of the characteristics, when I listened to the first five, which are the historical part of your program, I was struck with two things. One was how much we had done. And the other was how often it didn't work. I mean, you know, we were sort of like a classic siege campaign in which we’re battering at the walls of the castle and trying to figure out some way to get into the castle. And, you know, if you'd sort of say, well, that didn't work, you know, what's the next thing we can try?
So, I think from that standpoint, I really believed partly because I'm a historian by training that, you know, cheerful persistence, my dad had been a career infantryman for 26 years. And I think that whole process of growing up in the Army and of thinking about endurance, you know? I mean, Washington took eight years to win independence and didn't win very many battles, but he endured.
Steve Kornacki: You had two battles you were fighting. You had a battle against the Democratic Party that you're trying to topple, but you had battles within your own party in terms of trying to --
Newt Gingrich: Sure.
Steve Kornacki: -- win them over to a direction. Tell me if this is wrong, but you saw potential in media, potential in television, in particular, the cameras coming to the House to nationalize politics earlier than most in either party. Do you think that's a fair --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, Michael Barone once wrote that I was a Gaullist, that like de Gaulle I combine nationalism and technology. And I think that I had always had a fascination with technology. I had studied computing at Georgia Tech just as a side. I never went to Tech, but as early as 1965, I was studying computing.
I had studied McClellan and had a pretty good sense of the whole notion of television. And I had modified my behavior. I did my first radio interview and television interviews in the summer of 1960 when I was in my junior and senior years in high school.
I wrote my first newspaper article when I was, I think, 11. My whole career had been built around the media, and I had risen through the media.
In Georgia, you know, my first campaign was like $85,000, but I had enough ties to the media, and I was able to generate enough noise. You know, and a lot of politics is about noise.
Steve Kornacki: How essential were the cameras in the House, television cameras in the House, C-SPAN and just the presence of cameras coming to the House basically when you got there? How was essential was that to pulling off 1994 ultimately and everything that led to it? Could it have happened if --
Newt Gingrich: Probably --
Steve Kornacki: -- cameras weren’t there?
Newt Gingrich: -- (inaudible). Yes, it could have happened, but it would’ve been different. I mean, the Jacksonians did it by mailing newspaper so, you know, Lincoln did it without television. I mean, every generation's leadership has to understand the technology of communication for that generation. So FDR did the radio, you know, because he understood. John F. Kennedy did television.
I would say that C-SPAN was enormously empowering in several ways. Art Pine took me out to dinner one night. And he said, you know, in the old days they had the whales in the minnows minutes. And the whales were people like Richard Russell, and they were the eight or 10 or 12 people who really mattered. And everybody else was a minnow.
He said that system has broken down, and nobody now knows what the hierarchy is. And so noise becomes a hierarchical signal.
Now, by pure luck, probably the most popular radio show and drive time was Braden and Buchanan. And Buchanan decided to go on strike for more money. And so they were desperate for conservatives to sit in with Braden, and here I am as a young freshman, you know, I now recognize freshmen don't have that much impact, that much to do anyway.
Steve Kornacki: This is Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan who would go on to be the first host of Crossfire --
Newt Gingrich: Yes, exactly --
Steve Kornacki: -- on CNN
Newt Gingrich: -- which I --
Steve Kornacki: This is a radio show --
Newt Gingrich: -- I would later on join on Crossfire
Steve Kornacki: -- the forerunner -- right.
Newt Gingrich: But they're doing radio drive time. So sometimes I think in the spring of my first year, I get this call that says would you like to come in the afternoon and substitute for Buchanan. So for, I don't know, six or eight weeks, I would go probably twice a week and you get three hours of Gingrich arguing with Braden.
Well, the impact it had was you’re a typical Washington bureaucrat. You're driving home. You’re listening to this guy with a slightly strange voice and a weird name. And so all of a sudden I went from being an unknown backbencher to sort of a mid-level member in the first year I was there, but just because of the power of drive time radio in Washington. So that would be a typical example.
I almost immediately understood that C-SPAN was the opportunity to reach out and educate the country and to develop a signaling system that much of the media would watch. And so again, here you are, you’re a backbencher in a committee meeting you don't have much influence. But in an hour-long special order, particularly if you've been a college teacher and you’re used to hour-long special orders or called lectures, you can have a real impact. So very early on Brian Lamb launched it, you know, to check (inaudible) by May or June I was already on C-SPAN.
Steve Kornacki: I was actually surprised you weren't the first, it was Al Gore. But then if I had to guess outside of Newt Gingrich who would have been the first member in the House in that era of the CTV, the potential of it I would have guessed Gore would probably be my second choice. So I guess that made some sense. I mean, has there been a downside to cameras in the House?
Newt Gingrich: Well, look, I don't know if that is particularly a big downside. If you take the combination of cameras and Internet, the more radical the member, you know, whether it's Marjorie Greene or it's AOC, the greater their capacity to attract a small sliver of a huge country, you know, and a small sliver can be 500,000 people. So in that sense, it has some impact.
I think on balance it’s largely an advantage, but that's partly because I'm a genuine popular. So I mean, I think it's good to have the chaos of 330 million or 340 million people.
Steve Kornacki: C-SPAN wasn't as, you know, sort of a niche audience. You know, it's not going to --
Newt Gingrich: Right.
