He won't announce until spring, but Newt Gingrich has 2012 on his mind. The former speaker talks to Lloyd Grove about Obama's "secular socialism," why he stands by his comparison of Obama’s agenda to Nazi Germany, how he can work alongside Rev. Al Sharpton on the president’s education policy, and what he would do about the oil spill if he was in charge. Plus, he shows off his Abba ringtone.
It’s two years and five months until the next presidential election—time for the ritual quadrennial flirtation. And Newt Gingrich, once again, is batting his eyes at the voters.
“We are looking at it very seriously,” the erstwhile Republican speaker of the House says when I ask if he’s running for president. “And Callista and I will make a decision in probably February or early March of next year.” (The former Callista Bisek, Newt’s first lady, was a congressional staffer 10 years ago when she became the third Mrs. Gingrich.)
“As Speaker of the House,” Gingrich goes on, explaining why he’d be a strong candidate, “I kept all federal spending down to a 2.9 percent a year increase for four years, including the entitlements, which is the lowest rate since Calvin Coolidge. We passed the first tax cut in sixteen years. We actually reformed welfare decisively so that 65 percent of the people on welfare either went to work or went to school. And we balanced the federal budget for four straight years and paid off $405 billion in debt.”
“The victory of the secular-socialist machine would be as decisive as the victory of totalitarian powers in ending the American experiment in freedom,” Gingrich says.
That was then. This is now. And much of the publicity surrounding Gingrich’s new book, To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, makes him sound less like a guy planning a presidential campaign than a provocateur planting a political improvised explosive device of the sort he was famous for detonating when he was a House back-bencher in the early 1980s.
“The secular-socialist machine,” Gingrich writes in his critique of President Obama, “represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” That claim has provoked severe scolding from various Jewish groups (“Newt Gingrich has drawn a foolish and dangerous analogy,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris) and prompted the Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace to chide, “Mr. Speaker, respectfully, isn't that wildly over the top?”
But Gingrich, unbowed, won’t take it back.
“If you read the sentence carefully,” he tells me, “what I say is that the victory of the secular-socialist machine”—which, in Gingrich’s view, is the Obama White House’s toxic mix of Chicago-style politics and Godless socialism—“would be as decisive as the victory of totalitarian powers in ending the American experiment in freedom, which is in fact exactly what George Orwell wrote in 1984 and exactly what Hayek wrote in the Road to Serfdom.”
Gingrich admits that he purposely uses loaded language to get attention for his views. “I want people to stop and look at how truly serious the threat of a secular-socialist machine is to the survival of this country,” he says. “If you look at the impact in Lansing, Michigan, or Sacramento or Albany, or you look at the devastation of Detroit, and you say to yourself, what happens if those kinds of values and that kind of political machine dominate Washington, it is a pretty sobering prospect.”
As for trivializing the Holocaust, Gingrich says, “I have talked since with a number of leaders in the Jewish community, all of whom know my record in terms of opposing anti-Semitism and in terms of being very concerned with the survival of Israel. Clearly, I was not suggesting a moral equivalency, but I was suggesting a finality of deed.”
Pausing to take a phone call on his second cell phone—the ringtone is Abba’s "Dancing Queen"—Gingrich argues that he’s more than just a naysayer. “Between the ideas we have in To Save America—and two-thirds of the book is proposed solutions—and the things we have developed at the Center for Health Transformation [one of Gingrich’s in-house think tanks] and the things we have developed at American Solutions [another one] and the actual track record, we’ll see,” he tells me. “I don’t sit around and try to figure out what my marketing argument is. For the moment, I’m pretty happy to be talking about ideas and to be outlining a fundamental difference in direction between a secular-socialist machine and traditional American principles going back to the Declaration of Independence.”
Given the harshness of his critique, I ask, how can Gingrich visit the White House with the Rev. Al Sharpton multiple times and go on the road to work with Obama on education policy—as he has done for the past several months?
