Fake Newton: Looking for the Real Newt Gingrich

A shorter and different version of this essay appeared shortly after Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995, in the political newsletter, Counterpunch (September 25, 1995). Some of the quotes for the article appeared in the New Orleans Times Picayune, in a feature story on Gingrich in 1995, while others appeared in old copies of the Tulane Hullabaloo during Gingrich’s time as a grad student at Tulane in the late 1960s. Still other quotes, specifically from David Kramer and Blake Touchstone, are from interviews I conducted with both men in 1995, the former by phone and the latter in person. Though the material has been previously published, it received very little attention at the time, and because of the pre-internet era in which it was distributed, very few people ever saw it. I have now updated the piece to reflect Gingrich’s current run for President of the United States. Given the re-emergence of the previously discredited Gingrich as a national political figure, it seemed relevant to re-examine some of Newt’s largely undiscussed history.

Some things in politics really don’t change, and among the most consistently effective rhetorical memes in the quiver of conservative candidates for the past forty-plus years, “Hey-Dirty-Hippie-Why-Don’t-You-Take-a-Bath-and-Get-a-Job,” is among the most tried and true. From former Vice President Spiro Agnew to Ronald Reagan (especially in his incarnation as California Governor) to Newt Gingrich (now among the leading contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination), nothing is more sure to whip the troops into a reactionary lather like bashing young people with long or unkempt hair whose attire suggests they are something other than, well, hedge fund managers.

Never one to shy away from slamming anything remotely resembling a countercultural movement, Gingrich recently pilloried the activists of Occupy Wall Street for their supposed inadequate devotion to either steady employment or soap, much to the delight of the uber-right-wing audience members at the 479th GOP candidates debate of the past month. Ignoring the many Occupy activists who are gainfully employed, Gingrich naturally offered no ideas as to where the less fortunate among them might find work in an economy where there are several applicants for every job opening. Clearly appraised of the oversight, he then, within 48 hours offered his plan for job creation: namely, eliminate child labor laws in poor communities so that inner-city kids can be made to work as janitors at their own schools. No word on what would happen to the actual janitors, or when the kids might do their homework, or how any of that would put patchouli-drenched protesters to work, but I’m sure he’s still working on that minor detail.

In any event, in keeping with his decades-long obsession with attacking all things reminiscent of the 1960s protest movements — this is the guy, after all, who said the counterculture was to blame for Susan Smith drowning her own children back in 1994 — Newt is at it again. Yet, as was the case seventeen years ago when he first came to real power, few have ever thought to explore Gingrich’s own background as regards that very era he so quickly seeks to blame for all the problems of the nation.

Newt in the Sixties: The Tom Hayden of Tulane?

While Gingrich may pose now as the defender of traditional conservatism, during his own years in college — especially as a graduate student at Tulane University in the late 1960s — he was hardly carrying water for the right; quite the opposite. According to friends from that period, and the Tulane student paper, The Hullabaloo, during those heady days of national protest, Gingrich was an iconoclastic liberal, especially with regard to social issues, who despite being a Republican, would regularly complain about how “corrupt and stupid” the white, New Orleans, conservative elite were, and how the city was missing the boat culturally and economically because of the racism of the old-timers. This, according to longtime Gingrich friend, David Kramer. Hardly an enemy of the “Great Society” programs, which have become cannon-fodder for the right over the years, it was commonly known that Newt’s own children were enrolled in Head Start at a local pre-school and that he was a staunch supporter of efforts to target opportunities to the poor — and particularly to African Americans.

Beyond mere policy liberalism however, Newt’s associations and activities during the era were actually quite a bit farther to the left than that. Though a “Rockefeller Republican” (which among Southern Republicans was almost unheard of), from 1968-1969, Gingrich consorted quite openly with members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — the preeminent student radical group in America at the time — and even led a mass movement in favor of the campus paper’s right to publish nude photographs. In his role as the defender of dirty pictures, Gingrich helped lead a march 700-strong to the home of the University President, protesting administration censorship, at which Tulane’s chief was hanged in effigy. Other demonstrations by Newt’s activist group targeted the New Orleans offices of Merrill Lynch, a department store and a local bank, all of which had executives sitting on the Tulane Board of Administrators. Got that? Newt Gingrich led a protest against a bank.

According to Blake Touchstone, who was a fellow grad student and friend of Newt’s at the time, “Newt and two other graduate students really took over the campus protest movement when they saw that the undergrads weren’t doing such a great job.” One of those in Gingrich’s inner circle was Eric Gordon, an SDS activist known around campus as “Eric the Red.” David Kramer, another of Gingrich’s friends (who was teaching in Berlin at the time Gingrich assumed his role as Speaker of the House back in 1995), reported to the New Orleans Times Picayune, that Newt was the “spokesman for student rebellion,” and a chief proponent of the idea that the campus art and literature journal — inserted in the weekly paper — should be allowed to publish photos of nude statues with enlarged genitalia, along with the sculptor himself, likewise in the buff. Ironically, there were many Tulane students who supported the decision to censor the pictures and condemned Gingrich and the rest of the demonstrators as “radicals” for their “angry protests” aimed at the administration. In other words, in the eyes of conservatives at Tulane, Gingrich was just another troublemaker; a part of the counterculture; someone who was “infringing on our rights as students,” by launching “repugnant” demonstrations, as one law school student put it in the pages of the Hullabaloo. Got that? Newt Gingrich needs to get a job, after taking a bath.