Steve Kornacki: -- draw tens of millions, but from your strategic standpoint in the 1980’s, you've giving these special order speeches. It’s a key tool for you. Who, in your mind, is your audience? Who are you talking to?
Newt Gingrich: Well, in the ‘80s, the news media, the Reagan speech staff, other members, and then interested Republicans around the country. There was a group of women in Waterloo, Iowa, for all Republican activists. And when we would do special orders and call each other and say, oh, you got to turn on C-SPAN. And one of them was in Puerto Rico and ran into Jack Kemp and said, oh, Mr. Kemp, do you really serve in the House? And he said, oh, yes, I do. She said, do you know Bob Walker?
The idea that Kemp was irrelevant, but Walker mattered so shook Jack up. And we later on had t-shirts made up that said, I know Bob Walker. But again, I mean, here's a guy from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who has a following in Waterloo, Iowa.
Well, look, if you're a guerrilla movement, which is what we were, and you're the minority of the minority, any sign of hope helps. So whatever group we were appealing to out there, clearly, at one level, I was beginning to build a national reputation just by sure persistence. And a piece of that with C-SPAN wasn't the core piece, but it was a significant piece.
But I was also communicating to our members, and that was an important part of this. We're trying to take a moribund Republican base that was defeated in the 70’s, had lost any sense of purpose. And we were trying to get them reenergized with real ideas.
Steve Kornacki: The whole Jim Wright episode, obviously, we spent a lot of time on. The transition from Tip O'Neill as a speaker to Jim Wright as a speaker, was that a necessary ingredient for you? And I ask because I'm curious if a campaign like you waged against Wright, would that have even been possible against somebody like Tip O'Neill?
Newt Gingrich: No. O'Neill who was first elected in ’36 to the state legislature was a great Irish politician. I had enormous respect for him. And he played by the rules. I mean, he played hardball, but it was hardball inside a frame of reference.
Wright who had been very good to me and when I moved to expel Diggs, which one of the things I had forgotten was how early in my time there --
Steve Kornacki: Several months in.
Newt Gingrich: -- you know, just like you arrived, you unpacked, and you went out and picked a fight.
Wright was very gentlemanly, helped me think through the choreography of, literally, here I am as a brand new freshman dealing with the Majority Leader, and doing so in a way that very few Republicans ever did. So I wasn't hostile to write, but Wright did not understand that at the heart of the system has to be a mutuality.
Every 435 people win elections. They all come to the Congress. They all have rights. And you get to win if you're the majority, but you have to win within the framework of mutuality.
Wright, when in doubt, would bully people. I saw him one time with a Democrat. He had the guy up literally up against the wall in public, berating him because the guy hadn't voted Wright. And I thought that it was a level of personal abuse that was dangerous if you're going to be as powerful as the Speaker of the House. And so Wright resigned.
And then people would then blame me and I kept saying to them it’s a little bit like my fight with George H.W. Bush, which is he broke his word over taxes, I didn't., Well, it wasn't my fault that Wright had done enough stuff that a committee that was kind of majority of Democrat or that was chaired by Democrat (inaudible) number. The committee unanimously thought that he had done really bad things.
Steve Kornacki: We talked to Leon Panetta, you know --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: -- in the podcast, and I don't think this quote actually made into the podcast, but I want to read it to you because I'm sure to criticism you've heard before and I think this is a succinct expression of the criticism of how you handled these years, Wright, and other instance instances the way you kind of went about creating the majority in the House. Panetta says, “There were a lot of factors at play here, but I think the thing that really kind of sent the House in the wrong direction was the fact that Newt and some of the other Republicans, at that time, decided that with television in the House, the best thing to do was to really try to undermine the faith of the American people in the institution of the House.
And I think that hurt the House it frankly hurt both Republicans and Democrats. It was a strategy that basically said we are going to undermine faith in the House even if it hurts Republicans because it's about this larger mission of tearing the place down in order to get power.”
That argument that you torch the place and that's what got you to power, but also permanently wreck the Congress essentially. What would you say to critics who say that?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, first of all, I like Leon, I admire him, and we've been friends. But remember that Leon is the Democrat who chaired the committee, which stole the seat in Indiana. And when they came down to it in the end, he did what Tony Coelho told him to, which was steal the seat.
Somebody wrote a book the other week -- I haven't had time to really critique, but I'd like to -- about the destructionist. Well, they’re right. I set out with three goals: change the welfare of state, defeat the Democrats in Congress, and defeat the Soviet empire.
Well, you could argue if you were a good Soviet that I was a destructionist. You could argue if you're a good Democrat that I was a destructionist, and you could argue if you're a liberal who believed in the original well first state that I was a destructionist. But that’s why I was elected. I wasn't trying to. And I think it is a gross exaggeration to identify the House with the Democratic Party, so I'm not quite sure what the complaint is except that I came along like Reagan, and I actually made the right effective. And that was, of course, seen as a grave sin by the Democrats.
And a lot of them never forgave me for ending the 40 years of domination because suddenly they went from being in charge to being the ranking member. They went from having a huge staff to having a small staff, and they didn't like it. I mean, I don't blame them, but they could have also looked at, you know, it was the end of 40 years and maybe it was time.
Steve Kornacki: Folks who have heard this podcast, this will be fresh in their minds so presumably --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, that’s true.
