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Brash As Ever, Newt Weighs Run For White House

by Bill Berkowitz

The Coming Backlash Against Outrage

(IPS) -- Nearly a decade after being named Time magazine's "Man of the Year," Newt Gingrich is greasing the skids for a possible 2008 run at the White House with a tour promoting "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract With America."

The book, containing a series of 20th century proposals wrapped in 21st century rhetoric, had a short stay on The New York Times bestseller list but will the public be buying Gingrich as presidential timber?

The leader of the "Republican Revolution" of the early 1990s and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was the architect of the "Contract With America," a document opponents often referred to as the "Contract On America" with its series of sharp cuts in government social programs.

Long known for making brash declarations followed by muted retractions, Gingrich continues to shoot from the lip.

Last month, during an appearance on the Fox News Channel, Gingrich, referring to the hijackers who attacked U.S. targets on Sept. 11, 2001, charged that "far more of the 9/11 terrorists came across from Canada than from Mexico."

Within hours, Canadian Ambassador Frank McKenna fired off a letter of complaint. Rick Tyler, a Gingrich spokesman, was forced to acknowledge that the former Congressman had been wrong, saying that Gingrich "deeply regrets the error."

"That's become accepted conventional wisdom here. But he'll help to correct the record," Tyler said of his boss's false assertion. "He wishes he had not repeated that error."

The apology -- muted, couched in terms that reinforce the falsehood as a matter of "conventional wisdom" even as it offers a promise of correction -- was vintage Gingrich.

Thus far, he appears not to have made much headway in improving his tempestuous image: An admittedly unscientific Apr. 20 America Online poll asked respondents whether they would like to see Gingrich run for the presidency. Sixty-three percent of 42,000-odd voters said that they would rather not. Another question explored whether "his tenure as House speaker (would) help or hurt his political future." Sixty-three percent of nearly 18,000 voters said that it would hurt.

Comebacks, however, are as American as apple pie, fortune cookies, and hip-hop.

In the 20th century, Richard Nixon mastered the political comeback, having done it at least three times. After surviving a scandal while vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, and pledging to quit politics after he lost the 1962 California governor's race to Pat Brown, Nixon won the presidency in 1968, only to be forced to resign in 1974 over the Watergate scandal. He spent the balance of his life working to refashion his image and by the time of his death was described both as a disgraced president and as an elder statesman, depending on your viewpoint.

In 1994, the year Nixon died, Gingrich's dogged organising efforts paid off as Republicans took control of the lower chamber of Congress for the first time in 40 years. As a Congressman, Gingrich experienced a number of political triumphs, one of which was his forcing Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas into retirement. As Speaker, Gingrich went on to engineer a brief not-so-triumphant "shutdown" of the government in 1995.

Gingrich is the master of hardball politics and pomposity. In 1991, he was quoted as telling a group of young Republicans to "do things that may be wrong; but do something," adding that one of the party's "great problems" was that "we don't encourage you to be nasty."

He reached his rhetorical pinnacle three days before the 1994 election, when he equated the murder of children to Democratic values. He was quoted in news reports at the time as saying of Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman who drowned her two young sons: "the mother killing her two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to have change. I think people want to change and the only way you get change is to vote Republican. That's the message for the last three days."

In 1997, Gingrich became the first House speaker in U.S. history to be censured and fined for ethical misconduct involving taxes. After his resignation from Congress, he became a fellow at two of the country's most important rightwing think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.

In 1999, he founded the Gingrich Group, which according to its Web site is "a communications and consulting firm that specializes in transformational change." And in January 2003, the Center for Health Transformation, "a collaboration of public and private sector leaders dedicated to the creation of a 21st Century Intelligent Health System in which knowledge saves lives and saves money for every American," was launched as a project of the Gingrich Group. Gingrich also has been a political analyst for the Fox News Channel.

Gingrich's comeback is being driven by a compelling combo: God and government. He writes in his book: "We must re-establish that our rights come from our Creator and that an America that has driven God out of the public arena is an America on the way to decay and defeat."

In late February, after several years' absence, Gingrich spoke at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. He gave a speech that another newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, described as "an intellectual and historical romp -- a short course on the ills facing the nation and, naturally, the cures."

Jumping aboard the so-called values bandwagon, Gingrich talked about God in public life. "As a historian, I can talk about how the Declaration of Independence was written, what Thomas Jefferson stands for, and whether it is good for American families to go on a walking tour of Washington to see historically the absolute fact that the Founding Fathers were deeply committed to the idea our rights come from God," he said.

Gingrich's political future hinges on more than proposals to cut taxes, raise education standards, combat terrorism, create private health care accounts, and private the government's Social Security retirement plan -- all positions he advocates in his new book.

Dogged by a history of ethical lapses, multiple sexual affairs, and the abandonment of one of his wives while she had cancer, the man who led the Republican Revolution now seems determined to create his own 21st century revolutionary moment by adding a generous helping of the Christian right's "traditional values" agenda to his assortment of conservative economic proposals.

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Albion Monitor May 18, 2005 (

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