The group co-founded by Gingrich, known as MORTS (Mobilization of Responsible Tulane Students), went on to publish (under his leadership) a broader campus political platform which advocated among other things, the abolition of compulsory attendance, the right of students to make all dormitory regulations, and a policy that would allow students to rate their professors in such a way as to determine tenure decisions. Although such demands seem tame compared to those made by activists at many other schools, they are far afield from the traditional conservative values trumpeted by the right today.

Although MORTS faded away as a campus force, students involved in its founding — including Gingrich’s friends, Kramer and Bill Rushton — went on to play a central role in the takeover (one might even call it an occupation) of the school’s student center in the spring of 1970. Kramer, Rushton and other MORTS holdovers were instrumental in the formation of the Tulane Liberation Front, which held the center for a week, calling for a “cultural revolution” in America. The TLF proposed turning the center’s Olympic pool into a public bath, and demanded a number of other things, including the liberalization of campus drug policy and the abolition of ROTC credit courses. TLF set up their own co-ed dorm in one of the center’s large meeting rooms, wherein, according to one former Tulane sociology professor, “young women were being sexually liberated in their sleeping bags.”

As for Gingrich, although he missed the TLF strike (he was in Belgium at the time, studying colonial educational policy in the Congo for his Tulane PhD), it is nonetheless interesting that his former activist comrades from the previous two years were leaders of that spring’s uprising. After all, conservatives have gone to great lengths to smear center-left candidates by way of any and all associations they may have (however tenuous) to political radicals. The fact that Barack Obama even knows Bill Ayers, and served on a non-profit board with him, some thirty-plus years after his days as an antiwar activist, is supposed to somehow tie him to the acts of the Weather Underground. Even Bill Clinton’s nebulous connections to some who supported the National Mobilization to Stop the War in Vietnam was used by Gingrich and his ilk in the early 90s to discredit him as a closet radical. Yet in 1970, two of Gingrich’s closest friends and associates outdid most antiwar activists with their revolutionary rhetoric. Kramer, who said (as of 1995) that he has maintained contact with Gingrich and that the two remain “reasonably close,” called on students to “join the underground conspiracy.” Rushton, who had been among Newt’s chief MORTS allies proclaimed:

The TLF is beginning a campaign to urge students all over the country to rise up and take control of their student unions, converting them into revolutionary communes. Political revolution in this country cannot be won until the cultural revolution triumphs, by building alternative societies in the belly of the racist, oppressive, war-torn mess that is America.

Got that? Newt Gingrich “pal’d around” with revolutionaries!

Gingrich’s Countercultural Educational Philosophies: Wherein Newt Sounds a Bit Like Freire

But aside from his activism, Gingrich’s most pronounced countercultural tendencies surfaced in his educational philosophies, which he had a chance to put into practice at Tulane in the spring of 1969. It was then that Newt taught a free, non-credit course for first year students — FUTURE 100 — the class title of which was “When you are 49: The Year 2000” (Not exactly a classicist meditation on the Peloponnesian War). Interviewed by the student paper about the course, Gingrich opined that his teaching method was based on the concept of “total feedback” (whatever, hippie), and that the course would operate without formal rules, notes or lectures. Exam questions, Newt explained, would be given to students two weeks before the test so as to lessen performance anxiety and allow for better results. Not exactly the kind of educational reforms advocated by the right, then or now.

Claiming that there was “no penalty great enough to compel people to learn,” Gingrich complained that colleges and universities were “bogged down with a lot of useless systems…such as credits and rules, and unrealistic requirements,” which he favored eliminating completely. Funny, but such a complaint was also at the heart of SDS’s Port Huron Statement — the initial manifesto of the student left — which read: “The bridge to political power will involve national efforts at University reform…(which) must wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy…”

Although Gingrich has long stumped for a return to traditional educational methods like phonics, and vilified those who “snickered at the McGuffy readers in the ’60s,” while at Tulane, he did much more than snicker at educational traditions. In 1969, Gingrich wrote that he longed for the day when “gone will be the 18th century tradition of credit hours…gone must be set curricula for earned degrees. And gone must be the lecureship type of instruction.” Sounds a lot more like the trenchant critique of education’s “narration sickness,” found in Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, than anything to be heard from the right and those insisting that education has moved too far away from the so-called basics. Gingrich went on to lament that schools are “dominated by the traditional past,” explained that he sought an educational system “less dependent on books and examinations,” and went so far as to advocate that “education may have to become a kind of coffee-break way of learning.” Got that? Newt Gingrich thinks schools should be turned into hipster latte bars.