Steve Kornacki: -- but after the ’84 election, there's an unresolved House race in the Eighth District of Indiana. And the Republican candidate out there Rick McIntyre gets certified as the winner by the Secretary of State, but, of course, the constitution gives the House the power ultimately to be the judge of its own elections. The Democrats control the House, and the Democrats end up refusing to see either candidate from that race Frank McCloskey, the incumbent, or Rick McIntyre, and this whole process ensues where Leon Panetta, Democrat from California, chairs a three-member committee that investigates the election. Two Democrats, one Republican, all the crucial votes go two to one, Democrats against Republicans.
And ultimately, McCloskey gets declared the winner on not quite a partisan vote, but pretty close to a partisan vote in the House, and the Republicans walk out of the chamber. So that's what you're referring to when you talk about Leon Panetta’s role.
And you believe, because we talked to Panetta and he thinks ultimately, they made the right decision. You think it was theft.
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, first of all, they can't explain the votes they didn’t count because they stopped counting when they were hit by four votes. And we've always believed that the rest of the votes might well have been McIntyre, in which case they would have had to seat McIntyre. But I had been telling them for at least two months, I was on the House Administration, Bill Thomas who had been my roommate and came in with me was the Republican on that committee. And Bill Schweitzer was our lawyer for that committee.
And I kept telling both Thomas and Schweitzer, they're going to steal it, that Tony Coelho’s wife lives in that district. Tony is not going to be embarrassed, and in the end, they're going to steal it. And finally, they came back to me after it was over, and Schweitzer said, you were right.
Steve Kornacki: Do you think Panetta thought that's what he was doing? Do you think he believed that McIntyre actually won the race and he was --
Newt Gingrich: The great virtue of being a machine politician is that you can do the most ridiculous thing with a straight face. Now, you have to ask Panetta, why did they quit counting? There were literally more than enough votes outstanding that McIntyre could’ve won.
Steve Kornacki: We talk in the episode and play audio, in fact, of all the Republicans walking out including, I thought, most significantly Bob Michel. That was a big turning point in the House, wasn't it?
Newt Gingrich: It was a major step towards a more militant Republican Party. And again, I think in terms of why Leon has a hard case, you know, Bill Thomas convinced the conference that it was stolen. Well, Michel walked out because he was convinced it was stolen, and the person who stole it was Leon Panetta.
Steve Kornacki: Did you talk to Panetta about that --
Newt Gingrich: No --
Steve Kornacki: -- in subsequent years or --
Newt Gingrich: -- what is he going to say? He’s going to say we don't agree. And I would say, so why didn't you count the last votes? And he’d give me some nonsense answers. I mean, he's not stupid, he's a very smart man. But at this moment in time, he was under enormous pressure. And his career would have been different had he reported a Republican victory.
Steve Kornacki: I mean, the argument is also made, I guess, that we have voices in this podcast who express it that was changed in the House over the last, say four decades or so, has been a decline in civility, has been a decline in collegiality between members of opposing parties and with that has come the cost of generally speaking a lot less bipartisanship, a lot less work across the aisles, a lot more polarization and members who just fundamentally don't even know or understand each other anymore. Is that something you've seen? And is that something that you look back to the House that you first entered in 1978 and say, hey, maybe there was something working there that I didn't fully appreciate at the time.
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, look, I was assigned to House Administration and the Public Works. They’re both essentially bipartisan although House Administration would’ve fought over election law wasn't, but most of the time it was.
What happened that is different is that we're in the middle of a cultural civil war. The gap between the left and the right is as big as it's been at any time in modern America, and it's genuine and it's deep. And so each side would love to have civility on their terms. Neither side is prepared of civility on the other side's terms. And they have almost no ability to compromise in the middle.
So you end up with Pelosi ramming through every single major piece of legislation on a party line. I mean, every single one. And then we're told that we are somehow disruptive. I would just say the tensions are a reflection of reality, they’re not the cause of reality.
Steve Kornacki: I want to talk a little bit about your tenure as speaker, but I guess as a prelude to that, thinking back to November 8, ’94, what do you remember about that night?
Newt Gingrich: Well, it was amazing. I mean, first of all, I had been confident since September 17th that we’ll be a majority. And we have been planning the speakership for six weeks.
Steve Kornacki: What was the magic --
Newt Gingrich: Well, it's a great story, which I’m actually going to talk about at length in the upcoming book on the March to the Majority.
Dan Meyer who's my chief of staff and is now Kevin McCarthy’s Chief of Staff, having served George W. Bush as legislative liaison in between, Meyer was on the plane, Steve Hanser who was my closest adviser, Joe Gaylord who was my political partner, and Kerry Knott who was Dick Armey’s Chief of Staff.
And we're going to go on a, I think, maybe a four-day swing on a private plane where we're going to raise money and do events. And we're going to plan in between. So we're taking off at national. And I said, all right, are we planning for a majority or are we planning for the minority. Which plan are we doing?
And Gaylord said, well, you’d better be planning to be speaker because you're going to be. At which point, Meyer said, wait a second, you know, you have to explain this.
So Joe started in Maine and went through 435 districts by memory and said we would pick up 53 seats. He actually picked up 54. The only one he missed was Rostenkowski.
Steve Kornacki: No one had that one, yeah.
Newt Gingrich: It never occurred to us that an unknown lawyer would defeat Rostenkowski in downtown Chicago.
Steve Kornacki: Michael Flanagan, right?
Newt Gingrich: That’s right.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah.
