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Conversations with the Candidates: Newt Gingrich

posted on December 9, 2011

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Hello, I'm Dan Miller.  Thank you for joining us.  You are about to see something unusual.  A conversation about issues and ideas, civil and substantive between one of Iowa's top political journalists and the candidates whose quests for the presidency she covers.  This series of conversations is defined as much by what it isn't as by what it is and it most certainly is not today's typical television fare.  It isn't a debate, a shout fest nor a game of gotcha.  There are no audiences to play to, no pundits to persuade.  It's a conversation, like the one you might have at the corner cafe, only longer and without incessant interruptions.  It's a conversation where you meet the person behind the politician, the candidate behind the campaign.  Hosting it is Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich.  She knows the candidates, she knows Iowa and is the perfect person to find out on Iowans' behalf what we haven't heard before.  We have invited candidates Bachmann, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, Romney and Santorum.  Speaker Gingrich joins Kathie now.

Obradovich: Thank you for being here, Mr. Speaker.  Now, today as you're sitting here you are the frontrunner in Iowa and in a lot of the national polls.  But let's talk about last summer.  You've said you were left for dead, your staff had quit, you were out of money.  How close were you to throwing in the towel at that point?

Gingrich: Callista and I discussed it two or three times over the course of I think June and July and it was very hard.  I've been studying and doing political things for 53 years, since I was 15 and I would say that June and July were the two hardest ones of those 53 years in terms of what was happening politically.

Obradovich: What made you decide to stay in?

Gingrich: Well, Callista kept saying, get to the debates.  She said, look, we've already had all these attacks, we've already had all this battering, Michael Laclure who is from Iowa took over the campaign and is very frugal, is a good Midwesterner in that sense, and he made the commitment that we would spend less than we took in every month which in July was very hard because we didn't raise much money.  And it was gradually -- it was like watching a ship that almost capsized and very slowly began to right itself.  And in the debates we had enormous hope.  People saw a positive message, they saw somebody who actually had the experience at the national level and every single debate we got a little stronger and it was very encouraging.

Obradovich: You mentioned Callista and I have heard that she was very instrumental in getting your campaign back on track.  Tell me just a little bit about what her role was there.

Gingrich: On one level that was very important, she went to Luther College, and a year ahead of her was Mike Laclure.  And so that relationship goes back to college days so they have known each other a long time which was important because when you had this disorienting moment and all of the professional consultants left, I mean, everybody who had been with me over the years stayed except for one person and so our core team was fine.  But to have somebody you trusted totally take over, that you could go campaign, do interviews, try to raise money and you had total faith that they had integrity, that they understood you, that they wanted to do things right, that was a big part of it and she and Michael do a lot of things in that sense.  And then second, she is much more artistic than I am.  She was a piano major at Luther and she plays the French horn, she is in a professional choir at the Basilica and she has an eye for things, she just has a New York Times bestselling children's book that is a picture book this year that she's really deeply involved in called Sweet Land of Liberty.  And so she would help Michael with a lot of the artistic parts of this, looking at the campaign logo, looking at the first brochures, looking at the first advertising and the other pieces were just sound common sense.  Going into the debates it was really important just to be balanced.

Obradovich: Balanced how?

Gingrich: I think people are really worried about the country and I think they want somebody who is a mature adult.  I think they have a sense that we've tried an amateur for the last three years, he doesn't know what he's doing, it's obvious he doesn't know what he's doing and having somebody who is stable, knowledgeable, who had actually done it before and I'll give you an example.  Some of the closer supporters said before the first debate, you've got to learn to hit a home run, the campaign is almost dead and they said, you can't do that because if you go into a debate trying to hit a home run you're going to look like somebody who is trying to hit a home run. What you have to do is go in, be very patient, be very steady then when the moment occurs which will be spontaneous then you take the moment but you can't force the moment.  And she was very supportive of that kind of calm -- she's a performer and my granddaughter Maggie who is twelve and is a ballerina and plays the violin as a performer so I had these two performance coaches and then my one son-in-law used to be the head of coach education at the U.S. Tennis Association so I'm getting coaching -- we have a lot of family coaching going on.

Obradovich: I'm going to ask you about that later but some of the people that you have served with in the past, you said you need an adult, you need somebody who is stable and mature and that it not always how they have described you in the past.  They have said that you're volatile, that you were full of ideas but short on follow through.  Has that changed or are they just wrong?