In the pages of the campus paper, Newt clearly expressed his anti-traditionalist views on education, in ways that rival anything to be heard from the so-called “tenured radicals” about which he and others like him are so exorcised today. To wit:

The relevance and meaning of education must change, and change will come in wiping out the concept of education as wisdom and knowledge, to a concept of each new idea or piece of information being translated into application to a human being’s adaptation to real life.

Though hardly as poetic, such sentiment sounds considerably like that of Freire — arguably the most profound educational radical in history — who noted:

Those truly committed to liberation must abandon the educational goal of (informational) deposit making and replace it with the posing of the problems of men in their relations with the world.

Salamander or Chameleon? Will the Real Newt Gingrich Please Stand Up?

Though Newt Gingrich’s hypocrisy when it comes to slamming protest movements and a counterculture of which he himself was a part is interesting, it alone is hardly the most important element of his story and what it tells us about the man today. More important, perhaps, is what Gingrich’s Tulane friends regard as the opportunism of his public activities throughout the years and what it says — from the ’60s to the present — about his character or lack thereof.

Although few of his old associates question the sincerity with which Gingrich has replaced his once-liberal views with more conservative substitutes, many insist that he has made the transition more dramatic than it otherwise might have been, out of a desire to gain political power. His public persona, they say, has conveniently seemed to morph, whenever necessary, to fit the tenor of the times. So in the turbulent ’60s he moved left so as to better navigate the budding progressive narrative among youth culture, and then at the outset of the Reagan years, tacked right so as to curry favor with voters in his conservative Georgia congressional district. One can only wonder if Newt is subtly changing colors again so as to camouflage himself within the right-wing backlash culture of the Tea Party as it seeks to challenge the Obama presidency.

When I spoke with David Kramer in 1995, shortly after Gingrich had assumed the Speakership, he remembered Newt as someone who enjoyed, above all else, “taking on the establishment” whenever doing so would enhance his own popularity or serve his ultimate goal–a goal about which the old friend of Newt’s was clear. “I’ve never met anybody as consumed with the idea of achieving and exercising political power as Newt Gingrich,” Kramer explained. Although Kramer believes Gingrich has changed most of his views, he also noted in our conversation that “primarily the change is a change in his vehicle for attaining power. As much as he’s changed on one level, I know of few people who are as exactly the same after all these years as Newt.” Hans Schmidt, one of Gingrich’s history professors at Tulane echoed that perspective when explaining to the Times Picayune back in 1995: “He’s Machiavellian. He’ll do anything to gain his end.” Along the same lines, old associate Touchstone recalls he could “never feel close to Newt, because he was always so focused on himself. Nothing he did was out of an altruistic motive.”

Perhaps the quest for power is what explains, more than anything, his ’60s pseudo-radicalism. After all, at that time it was more hip to talk about “self actualization” in the classroom than to pontificate about school prayer or harsher discipline. By posturing to the left of his GOP contemporaries, Gingrich could vouchsafe his image as an outsider, fighting great political odds and the corrupting influences of an elite establishment. Aligning himself with SDS and the Tulane free speech movement, and employing radical new teaching theories, were all vehicles for a larger goal that even then, his friends recall, he had in his sights.

“The first time I met Newt,” recalled Touchstone, back in 1995, “was in the fall of 1967. A few of us were sitting around the campus pub, having a beer, and talking about what we’d like to be doing in twenty years. Most of us were saying how we’d like to be teaching or writing a book, or something like that. But when it was Newt’s turn, he didn’t miss a beat, and said just as confident as could be, that he would be a United States Senator from Georgia. It was a very strange moment.” He continued, “The thing about Newt is that he would always do anything to place himself at center stage or get an audience. That still seems to be a problem for him. It makes it difficult to know what’s genuine and what’s a power play.”

Kramer, though still fond of Gingrich, concurs. When it comes to Newt’s views on moral issues of the day, or even his tough talk about cracking down on the so-called culture of poverty, Kramer expresses doubt that his old friend genuinely believes all the things he says on the subjects. As he explained to me in 1995: “I would imagine he’s simply speaking to a constituency which he figures thinks these things are important and valid.”

By casting himself as the underdog (fighting the Nixon tide in the 60s or the “liberal media” today), Gingrich has been able to long portray himself as a contemporary Messianic hero, a latter day David battling whichever Goliath seemed an easier target at the time. The bad news, of course, is that this is the stuff of which tyrants are made. The good news is that it also is the stuff of which some of the nation’s most discredited political buffoons are comprised. In which direction Gingrich trends will, ultimately, be up to the American people.

Interestingly, Kramer, for his part, told me back in 1995 that he would probably vote for Gingrich if his old classmate ever ran for president, just as a way to “vote for an old friend,” if nothing else. After casting said vote, he noted that he would then hold his breath and “hope for the best.” Not exactly a hearty endorsement, and certainly not the kind that should persuade any of the rest of us.

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