Newt Gingrich: So I trusted Joe enough that from that point on I assumed we’d be a majority. I didn't know if it would be 53, but I was confident that he was not off enough for us to be a minority. So by the eighth of November, we pretty well knew we were going to be a majority.
Steve Kornacki: You had that confidence, but I mean, I was a teenager. I guess, as you were into politics as a teenager --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: -- so I remember it very well. And I remember absorbing the consensus in the media coverage, and it was right to the day not going to happen. It was gonna be a good night for the Republicans but it wasn’t gonna be --
Newt Gingrich: If you go back and look at the shock that night.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah.
Newt Gingrich: I mean, the only other time it was comparable was Trump’s victory, which if you go to YouTube and pull up those, and you watch the look on people's faces --
Steve Kornacki: I was part of the coverage in ’16 so --
Newt Gingrich: -- well, as I say, they’re very similar.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah.
Newt Gingrich: So we had a huge crowd that night. Sean Hannity was the host.
Steve Kornacki: He was an Atlanta talk radio host at that time, was that news?
Newt Gingrich: I made two mistakes that night, which I regret. I regret both of them. One, the bigger mistake was I didn't take the call from Clinton initially. It was just because we were busy and we were we're doing stuff, and I figured, you know, but --
Steve Kornacki: The president called, and you said no?
Newt Gingrich: The president called, and it was just stupid on my part. It’s the dumbest thing I did that night. And then second, I was doing some walking interview, which is one of my traits, which gets me in trouble regularly.
And a lesson I never fully learned is when you get to that level, you're no longer an analyst. So we’re walking along, and I said, look, you have to understand how much Bill and Hillary were McGovernicks. Well, that became a story, of course.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah, I think “counterculture McGovernicks,” was that the term?
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, yeah.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah.
Newt Gingrich: And that was just stupid because it distracted from what I should have been saying. So I'll give myself bad marks on those two.
On the other hand, late in the evening, I met with 20 or 30 of our strongest supporters. When we had people who had been supporting this effort through GOPAC and through the NRCC, et cetera, you know, for years, I mean, no matter how often we launch they were still writing the check and they were still helping and what have you. And so a bunch of them got together. And I said to them something, which I repeated that Friday, which was because their greatest fear was that we will go to Washington and become normal.
And I said, look, I want to cooperate, but I'm not going to compromise, which is a phrase I repeated on Heritage speech on Friday that week. That I meant and that was deliberate. And it was important, you know, so I mean, I remember there was much exaltation probably just because we had worked so hard and so long, that it was more a sense of exhaustion and exhilaration, but there was a huge sense of satisfaction.
Steve Kornacki: This gets into the territory in the sixth episode where I think you had some issues with, but I mean, I think what you're alluding to there was raised in the sixth episode. And I've heard others make a similar argument that a lot of the skills that you had in the 16 years leading up to 1994, strategic skills, the approach to politics of drawing this very deep contrast between the parties. Of the kind of rhetoric, you're talking about “counterculture McGovernicks,” this sort of thing that hindered your transition to speaker, and that ultimately hindered your effectiveness as House Speaker. Is there validity to that?
Not about the strategic part. I think that was one of the keys. But I think if you look at the opening 100 days, opening 93 days, it was astonishing what we were doing and how fast we were doing it, and how much we were dominating the media, which was important because we had to keep momentum. And ultimately, it is Clinton's decision, which I think is in June that he has to compromise with us, but he cannot be the defender of the left and get reelected. And that changed the world.
I mean, if you look at the total number of things we accomplished that you would have thought, you know, if I had said to you the preceding January not only are we going to win the majority, but we'll get these things done in the next four years. You would have thought I was a lunatic.
Now, I think there were three big mistakes I made. I'm thinking out loud, which is again one of my weaknesses, but also one of the strengths. One was understanding the change in my position and what you could and couldn't do.
We tried early on, for example, the new televised press conferences, which I thought will be a very good thing to do. Within a matter of weeks, we realized they just became target practice. I mean, the media would get together, the Democrats would feed them stuff, and it was not to our advantage to be doing it. So one, we’re just making the transition.
Second was because I do like the media -- and I am just hanging out here with you -- I would do things that we're analytical, that we're stupid. I mean, the whole thing about Gingrich complaining about coming out of the airplane was if you go back and actually look at the transcript --
Steve Kornacki: This is the government shutdown --
Newt Gingrich: During the government shutdown.
Steve Kornacki: -- Air Force One, yeah.
Newt Gingrich: Yeah. The whole thing came out of a Christian Science Monitor breakfast where I was trying to explain the weirdness that Clinton had all that time to sit and talk about how we can solve this and didn't which they, of course, then trumped by showing me in a picture with Clinton, so see they really were together, which wasn't my point. My point was, yeah, we were together. He was playing cards. And, in fact, somebody who was with him a week later said, Gingrich was totally right. I was in the room. Clinton was not going to talk about anything serious.
And I was just saying that you either could schmooze us and get closer to a deal or you could basically ignore us and befriend them. And it was weird to watch him operate. Not something the speaker of the House should’ve said. And that was perfectly legitimate for our opponents at the Daily News to have a crybaby Newt cover, which was not what I said at all. I mean, I was actually trying to be helpful and analytical, and that there was clearly no longer what I could do that wasn't who I was anymore.