Gingrich: Well, it's funny.  I spent five years in a congressional seat.  I lost twice.  So, fro 1974 to 1978 I was trying to become a congressman.  When I became a congressman I became the head, before I was sworn in I was asked to chair a planning committee to create a majority because we had been in the minority for 24 years.  I spent 16 years helping us get to a majority.  We then spent three years creating the framework for four consecutive balanced budgets, the only four in your lifetime.  Now, you would think somebody who, that those are signs of persistence.  I'm the longest serving teacher in the senior military, I've taught one and two star generals and admirals for 23 years.  But I think what happens is I'm on a genuine change agent.  The reason you see people in both establishments, both the republican and democratic establishment genuinely horrified at the idea of Gingrich as president is that I would really break up their system.  I am an outsider even though I have served in Washington.  I don't particularly care about their conventions and the way they get along and I am prepared to represent very profound change and I think there are a number of people feeling that is disruptive and so they describe it as a disruption.  Here is somebody who comes in and says, no, we're actually going to pass a welfare reform bill and, by the way, we're going to get a liberal democrat named Bill Clinton to sign it.  Well, if you're a purist you're going, but I'd rather have a bill that doesn't get signed because then it's pure.  And you just have to look at the balancing act of trying to govern under our Constitution.

Obradovich: There's a lot of concern right now in Congress that people are not interested in that balancing act, that there's a lot of, in your party, folks who really do want that pure, that pure legislation or that pure principle, they don't want to give in.  How do you move them off the ...

Gingrich: It's interesting.  We had today a very important breakthrough in that there is a Wyden-Ryan Medicare reform bill that represents Senator Wyden, a democrat from Oregon, Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin.  It's a bipartisan effort to really come to grips with one of the major entitlement challenges we face.  And to have that bill reduced and to have them publicly together talking about this is really a healthy, maybe it's the beginning of breaking up the logjam and starting to get democrats and republicans to talk with each other and I think that Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden deserve some real credit.  It's a very courageous thing for each of them to do, to reach out, come together and offer a genuinely bipartisan bill given the atmosphere we have in Washington.

Obradovich: You're facing at least a couple of opponents who are capable financially of dragging out the nomination potentially for a long time.  You've said that you have recovered from having a campaign that was in debt at one point.  Are you going to be able to compete financially to get to the end point however long it lasts?

Gingrich: I'll never has as much money as Mitt Romney can raise, it's a fact.  You have to start this race understanding that.  But on the other hand we run a campaign that is a lot less expensive than his so there's a certain balancing act.  I always thought that we have hundreds of people a day coming to newt.org and giving money who just randomly show up.  And so we have begun to build a real base of donors.  Somebody pointed out that I probably had the highest percent of my money from small donors of any candidate in the race this year.  And so that gives you a real opportunity.  And we always thought that we had to come in in the top three in Iowa, do reasonably well in New Hampshire recognizing that is Mitt's last big fortress.  If he can't carry New Hampshire the race is over in terms of his candidacy.  So, we've always assumed that we had to do well enough here to be seen as a national candidate.  Remember, a month ago if we were doing this interview nobody would have thought of me as the frontrunner.  So, I always had to have a strategy with very limited resources and of using good ideas, giving speeches, doing talk radio, doing television and newspaper to gradually build a momentum.  And the goal is frankly to get to South Carolina where we have a very big base.  We just had to Tea Party votes in South Carolina, one was 75% who endorsed me the other was 80% to endorse me.  And so I have always thought that once we get to South Carolina and then Florida I could begin to win the race decisively.  What changed was, you'll have to describe it as a report because I can't explain it, for some reason the country seemed to talk to itself over the last six weeks and all of a sudden we began to just get supporters and we've seen it happen here where people are coming out of the woodwork and I think we're releasing some forty or fifty endorsements today and it is happening in Florida right now.  I just had a call yesterday from somebody in Minnesota, I mean, there's just random people saying, you know, I've been thinking about it and thinking about it and yeah, you should be the president.

Obradovich: You've said yourself and I think you've run a pretty unconventional campaign to this point, in addition to being a candidate for president, a front running candidate for president you've been kind of doing book signings and movie premiers, etc. as you have been going along.  Why didn't you decide to make running for president a full-time enterprise?

