By ZACK C. SMITH
All the Republican presidential candidates cite Ronald Reagan as the GOP’s ideological icon. Newt Gingrich, in particular, styles himself as a “Reagan conservative” and criticizes former Gov. Mitt Romney as “a Massachusetts moderate who runs away from Ronald Reagan.”
Throughout Gingrich’s career, however, he’s looked to a different Republican president as a role model: Richard M. Nixon.
Gingrich’s political experience began with the 1960 Nixon campaign. The former House speaker claims that his early political education came from watching Nixon. He saw a bare-knuckled politician, who knew winning was all that mattered — no matter how you did it.
In 1982, Gingrich was stunned and hurt by the GOP’s abysmal midterm performance, when the Republicans were unable to capitalize on the Reagan Revolution initiatives. Looking for advice, the young congressman sought out the man he insisted was “strategically the most thoughtful” Republican in politics — the GOP’s pre-eminent elder statesman, Nixon.
Nixon, like Gingrich, had never been a conservative ideologue — though he had been a fierce partisan. Gingrich, up to that point, was a Republican apostate on many issues before coming home to the party. In his early years in Congress, Gingrich worked to preserve lands from oil drilling, voted to create the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and wanted a smaller, more powerful government.
But though Gingrich differed ideologically from specific Republican tenants, he remained true to the core GOP issues. He believed that the best way to organize and win elections was through the party.
He called himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, talking about the need for a big tent party. Nixon, who quoted TR extensively in his last White House speech, valued party loyalty above all and
These ideas of party first and a GOP that could not get out of its own way fit well with Gingrich’s own views.
Meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in New York, Nixon, who had spent most of his life working to become president, told the aggressive Georgia backbencher that “no single person could change an institution the size of the House.” He advised Gingrich that he needed to organize a group to pull it off. “The House Republican Party [needs] to become more interesting,” the former president said, “more energetic and more idea oriented.”
These ideas fit right into Gingrich’s designs since he was already pushing the GOP to stand for its own ideas rather than take what the Democrats gave them.
"You cannot change the country,” Nixon asserted, “unless you are interesting and attract attention” — even controversial.
The elder statesman attacked the House GOP for being boring. “That tradition was there when I was a freshman,” he told Gingrich sarcastically, “and you have managed to maintain it successfully for a generation.”
Gingrich left the meeting inspired to form a team that would take Nixon’s organizational skills and ability to understand the electorate and marry it with Reagan’s vision. He founded the Conservative Opportunity Society, an organization dedicated to the creation of a Republican congressional majority.
This group and its members were instrumental in fighting against tax increases proposed by Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They made headlines by embarrassing the Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Gingrich goaded the Boston politician into insulting him on the House floor. O’Neill was ruled out of order — and it was all broadcast by C-SPAN.
The long-term effort Gingrich and his colleagues undertook to win the House was inspired by Nixon.
Unlike most candidates now running for president, Gingrich actually served with Reagan. The former speaker both supported and challenged Reagan, seeing him as a politician, not just an icon.
In the wider political world, however, Nixon’s reputation never recovered after Watergate, while Reagan remains the GOP presidential touchstone. So rather than honoring the president who actually had the greatest influence on him, Gingrich has joined his fellow candidates as they all seek to lash themselves to Reagan. Each now claims to be the true inheritor of the Great Communicator’s legacy.
So despite what he now says, Gingrich’s actions demonstrate that he still looks to Nixon for inspiration.
Zack C. Smith is an adjunct professor at Quincy College. He recently completed his dissertation on the House Republican Party from 1978 to 1994.