And then the other thing is something I was watching Kevin McCarthy. I flew with him for the last three days of the campaign, and I was just amazed.
McCarthy is like my wife. Calista has this ability to interact with people, to remember people, and to build networks of friends and sustain them for, you know, 50 years. I don't. I mean, I'm essentially a thinker. You know, I need lots of time to read, and study, and think. And I think I failed to sustain the level of human friendship and human teamwork that would have been necessary, and was compounded by both probably my own arrogance and making too many decisions, and by the speed with which we are moving.
I mean, I look back later on and realized I probably averaged, I don't know, 102 hours a week. I once told somebody that if I learn golf before we became speaker, I never will become speaker because I wouldn't have the time. But if I had played golf while I was speaker, I would’ve been a better speaker because it would have broken up the focus and the intensity.
Steve Kornacki: I wanted to ask you some sort of bigger picture questions here, I think, just about --
Newt Gingrich: All right.
Steve Kornacki: -- here's one. Thinking back to when you won in ’94, and again my experience of absorbing this as a spectator of American politics at the time, you know, was that this was taken by many people, the Republican Revolution in ’94 as the fulfillment of a 30-year march. Barry Goldwater starts in ’64, Reagan gets elected in ’80. You've got all these landslide Republican presidential victories, and now finally, the permanent Democratic congress has fallen, and we are now entering into an era of America being a sort of fundamentally conservative country. Did you feel that in the moment? And I'm curious, since you are historian and you think in kind of big picture terms, did you have a sense in that moment of where you thought America would be in about a generation?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, first of all, when Bill Clinton comes to the State of the Union, I think it was in ’96, and says the era of big government is over. You had some feeling that something had changed pretty profoundly, and I think it goes back to Goldwater, to Reagan's great speech that year, a time for choosing, then to Reagan's long campaign, and then to our winning.
And frankly, one of the stories which someday will be written is neither George H.W. Bush nor George Bush had a clue. And so, you have this perennial interruption. I mean, if George H.W. Bush had governed as a Reaganite, we would've been in a very different place. And again, I think if George W. Bush had governed as a Reaganite --
Steve Kornacki: If George H.W. Bush had governed as a Reaganite, and in here we're getting --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: -- into the tax episode. He says read my lips, no new taxes, then he cuts a deal with Democrats to raise taxes, and you go to war with the Bush White House and --
Newt Gingrich: Right.
Steve Kornacki: -- it tears the Republican party apart. But he also is a one-term president. How necessary was it to get control of the House --
Newt Gingrich: Oh.
Steve Kornacki: -- for a Democrat to come in in ’93-’94?
Newt Gingrich: Oh, look, ironically, I think had George H.W. Bush been a Reaganite and had even a two-term president, we wouldn't have been a majority. I think it's almost impossible to gain enough seats with an incumbent president of your own party that you have to have a reaction to the other side, which is why you see Pelosi arrive in ‘06 in reaction to Bush. You see Boehner arrive in ‘10 in reaction to Obama. This is the way it works.
Steve Kornacki: We end our story basically with your victory in ’94-’95. In the generation sense, what do you think the biggest difference is between what the Republican Party is now and what it was where our story ended?
Newt Gingrich: Well, let me say to a slightly different name because you asked me a minute ago about whether or not that was the beginning of a generation of concerted governance, Reagan warns in his farewell address about the decay in American history and the decay in understanding American society. I would argue that while we were winning the political wars, we were losing the cultural wars and that the society culturally was moving much further to the left at the very time, politically, it was moving to the right. And that's the tension we're currently living in.
Steve Kornacki: Were you feeling that in ’94?
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, we were aware of it in ’94. And a lot of my comments, you go back and look at them, are really against the counterculture, against wokeism, if you will, as it became known a generation later. It really goes back to the 70’s and 80’s, I mean, the first great surge of the left-wing cultures the late 60’s, early 70’s. And there are 2,500 bombings in a two-year period. So a lot of that stuff was coming down the road, and you could feel it coming down the road, but we didn't have a political response to it.
And so I would say I could not have predicted where we are today, but I would have probably predicted. If you told me the evolution, I would have predicted the rise of a populist conservatism.
The other thing what I think that was just wrong, I really thought both with NAFTA and with WTO that entering a larger world market made sense. In retrospect, I think the Trump strategic map is more accurate, in my view, and that the hope we had for China, the notion that Deng Xiaoping -- in being for open markets was a first step towards an open society -- failed, whether it was inevitably going to fail or whether it failed because of a counterreaction by the Communist Chinese Party, I'm not quite certain.
But the result was we gave away a great deal of American economic capacity in order to try to foster a China, which did not emerge. And so in that sense, I'm probably much more an America first person than I would have thought I would have been 30 years ago.
We’re also, at that point, in a moment of triumphalism. You know, the Soviet Union had collapsed. It was a unipolar world for all practical purposes, and we really had no peer competitor prior to probably 2016.
Steve Kornacki: So in terms of defining the Republican Party today, when you say that the culture is moving to the left, has moved to the left, are you including in that most Americans or that is state?
Newt Gingrich: Well, it’s a mix. It depends on what you're talking about.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah.
Newt Gingrich: Certainly, in terms of the woke culture, that is a white graduate educated, very small, but very, very powerful because they are located in the corporate boards. They’re located in the news media. They’re located in the senior government, so they will power out of all proportion to their size.
The biggest change in the Republican Party is that we are now the party of high school graduates, and the Democrats are now the party of upper middle class, relatively wealthy people. That's a very profound shift in the last 40 years. In a sense, we're closer to the Roosevelt coalition than the Democrats are.
Steve Kornacki: I mean, we, in covering elections, are showing this all the time that college/non-college divide you're speaking about there. How much of that was a product of the ’94 revolution? What I'm thinking of is we look at old election maps and you could see like 1988. Take for instance, your native state of Pennsylvania, you look at the Bush-Dukakis map for that election, and all the Philadelphia suburban counties are deeply Republican, and all overall southwest Pennsylvania is deeply Democratic, and it's the exact opposite today. It changed completely. This is true all across the country for exactly what you're talking about, the college/non-college divide.
Did the suburbanites, the college degree crowd, whatever you want to call them, did they have a negative reaction to the Republican Party that you helped to bring about?
Newt Gingrich: I'd have to look at the data for the Bush presidency and the votes after. Certainly, they were still with us in ’94 and largely with us in ’96. But ’94, I think, you have to check. I don’t want to. But I think ’94 is the year that the Rural America left the Democrats.
I think you are seeing a gradual transition in the suburbs, and I think it was accelerated because, you know, ironically, George H.W. Bush was a genuine Yale, you know, northeastern person who happen to live in Houston. His son was, in many ways, why he went to Yale was in many ways much more clearly a Texan. And I think that that probably in the suburbs further weakened. I’d have to go back and look at the 2004 election. But my hunch is that Kerry did better than Dukakis was a significant margin in the suburbs.
Steve Kornacki: Yeah, it's interesting because I --
Newt Gingrich: And it wasn't because they like Kerry.
Steve Kornacki: I've looked at 2004, the Bush-Kerry map as Bush got about halfway, I'd say, to where Trump was able to get in six, like he almost won Wisconsin.
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: He almost won. Pennsylvania, you know, that Trump was able to flip in ’16, and he did it without massive suburban margins. He started to make those (inaudible).
Newt Gingrich: Well, the huge (inaudible).
Steve Kornacki: Like you could see the outlines of what Trump pulled off in ’16 and ’04 --
Newt Gingrich: No.
Steve Kornacki: -- in that election. Big picture, last generation, what's the biggest change in the Democratic Party?
Newt Gingrich: Oh, that there’s no conservative or moderate wing left. The Democratic Party, I believe, has two wings, a weird wing and an insane wing. And you just watch them and, you know, we're now for Venezuelan oil. Well, what's the underlying mythology that would lead to that? We are for spending money overseas, creating gay and lesbian workgroups. I mean, just go down a whole list of things we think -- we're for teaching third graders about their gender. This is not a Democratic Party, which virtually any Democrat before 2000 would have recognized.
Steve Kornacki: That depiction of the Democratic Party, that's your view. What do you think brought that about? What made that the Democratic Party in your eyes?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, look, I think there's a very important book to be written about the rise of the left starting, to some extent, with (inaudible), the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers. I mean, you have to start in the ‘60s and you have to come all the way up to the present.
You know, the fact that the day after Trump was elected, they were organizing meetings in eight different cities within 24 hours to oppose him. The networking of the left is astonishing and methodical and very well-financed. Look, I believe these people are all sincere. I mean, I didn't suggest they were hypocrites. I suggested they were, A, weird or B, insane, but I didn’t suggest they were hypocrites.
And I think that they have entirely the passion that you would have had in the nearly Protestant Reformation or you would have among, say, Jesuits at their peak when they were genuinely the soldiers of the pope. And they're determined to change this country, and they’re determined to destroy as many people as they have to to change the country. They're very close to both the French Revolution and to Bolshevism.
Steve Kornacki: So much what we talk about in the podcast is your emphasis on creating clear definition between the two parties and making, you know, country see Republicans as the conservative opportunity side, the Democrats are the protectors of the liberal welfare state, and the great effort you went to try to bring that about.
The description you're giving of the Democratic Party right now, what does it say that elections are essentially all 50-50 in this country right now? Biden wins a handful of states by 44,000 votes; he's the president. Trump wins a handful of states by 75,000 votes; he's the president. You're identifying what you see as a radical shift in the Democratic Party and yet, the country --
Newt Gingrich: Well, I think you have --
Steve Kornacki: -- basically half the country seems comfortable with it. What do you attribute that to?
Newt Gingrich: It isn't very hard to overstate the scale of impact on the mass media and the degree to which they are part of the left. So I would say that the institutions that have the commanding heights are on the left and the populace is on the right, but what you have are really superb mechanisms on the left. I mean, a good example. If you go back to where, you know, Twitter decides it will not only block Trump who’s the incumbent president of the United States, but it will block the oldest newspaper in America.
Steve Kornacki: Getting into Trump, actually, that's a direction that some of the voices in our podcast went to drawing a line from you to Donald Trump. And I guess, the way I wanted to ask you about this, there are a couple of things, but one is I was on the Hugh Hewitt radio show about a year ago, and he says the origin story for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign should be viewed as Newt Gingrich onstage in 2012 in South Carolina for that CNN debate and that first question from John King.
And I went back and watched it before talking to you today, and it turns into an attack on the media. And within 30 seconds, the crowd is literally on its feet. And Hugh Hewitt says, that was the source of Trump's appeal to Republicans, and he sought in that moment in 2012.