Gingrich: It is, it's just that I see all of those things fitting the same package.  I think my books are integral to my presidency.  If you want to know what I believe about American exceptionalism you'll see it in the book called "A Nation Like No Other" or you'll see it in Callista's children's book "Sweet Land of Liberty" where Ellis the elephant introduces ____.. I'm wearing Washington's command flag.  I have written three novels, two of them have been published, one will come out next year on the Washington and the Revolutionary War.  These things are all part of it.

Obradovich: The books you're promoting don't benefit the campaign, right?  They're a personal enterprise, right?

Gingrich: But the benefit the idea base.  I know this is sort of unusual but if you really think of yourself as a candidate of ideas, not slogans, not talking points from your consultants but somebody who really wants the country to have a new conversation and who wants the country to be -- if you think about what is American exceptionalism mean, why does the Declaration of Independence matter, then all these different pieces actually come together.

Obradovich: Do you see yourself as still writing books as president or do you have time for that?

Gingrich: Well, I would certainly write things.  I've talked about teaching a course from the White House and this is something I actually recommended to Governor Schwarzenegger during his budget crisis and I said, you ought to, on Saturday mornings you ought to teach online and introduction to the California budget because the people of California don't understand why Sacramento is such a mess, they don't understand what the real choices are and you can't count it in a twenty minute speech.

Obradovich: So, you'll be the professor in chief?

Gingrich: Well, just a leading educator and it's a two way street.  The most complicated thing we're trying to do right now and it is the fourth item at newt.org in our proposed 24th century contract with America is we're trying to figure out how do we build a social medium where you come back to talk to us.  I know how to send out a tweet to 1,300,000 people.  What if our 1,300,000 decide to respond?  And so we're really trying to figure out can you really -- can you have the American people come together to govern themselves rather than just have them pick the 537 elected officials and I think the new social media gives you a chance to have much more participation than you've ever had before.

Obradovich: Back in May just as you were getting started with your campaign you were asked what you were worried about as you were getting started and you said you were worried about your health because running for president was what you compare to a marathon.  How are you feeling today?  Are you keeping up with the pace?

Gingrich: Yeah, what I discovered was it's actually, it's a marathon that turns out to be 262 dashes.  It's not that you are running a set pace.  When you get up in the morning and you try to get as much done and then you stop and we've done a lot and Callista has helped a lot and my daughters have helped a lot at just pacing.  You're taking a Sunday off or slowing down or having some sense of rhythm because otherwise you would burn out and you'd get brittle.

Obradovich: You speak a lot of the ethic of service to country and how you formed that as you following around your stepfather to military bases around the world.  Why did you decide not to choose a military career to serve your country?

Gingrich: I think that when I was very young it struck me particularly watching the French Fourth republic destroyed by the paratroopers and General de Gaulle brought back to create the fifth republican.  And I've seen my father's friends, they would come over on a Sunday afternoon and they would talk and everything about their life in the army was bounded by politics and they lived in ____ housing which was named for an Indiana senator who had passed a bill to put public housing, this is at Fort Riley, Kansas, where they would talk about reductions in forces and the guys who used to be a major is not a sergeant because they're staying to finish out their career.  And any time I turned around the rules of engagement politicians said.  And it struck me that to really be effective you had to be involved in this larger life.  When I was a senior in high school I had Theodore Wright's Making the President in 1960 and it has this remarkable page where he's describing  Nelson Rockefeller's career and Rockefeller had been the Assistant Secretary for Latin American Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt and he said, Rockefeller suddenly realized that real power in America came from winning elections and that he could take every appointed job he wanted but if he wanted to understand how to actually get something done it required election.

Obradovich: So, at the time, from the time you were a teenager to going to college politics was what you were going to do?

Gingrich: No, that citizenship is what I'm going to do and it turned out the way you do citizenship in my judgment is politics.  But it's a little bit, again, my dad served 27 years in the infantry and I think there’s sense of honor duty country.  He was not a WestPoint graduate, he was Gettysburg College but he was ROTC.  But the sense that service to your country is probably the highest value other than a religious vocation.

Obradovich: Since you have been leading in the polls your opponents in both parties frankly are doing their best to dig up as much dirt on you as possible and of course you've seen that in the debates.  Are you regretting your commitment to not attack fellow republicans in kind at this point?

Gingrich: Well, I don't regret it but there are moments when I chafe under it.  I mean, I've made one or two mistakes and sort of shot back when I shouldn't have.  I think ...

