Newt Gingrich is on a campaign in search of a presidency, but he’s having some trouble keeping his ambitious foot out of his mouth. Last year, his most foot-worthy faux pas was comparing a proposed Muslim community center in New York to Nazis putting a sign next to the Holocaust Museum. Meanwhile, his second ex-wife, Marianne, was giving him a bit of a boot in an Esquire magazine profile in which she reminisced about asking Newt, while they were married, how he could have given a speech on family values, while he was having an affair. She recalled his response was, “It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”
This year, a clodhopper closer to the presidential throne of his dreams, Newt implanted his foot yet again. In the last 10 days, he said and repeated that our child labor laws are “truly stupid.” He suggested that children as young as, say, 9 years old, living in the poorest neighborhoods and attending failing schools where they are taught by failing teachers, should become janitors, working up to, say, 20 hours per week. According to Newt, the benefits of his proposal are that child labor “would be dramatically less expensive than unionized janitors,” whom he would fire, and the poor kids would be “empowered to succeed” as they “begin the process of rising.”
The benefits Newt did not enumerate include being able to use poor kids in poor schools in poor neighborhoods to thumb his nose at labor unions and perpetuating an underclass of menial laborers — a necessity for the continual growth of patriarchal capitalism for which Newt has a certain fondness. Newt’s proposal would also work out quite nicely for all the privileged children, who live in nice neighborhoods and attend successful schools where they are taught by effective teachers, and who are not encouraged to work as janitors, because their privileged parents’ social and professional networks will hand them spiffy jobs when they graduate from college — so they can hire the now all-grown-up and well-trained poor kids to be the janitors in their spiffy leather and chrome offices.
There are other astounding aspects of Newt’s vision for impoverished children: He even wants to do away with food stamps, although he fails to mention such specifics in his list of self-described “extraordinarily radical proposals to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America and to give people a chance to rise very rapidly.” You can read his strategically vague proposals at www.newt.org. But for all his grand rethinking, I wonder that he failed to connect the dots between the poor parents who would lose their janitorial jobs and their poor kids who would take the jobs for “dramatically” lower wages. I also wonder that his only suggestion for the failing schools and failing teachers he mentioned was to cut janitorial expenses! Of course, it’s certainly possible that Newt just didn’t think about the words before he let them roll off his silver tongue. Compassion is not his strong suit. Besides, it is so darn hard to see privilege when you have it, and Newt has a history of letting his ambition trump his humanity.
This all reminds me of my disappointing date with Newt. Oh, not a romantic date. No, to paraphrase a classic Newt slur, I wasn’t young enough or pretty enough to show up on his arm. Rather, it was a date to meet him, ask him a clever question and capture a stellar sound bite or two. This is how it came about. …
In August 1995, Maury Stans called me. You might not know the name — and that proved to be his biggest disappointment. You see, Maury had grown old, old and sorrowful, frustrated and blind, which made writing yet another quest for vindication of his purported involvement in the Watergate scandal so damnably difficult. So difficult, in fact, that in his desperation to demand his innocence of any shenanigans as President Richard Nixon’s treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President, Maury had resorted to hiring a friend of a friend, an unknown leftwing feminist writer who would be me, to help him write his memoir. It was his second book, the one he hoped would definitively grant him the exoneration for which he had lusted lo the many years since the Watergate Hotel break-in splattered careers across the spit-shined political patina of the nation’s capitol. If only he could entice folks to read it. If only they would remember who he was.
With hope in his voice, Maury called me because Newt was coming to town. Maury wanted to provide his seasoned counsel to the younger man, and he thought it would do me good to meet the darling of the Republican Party. I suspected Maury also hoped to reignite his faded glory in the glow of the year’s political star. With a flick of his wrist, Newt had launched the 1994 Contract with America, toppled the Democrat’s House majority, catapulted himself into the Speaker of the House seat, and then hit the road to parlay his new book, Restoring the Dream, into future votes and aspirations.