Two things I wonder is do you think Trump learned something from watching that in 2012? Do you think that's about inaccurate? And just watching it, I can feel the power of the moment to that crowd. What is that? What were you tapping into?
Newt Gingrich: It actually started at the very first debate where the debate began with Bret Baier saying, we're not going to have any Mickey Mouse questions, and we're going to really focus on big issues. And I literally wrote it down as he said it.
And about halfway through the debate, Chris Wallace can't help himself, and he asked me something, which is clearly a Mickey Mouse question. And I read back what Baier had said, and I went straight at him. And he never forgave me for this. And all of a sudden, there's a spontaneous applause. And the audience was just totally on my side.
The next day, I'm walking through O’Hare Airport because the debate was in Iowa. And this airline pilot who I have no idea who it is walks up to me and says, I was so glad you took him on last night. I am so sick of those blankety-blank-blank people and how arrogant they are, and he walked off. And I thought, oh, there is an indicator.
And consistently in every debate, and they finally figured it out and at the very end, they crippled me by insisting on rules where you couldn't have audience applause and you couldn't hear. But up until that moment and virtually every debate, I would have a fight with somebody in the media because I had figured out if we’re conservatives, the media had become one of the major threats to their entire way of life. And they wanted somebody to be a champion to stand up and fight them.
Now, you have to ask Trump whether not he actually queued off of that, but given how much Trump watches television. See, I think Trump learned counterpunching from Page 6. I mean, I think he learned and he writes about this, I think, in the art of the deal that he had this attack by the New York times. But the very act of attacking him on Page 1 about something he was doing with the building told people about the building, and the next two weeks he dramatically increase the number of people who wanted to rent from him because the New York Times had elevated. So whether he got it for me or whether you already know what I don't know --
Steve Kornacki: But that was politically to the Republican base that you’re going after that primary. This made you a compelling figure, and these are the sources. You know, we can watch and we have this in the podcast audio of you in the 70’s and 80’s talking about what you call the elite media. So it's been a theme you've pressed.
Newt Gingrich: Theodore White writes about it in ’68.
Steve Kornacki: Is that feeling among Republicans more intense now than it was?
Newt Gingrich: Yes.
Steve Kornacki: Why? And I asked why because there was no Fox News until 25 years ago.
Newt Gingrich: No, no, when we say elite media, we all know what we mean.
Steve Kornacki: How would you define it?
Newt Gingrich: You. I mean, look, you say MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, the various New York kind of publications, The Atlantic, et cetera, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Constitution, I mean, some of these are 50, 60, 70-year fights.
Steve Kornacki: Well, that’s what I'm curious why. I guess, what I'm trying to get at here is why is it more pronounced now this feeling, given that like --
Newt Gingrich: Because the culture war is more pronounced. The idea that you would move the all-star game from Atlanta over a lie is exactly the sort of thing that makes people bitter. People used to be irritated now they're bitter. And I think that's what people that I think that's what the elites don't understand yet.
Steve Kornacki: You’re one of the first prominent Republicans in 2016 to come onboard with Trump after he started winning some of those primaries.
Newt Gingrich: Sure.
Steve Kornacki: And I know before you endorsed to me, you were saying positive things. Were you watching him saying he's connecting with the people I was trying to connect with in --
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, in a lot of ways I think ‘16 and ‘12 in that sense are related. But if I had been --
Steve Kornacki: And even further back when you were trying to build a majority of the House, was that when you --
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, first of all, I am a genuine populist. I mean, this is not a mythology. And I came out of a family that was blue collar Central Pennsylvania. And I actually believe the country is better off to have a pretty broad populist base that is precisely what led to the great reforms in most of American history.
You know, I have considerable affection for Andrew Jackson because he represented an uprising against the aristocracy. You know, I have the great affection for Lincoln because he really was the common man. And I believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that means inevitably you have to take on The New York Times and The Washington Post because they're not.
Steve Kornacki: Looking at the 2022 midterms, a lot of these candidates who tethered themselves very directly to Trump's message especially around the 2020 election, you know, got defeated in their races. And it seemed very clear to me that Kevin McCarthy was trying to sort of follow your playbook from 1994 and had that kind of victory in mind.
The fact that, okay, Republicans have won the house, but it's going to be a small majority.
Newt Gingrich: Yeah.
Steve Kornacki: It’s going to be exact same size the Democrats have for the last two years. Does that speak to Trump's lingering presence, especially the feelings generated by the wake of the 2020 election? Does that speak to that limiting the Republican Party's appeal?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I have to tell you, one, I was wrong. I said publicly I thought we didn’t win a lot of seats in both the House and the Senate. I am probably more confused about American politics right now than any point in my career. And part of the reason is, for example, people had all these theories about why Republicans did badly because they thought that our popular vote was the same as the election outcome. In fact, we carry the majority of the popular vote.
Now, we did dramatically better with women than in 2018, yet supposedly abortion really hurt us. We did marginally better. I think we had 19 percent of the black male vote, which is a significant jump. We did better with Latinos, which we've done every election now. For every election, we're picking up three, four, five points in the Latino community.
We did dramatically better with Asian-Americans, and I think that's the beginning of the end. That community will presently be so alienated from the Democrats over everything from quotas to what the Democrats are doing to education, et cetera.