Obradovich: In the last debate when you told Mitt Romney that he would have been a career politician but for Teddy Kennedy, was that an example?

Gingrich: I couldn't help myself.  It was too good a line and he set up too good an opportunity but I shouldn't have done it.  This is -- first of all, the American people don't have to elect me.  I ran for office, I've lost before and I ran for office knowing I don't have a right to be president but I have a right to present ideas.  The whole purpose of my candidacy in addition to winning is to create a new cycle of ideas in the American system.  The speech I gave at the University of Iowa on brain science, for example, I think is a really important speech.  I want to come back and give a speech at Iowa State on space and science and technology as a positive answer to Governor Romney's taking on ideas about lunar colonies and all of that because one of the things you want to do in a society is create a sense of excitement about the future so that young people are engaged in learning things that are hard.  The opportunities in brain science are revolutionary and I'm hoping a whole new generation of doctors and biologists and people get into that.  The opportunities in space are revolutionary and you'd love to have a new generation that Iowa State engineer graduates out there are doing really interesting aerospace things.  So, if I can communicate a vision of a better future that is part one of the campaign.  Part two of the campaign obviously is to win and to try to convince people this is a vision worth being for and in order to win, and this is a real experiment, I can't tell you today given the millions of dollars being spent on advertising, telephone calls, direct mail, all of it negative I don't know whether at the end of the day I will be the frontrunner in Iowa just because there's a certain weight of combined negativity that drags you down.

Obradovich: I'm sure you're getting advice from people saying you can't stick to this positive campaign?

Gingrich: Actually I'm getting two kinds of advice, the traditional consultants who are going, you've got to hit back.  Citizens walk up to me, I just got an e-mail this morning saying stay positive, have faith that the people of Iowa will see through this and everybody on the campaign feels, here in Iowa, feels very good about the fact that they can look people in the eye and say we have a positive candidate and we have a positive campaign and I think, the point you made in your column today, I think it is counterintuitive in the next week -- _____ able to come up next week where Callista and I are wishing people Merry Christmas and we're talking in a totally positive way and if those guys keep this kind of negative junk it is so discordant with the spirit of Christmas that it's an interesting experiment in how people talk to each other and what people decide.

Obradovich: They may have to take a break over the holidays.  Mitt Romney had a privileged upbringing as well the debate, it came up in the debate.  But he also has a reputation of being a very frugal man, very frugal in his habits.  You grew up as a man with very modest means but over time you've kind of gotten a reputation as a guy who likes a little luxury in his life on occasion.  Why do voters believe that you're a better steward of the taxpayer's dollars?

Gingrich: It's easy.  I balanced the federal budget for four consecutive years.  We had this great call, somebody who said, this got to me last night, I love this because I'm a big Green Bay Packer fan, I own a share of Green Bay stock and somebody called in and said I'm for Newt because he has four Super Bowl rings.  And the person in the campaign said, what?  They said, he balanced the budget four times.  As far as I'm concerned in government terms that is four Super Bowls.

Obradovich: Four Super Bowls, okay.

Gingrich: So, I can say to people the reason I know we can balance the budget is I'm the only person running who led the effort and the only time in your lifetime that you've had four consecutive balanced budgets were because of my Speakership.  Now, I think people can look at that and people learn that, it changes their mind and they say, oh, okay.

Obradovich: Well, we see that the negative stuff starts to penetrate and in the late November Iowa poll that the Des Moines Register ran Iowa caucus goers rated you in second place behind Herman Cain as the guy they thought was most likely to have a scandal in the White House.  How do you get past that and get to the trust that is needed?

Gingrich: I think patience and time.  People have to watch me and this is why the debates have helped so much is that people got to see me directly and a sense of am I somebody they can trust I think that's why the campaigning matters, a brand new campaign bus that arrives the day after Christmas, sort of a campaign Christmas gift and I think as we criss-cross the state and talk to people they get to look me in the eye and they get to decide what to believe.

Obradovich: At the Family Leader's Thanksgiving Forum you talked about receiving a copy from a friend of the 12-step program from Alcoholics Anonymous and you said that even though you didn't have a drinking problem you felt like you recognize some of the symptoms in yourself.  Were you drunk on power do you think?