Although his dance card was more than full, the Nixon Library was Newt’s next do-si-do and, while there, he would be privately receiving a select few, those who could be described as conservative white men with big bucks. Maury was also on the list because of his service to the party and the nation. He had been deputy postmaster general and Bureau of the Budget director for President Dwight D. Eisenhower and secretary of commerce for both Eisenhower and Nixon. And, despite Nixon’s abandoning Maury to the Watergate wolves, Maury could raise money like nobody else. In fact, he had raised the bulk of the funds to build the Nixon edifice.
Maury’s offer of an opportunity to chew the fat with Newt, to search for the human behind the elephant tie, was enticing, so I pounced on it, donned my most conservative suit, and tried to achieve a Republican coif — admittedly a lost cause. Then I schlepped through the heat and smog to Yorba Linda, California, in my not so conservative pickup with the prochoice bumper sticker, and parked among the Cadillacs that had been made mostly on foreign soil.
I approached the library half expecting screeching alarms to go off, jackbooted guards to pin me against the wall and search me for liberal contraband. But no: I wended my way innocuously through the hordes of Gingrich groupies, waiting for him to lay hands on their copies of his book. I skated through security with barely a nod from the ramrod guards, and joined Maury to help him shuffle into an intimate sitting room where a selection of the finest local Republican donors, ensconced on exquisite upholstery, eagerly awaited the Newt’s arrival.
Maury wrung his hands with the anxiety of a toppled man first scorned then ignored by the masses. A media honcho positioned his wife for the pending encounter, pulling her skirt hem down to her knees. Carl Karcher, the burger mogul who paid a $664,000 SEC fine to settle insider trading charges, handed out religious tracts with the fervor of a neophyte. I struggled to pick the winning question to pose to the guest of honor. And so we all continued to wait among whispers for the man who would remake the government in his own image.
Then the Secret Service fellows arrived, with their funny posture that made me squirm for them and those little earpieces that begged to be blown in. But still no Newt, and I could wait no longer: I raised one finger and was granted a potty break.
• • •
On the way out of the women’s room, as I adjusted the suit and turned a corner, I looked up into the pretty orbs of none other than the Newt himself.
He smiled faintly and said, “Hi,” wiping perspiration from his brow.
Newt looked hot and rushed and tired — and surprisingly vulnerable. In the flush of a Southern California August, his articulate arrogance had melted away, mumbling dark streaks down the front of his pale blue shirt. He looked as though, having returned from the political wars, that he would prefer nothing more than to climb into his latest wife’s lap and suckle his way to the presidency. If only he could, it seemed, he might regain his sense of security.
I paused to consider that such men, so dependent on women, lust for such power. Then I dumped the many erudite and pointed queries I had contemplated putting to Newt, the questions of great import that would have made him take pause and proffer a bit of pompous profundity. Instead, with the most feminist compassion I could muster, I said, “Hot day out there, eh?”
“Sure is,” he replied and scurried into the men’s room to do his thing.
Those were the only words we ever exchanged. Newt’s reception with the VIPs proved nothing more than a swift photo opportunity for major donors with checks in hand and spaces already cleared on their study walls. Maury’s moment in the Newt’s sun was only that: Newt neither sought his sage counsel nor gave him a second to offer it. Instead, Maury and his hopes were dismissed with a slap of brevity. And I deemed my compassion misspent.
It occurred to me then — as it occurs to me now — that one day Newt Gingrich will blindly shuffle behind his much younger wife into an intimate sitting room, where he will hopefully await an audience with the latest Republican Party star, who will take two seconds to pose with the man who would have been king, but couldn’t.
Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and is republished by SDGLN, The Ocean Beach Rag and The Progressive Post. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize while working for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at [email protected].
Note: This is an updated version of a column originally published in 1995.
Photos of Newt and Callista Gingrich from www.newt.org.