“Well, it is one thing that the president came out for where I think he is right,” he answers. “I don’t have a problem saying, if the president of the United States is right, then it is useful for me to try and get it done. I think education reform, giving parents and children accurate information and giving them choices, is so important that I can’t imagine why you would not focus on it.” He adds: “I didn’t say they were evil.”
But Gingrich, not surprisingly, is withering about Obama’s handling so far of the BP oil spill. “It is almost ironic if you think about it,” he says. “First of all, there’s the announcement they are going to seek a criminal investigation at a time when we are actively trying to figure out how to get this well capped, so you are telling the primary firm that you are relying on to get the job done that what they ought to do is spend half of every day with their lawyers because they are in danger of going to jail? I mean, what am I missing here? It strikes me as a level of amateurism that is unbelievable.”
If Gingrich were in charge, “the first thing you do is establish a command post with real authority to coordinate state, federal and public/private activities with adequate representation and adequate communications capability,” he says, “The second thing you do on a situation that is this size is that you bring in every expert that you can find worldwide. You don’t trust any one company. You bring in the best from everywhere, and you attack it in parallel, because it is dramatically cheaper to waste the money if necessary than it is to deal with it in any other way. What they have been doing is relying overwhelmingly on BP. They have got a totally disorganized effort.” He goes on: “They have gone at this on a sequenced basis, where they try one thing and if that doesn’t work then they try another, and then they wait for a while and then try another.”
In the category of “with friends like these, you don’t need enemies,” Gingrich offers a stout defense of Democratic strategist James Carville, aka the Ragin’ Cajun, whose increasingly angry comments about the White House response to the oil leak were recently belittled by Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs.
“To have Robert Gibbs attack Carville and suggest that Carville, who is a Louisiana native and who lives in New Orleans and has been going to the beach with Governor Jindal, doesn’t have his facts straight? Because the president spent three hours in Louisiana out of 42 days? It is just inviting ridicule,” Gingrich scoffs. “Are these guys really this out of touch with reality?...I mean, you cannot make this stuff up!”
Gingrich claims that, in the foreign policy realm, Obama has been equally deficient, and derides the president’s initial response to the lethal Israeli face-off with the Gaza-bound ships as “confused.” He elaborates: “I think this was a publicity stunt by anti-Israeli activists and the Israelis should have been more aggressive earlier in creating public noise that it would not be acceptable, that it was in fact wrong and that they were not going to let it happen… The United States should have taken a position early that said this was an inappropriate effort to break the blockade by people who were clearly anti-Israeli.”
Yet, despite all of these alleged flaws and misguided policies, Gingrich stops short of saying Obama’s presidency is doomed, and concedes that he doesn’t know if Obama will win reelection, regardless of whether the 66-year-old ex-speaker decides to run for the White House.
“What I’m saying is something very different, which is that I believe that everything depends on whether he can slow down and learn,” Gingrich tells me. “I mean, he is clearly at a watershed. This is a big deal…You don’t know right now whether he is Carter or he’s Clinton. If he is Carter, he won’t learn, but if he is Clinton, he will learn. The challenge is that this is a 70 percent center-right country, and if he starts learning, he will really, truly be abandoning his deepest beliefs.”
Speaking of which, Gingrich—who started out life as a Lutheran and switched to Southern Baptist—is now, like his wife, a practicing Catholic. On Sunday, he and Callista left for Poland, where they are premiering their latest film project, Nine Days That Changed The World, a documentary about Pope John Paul II’s role in the collapse of the Soviet empire.
“There was a wonderfully rich story of the nine days that the pope went to Poland in 1979,” Gingrich says, noting that they got the idea for the movie when both Czech President Vaclav Havel and Polish leader Lech Walesa independently argued in interviews for a previous film that the pope was crucial in ending the Cold War. “It is a wonderful, wonderful movie. Emotionally very powerful,” Gingrich says. “We are having premiers in Krakow and Warsaw, and then we are going to the Vatican and we are premiering it next Saturday at the North American College in Rome…We think the film has a worldwide significance, telling the story of freedom through faith, and making the argument that no government can get between God and you as an individual.”
Not even, as Gingrich would have it, a secular-socialist machine.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.