Gingrich: No, I think I was exhausted.  I think it was a sense of -- it wasn't huberous which is what drunk on power would imply, it wasn't that I thought I was bigger, it was that I thought that I was so tired and I had tried to do so many things that I felt empty.  It's a common challenge that nurses have because they spend all day taking care of other people and at the end of the day -- I think I got to a point where I was overreaching and doing more than I could sustain and I found that reading the big book and taking it and getting a feel for the 12-step program was a very helpful part of beginning to unwind.  And part of what I think the experience of Alcoholics Anonymous does for you is it teaches you that it's okay to be human, you just have to deal with it, you have to -- it's not an excuse to do stupid things, it is a recognition that as a human being you have limits and you have to somehow come to grips with who you are and how you're going to live out your life.

Obradovich: Is that a lesson that you think you'll be able to remember when you get into the White House which obviously you thought you were busy before ...

Gingrich: Actually you're less busy because you're surrounded by this entire support mechanism.  The Speakership is an unusually demanding job.  John Boehner is doing a very good job right now but it's a very challenging job because you have fewer resources and yet you have all these members who have every right to come in and see you and you're being pulled in a hundred different directions.  But I would say that the other part of that is that becoming a grandfather was an enormous help.  The depth of the marriage with Callista, the way in which we relate to each other, the continuous interactions have been a great help.

Obradovich: What was the best advice that your grandchildren have given you about the campaign?

Gingrich: Keep smiling.

Obradovich: Keep smiling?

Gingrich: Yeah, one of the things that really worked at the last debate was Maggie and Robert were there along with Callista, Callista's mother came down and Jackie, my younger daughter and Jimmy were there and every time that there's a break when other people are talking I could look out and see them sitting there.  And Maggie, who is 12 would create the largest possible smile just to remind me -- I think part of it is because we're trying to draw a very clear contrast, I am a very happy advocate of a dramatically better future.  I don't have any interest in getting into mud throwing, I don't have any interest in getting down on the knee and fighting.  And yet everything about our normal match, you know, our normal match for a political culture now has become amazingly destructive and so you spend all day every day, R.C. Hammond who as you know does press with me, one of R.C.'s major jobs is to somehow buffer and think through whatever the latest attack is so that we can get, we need to get all the normal human reactions out of the way before I meet with the press and it's a challenge because ...

Obradovich: What's wrong with having normal human reactions ...

Gingrich: Because your first reaction when somebody attacks you or somebody lies about you or somebody hits you in the kidneys politically your first reaction is to hit back.  Well, my campaign is entirely based on the idea that I'm not going to hit back and so there's a certain point where you get tempted and then once or twice, as you pointed out with the Teddy Kennedy, once or twice I have just sort of hit back.

Obradovich: What has your experience been like campaigning in Iowa?  We often have to defend the caucuses as being a good place to start the presidential nomination process, you have obviously studied the history of this.  What has been your experience?

Gingrich: I tell people that both Iowa and New Hampshire are really important and I would deeply oppose opening in a bigger state.  You have -- first of all, people in Iowa are so used to this that when they meet you for the eighth or ninth time they start to think you might be a serious candidate.  And so there's a depth of having seen it all before, there's a depth of conversation and one thing I know will happen is that every Christmas people will be talking with each other as they slow down, take a few days off of work and I think part of it is, I'm hoping the part that's going to happen is that they'll render judgment against ____, that's not a good sign for the country.  I find that people are knowledgeable, that people generally speaking are very courteous, that they are willing to ask you very tough questions but they are very diverse.  People in the national media have this mistaken notion that you can categorize the Republican Party in Iowa.  There are moderates, there are conservatives, there are people who are primarily economic, there are people who are primarily social but it's really quite a group.

Obradovich: And so it sounds to me like you would try to keep the Iowa caucuses first if you become the nominee.

Gingrich: I think the current system is really good.  You start here and it is very intimate and it's a function of turnout because it's a caucus.  You then go to New Hampshire where it's a primary and you have a rhythm that is somewhat different but they are equally sophisticated.  Somebody like Rick Santorum is a good friend of mine.  If he had to start in California or Texas it would be hopeless.  But here he can see people, he can go to ...

Obradovich: Thank you so much, Mr. Speaker for being here today.  Appreciate it.

A reminder that you can see this conversation and all the others online at desmoinesregister.com and iptv.org.  And on the air you can follow in depth coverage of the caucus campaign and the politics of the day every day on the PBS Newshour and every week on Iowa Press on Iowa Public Television.  For Kathie Obradovich, I'm Dan Miller.  Thank you for joining us.


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