So I look at all this. You look at Florida and, you know, you say, well, there's Trumpism without Trump, and it’s clearly astonishingly successful.
On a scale, you couldn’t have dreamed two years ago of carrying Dade County. And it wasn't just Governor DeSantis, Marco Rubio was within a percentage point of DeSantis, I mean, so you look at that and you think, and we picked up four House seats partly because DeSantis gerrymandered. So you look at that.
You look at New York where we've lost the governorship, and you have a really interesting problem. This is where I get totally confused.
Given all the crime in New York City and all the problems in New York City, the Republican couldn't get above 31 percent in New York City. You look at that and you think so, you know, what is the tribalism that holds the system together no matter how painfully gets.
Steve Kornacki: I am now thinking back because I mean, you said early in our conversation where you talked about 16 years of trying to get to the House majority and you get there and you’re the speaker, and you went into it looking at it as a four-year proposition --
Newt Gingrich: Right.
Steve Kornacki: -- because, to paraphrase what you're telling me, you're a disruptive force. You’re going to take all of this incoming, and so there was a limited kind of period of effectiveness there.
Listening to you describe 2022 and DeSantis in Florida, in particular, as Trumpism without Trump and to win that race by almost 20 points, now all the stats you just cited, is this a moment for Trump to say essentially what you would conclude about your own tenure that there's a --
Newt Gingrich: That's Trump’s decision. You know, that’s --
Steve Kornacki: As a Republican, I mean, you’re looking at what DeSantis pulled off in Florida.
Newt Gingrich: Trump announced the other night --
Steve Kornacki: Right.
Newt Gingrich: -- and despite every effort by the elite media, including Fox, to avoid him, he's a force in his own right. I told him in ’16 that his model was Andrew Jackson and that he had to understand that the entire establishment would try to destroy.
Now, I have to confess they worked at it more than I thought they would. I would tell you a quick story. I want to see Cap Weinberger at one point when he was Secretary of Defense. And I said, I'm really curious. We’re having a huge fight over the MX mobile missile. The left is going crazy. They've been going crazy now for eight months, and you cling to it. Why are you keeping this fight up? And he looked at me saying, he said, Newt, if I drop the missile this afternoon, do you think the left would thank me or do you think they'd find a new target?
So the longer I can keep them fixated, the better off I am. And I ain’t dropping this missile as long as I can avoid it. I thought it was a really interesting strategic insight.
If Donald Trump were to announce today he's not running, the entire weight to the left go to work to destroy DeSantis. And DeSantis, in three months, wouldn't be DeSantis.
Steve Kornacki: You say, you're confused about where things are now and your next 20 years are very fascinating potentially. I'm wondering that the theme of our podcast is essentially how politics became nationalized, and you’ve nationalized the midterm election --
Newt Gingrich: Right.
Steve Kornacki: -- and you broke the Democratic majority. And I've watched and you’ve watched over the last generation, I think, is this process of nationalization has really, I think, intensified. To me, it's left us in a situation where it seems like almost every election is a 50-50 election.
Again, the House was 222-213 Democrats. Before this election, it will be to 222-213 Republicans after. Joe Biden wins the presidency by a combined 44,000 votes in three states. Donald Trump wins it by 75,000 in three states. I mean, this is where we are. This level of polarization, do you see in the next 20 years a way out of it?
Newt Gingrich: Yeah, one side or the other will win.
Steve Kornacki: How can you win?
Newt Gingrich: And then you’ll go back to commenting in the House because the minority side will decide it has to accommodate the reality.
Steve Kornacki: You think one side can build a --
Newt Gingrich: I’m sure eventually they will. I mean, I can’t tell. Look, we went through this from 1876 to 1896. I mean, you have cycles like that, you know, Bill Clinton tried, just as Tony Blair tried, to create an alternative center to the left, so it's of deepest reason the left hated him and dislikes Hillary.
Somebody may come along one day, but be able to do that, but it's hard for me to see institutionally how that happens with the Democrats because of the power structure. On the other hand, someone in the Republicans, whether it's Youngkin, Youngkin would not be savage nearly as much because he doesn't quite feel as Trumpite as DeSantis does.
But somebody will come along presently who will have all the core values of the right, but not in any way infuriate the middle. And we'll be able to either be impervious to or to not excite the hostility of the media, not just the media but the whole. But my hunch is that anyone who stands for a non-left future is going to have to survive being savaged that it’s such an intolerable vision for the left. And that's why really it's a genuine cultural war.
Steve Kornacki: All right. Well, that is --
Newt Gingrich: How’s that?
Steve Kornacki: That's where I want to end it. You’re vision of the future. I can pretty do this, really. I --
Newt Gingrich: This was great fun.
Steve Kornacki: From MSNBC, this is the bonus episode of The Revolution. If you like what you've heard, please give us a five-star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, and be sure to tell your friends and follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you're listening right now.
The Revolution was written and hosted by me, Steve Kornacki. The series is produced by Frannie Kelley, Ursula Sommer and Adam Noboa. It's edited by Alison MacAdam. Our associate producer is Eva Ruth Moravec. Our audio engineer for this episode is Bob Mallory. Special thanks to Lacey Roberts. Sound design by Ramtin Arablouei. Bryson Barnes is our technical director and he wrote our music. Soraya Gage is our executive producer, and Madeleine Haeringer is our Head of Editorial.