The Statehouse File
Gingrichsat in his office, his feet pushing against the coffee table in
front of him as he tilted back in a straight-backed chair.
As he talked, Gingrich smiled like a kid who was getting away with something.
Sometimes, he pushed the coffee table too hard and it moved. His
press secretary pushed it back into place.
This was 20 years ago, before Gingrich came up with the Contract with America,
before he became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, before he shut
down the U.S. government because he didn't get to ride in the front of Air
Force One with President Bill Clinton, before he fell from power and before he
came back to run for president. At the time, Gingrich was on the climb,
fresh from challenging a sitting president of his own party, the first George
Bush, over a tax increase.
I'd gone out to Washington, D.C., to talk with him and other leaders about
where America and the two political parties were as we approached the first
presidential election following the end of the Cold War.
Gingrich talked about the Republican Party.
"We need to exploit the wedge issues," he told me
as he pushed against the coffee table.
He said that the GOP needed to ratchet up feelings about abortion, about taxes,
about gay rights and about gun ownership.
I asked him if that meant dividing the country.
"Sure," Gingrich said with a smile. "We'll
pick up the bigger half and we'll win."
The next day I had lunch with Sen. Richard Lugar
Richard Lugar, R-Ind. I asked Lugar if he agreed with Gingrich.
"No, I don't agree," he said.
Then he went into an eloquent and Lugarian defense of politics as
statesmanship. He said there was a difference between running for office
and serving the country. Serving the country, he said, involved working
with people who had different views.
It was the sort of tribute to reasoned compromise that
would get him burned in effigy at a Tea Party
A couple of years later, Gingrich came to Indianapolis
as the ascending GOP leader. Lugar introduced him at a press conference.
Lugar tried to laud Gingrich as someone who opposed polarizing the country, but
Lugar stumbled over the words—generally a sign that Lugar really doesn't
believe what he's saying.
During the press conference, Gingrich lambasted what he called "professional
black Democrats" in the House who opposed him, all the while attacking
civil rights leaders for making race an issue in America.
I asked Gingrich how he would react if one of those Democrats called him a "professional
The conversation disintegrated from that point.
Flash forward to now.
Newt Gingrich has clawed his way into the top tier of Republican presidential
candidates. Some polls have shown him in the lead.
He still acts like the bad boy who would like to kick over the coffee table.
In a recent interview, he said federal marshals should arrest judges who
make unpopular rulings and bring them before Congress — a plan that, if followed,
would destroy the principle of judicial review established by that famed
socialist Chief Justice John Marshall.
There was a time Richard Lugar might have served as a voice of reason in
counterbalance to Gingrich.
Now, though, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street
Wall Streetdominate much of the debate, each side dividing America into an
"us" and a "them" and each hoping to claim the bigger half.
Lugar is in the twilight of his career and facing his most serious political
challenge since Elvis and John Lennon both were still alive. Backed by
the Tea Party, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock is running against Lugar in
the Republican Senate primary. To meet that challenge, Lugar has drifted
to the right.
The Iowa caucuses are just days away. If Gingrich does well there, he
stands a chance of being the Republican nominee for president.
In some ways, though, Gingrich already has won.
We now live in Newt Gingrich's America — a nation of bitter halves —
as Dick Lugar has learned.
John Krull is executive editor of The
Statehouse File, director of Franklin College's Pulliam School of Journalism
and host of No Limits, WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis.