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9 minute read

Placing his simple breakfast (a banana and an unbuttered bagel) on an end table in his Capitol Hill office, Newt Gingrich sat down with half a dozen TIME editors and correspondents early last Wednesday morning. During the ensuing 90 minutes, Gingrich reviewed his accomplishments and setbacks during his first year as Speaker and outlined where he hoped to take his revolution in 1996. Excerpts:

TIME: How do you think you fared this year?

Gingrich: First of all, we kept our word, and I think that changes the underlying dynamic of politics in terms of promises made, promises kept in the Contract with America. We’re trying to actually have an adult conversation with the American people instead of a 30-second pandering.

Second, I think that we have changed the whole debate in American politics. There is now a universal agreement you’ve got to balance the budget. The argument is over exactly how much, exactly when. There is no one thinking to raise taxes. The Clinton ’93 tax increase would now be unthinkable in this environment.

TIME: Even to him.

Gingrich: Yes. It would be thinkable if they won the election in ’96, and I think if there was a Democratic majority in Congress, they would raise taxes in ’97. But in this context he can’t say it.

I think our biggest weaknesses are communications and organization of communications resources, and there are a couple of areas where we overreached our management ability and we got into some things we couldn’t deal with very well.

TIME: Such as?

Gingrich: There is this false issue, which it’s taken me at least all year to fully understand: in modern America, compassion equals bureaucracy. If you’re not for bureaucracy, you’re not for compassion. I thought we were off to a good start with it last spring, but I think now it has to be a much bigger effort to really have the whole party move in that direction.

In January we will have to go through the process of saying, Look, the one thing we do know is that bureaucracy is not compassionate, that bureaucracy has not worked, that bureaucracy has not delivered.

TIME: It seems to me that some level of the debate has been between people who believe that you have finite resources and how are we going to divide the pie, and people who believe that the way to ameliorate poverty is to create wealth and that you can create models for more dynamic growth. If that’s correct, then would Patrick Buchanan fit in the opponents’ camp, or would he fit in your camp?

Gingrich: I don’t know. I don’t want to read anything into what Buchanan has said. What I can tell you is, I think your description of the debate is only a partial statement. First of all, the core problem is culture, it’s not redistributionism; second, that decentralized charities that have a sense of spirit and passion are vital; third, that bureaucracies that are anonymous are devastating; fourth, that you have to have incentives at the micro level for individuals; and that fifth, you want to maximize the creation of wealth and the acquisition of wealth rather than the redistribution of wealth. You want to emphasize the opportunity inherent in every person, rather than their victimization, because victimization leads to passivity, to grievance and to helplessness and is exactly the wrong psychology if you’re poor.

It’s a wonderful psychology if you’re a guilt-ridden rich person, but it’s a terrible thing if you’re poor. It strips you of the very drive you need to quit being poor.

TIME: You have suggested that your intense focus on the budget this year made it somewhat difficult to touch on these other themes.

Gingrich: The question was, what was our highest priority, and we felt that the broadest majority in America was for balancing the budget, that it forced other changes that were useful for where America had to go to compete in the world market, and that it created the right general debate on terms that were most advantageous for our team.

And I do think, if you look at the 3,000-page Balanced Budget Act, to have written that, conferenced it with the Senate and passed it against a sitting President with no national crisis is a fairly extraordinary achievement.

TIME: In restoring the House’s authority, do you think you have truly restructured the institution, or is it more a function of your own personality and of the ability to bring in 73 freshman Congressmen who gave you that power?

Gingrich: I discourage a cult of personality. The most amazing thing about this institution right now is that it’s a team.

TIME: Is it a team that can survive without you as the Speaker?

Gingrich: Oh, sure. I mean, it would be different. It would be less flamboyant and probably make less errors. It would probably take fewer risks, but it would survive.

TIME: Given how much you have changed the agenda over the past year, it must be frustrating for you to see how you have fallen in the polls over the past few months. In our poll conducted last week, for example, 49% said they found you a little scary.

Gingrich: If I am the person they see in the media, I would agree with them. I mean, I would have the same attitude toward me they do.

The only part I worry about is the psychological impact in this building, because this is a building that loves polling numbers. And I worry about the degree to which it makes it marginally more difficult to communicate with the American people because of an automatic presumption on the part of the listener that I have got to overcome it.

I have contributed to this problem at times, both because I am too intense and, ironically, I am too unsteady. You know, I take risks, and I say things that probably a more studied, careful, planned approach would avoid.

But I talked with Margaret Thatcher this year, who said basically, ignore [the negative press]. She said, do what is right, and in the long run history catches up with you.

TIME: You have talked about vision leading to strategy to tactics. Some people who follow your career would suggest the opposite was the way you got where you are today. That it began with tactics and strategy, which led to the vision. Could you, looking back, make a judgment yourself as to whether one leads to the other or whether in fact they are not necessarily sequential?

Gingrich: Well, first of all, I think they are always sequential. I think that if you are rational about it, they are always sequential. And I think that it partly goes back to [management expert] W. Edwards Deming’s argument that the key to all management is a theory. And if you do not have a theory of how you cook an egg, then why do you engage in behaviors in the kitchen?

TIME: But in your early years in the House people certainly thought of you more in terms of tactics than vision.

Gingrich: That is because in my early years, if I had talked about a vision, they would have thought I was nuts.

TIME: What have you learned about yourself in the past 15 months?

Gingrich: I am not sure I can answer it the way you asked it, because I do not think in self-analytical categories. I try to learn; I do not try to psychoanalyze myself. I will give you an example. Last year Marianne [his wife] and I were driving down to the Georgia coast for Thanksgiving. I said to her, this is really a big leap, from being the Republican minority whip to the Speaker of the House. And she looked at me and laughed. And she said, this is a lot bigger jump than you think it is. And we were driving down this year and I said, well, let me report in after a year. You were right.

At least half the scarring is a function of the habits and patterns that made perfect sense if you were the minority whip but that had really potential self-destructive capabilities if you were the Speaker. When you are a backbencher, you use very strong language–and this is still a weakness of my current style. If you are in everybody’s living room virtually every night having a conversation, that intensity of language is counterproductive.

TIME: Well, what is the best example that you can think of?

Gingrich: I think if you just go back through your files, you will find plenty of them. [Laughter.]

But the experience has been very painful to me–and I am still not fully readjusted to it. Because there is a part of me that passionately wants to be a teacher, and I am not in a teaching job. And so I have consistently, all year, said things that make no sense for the Speaker of the House. They would be terrific comments from an analyst or a political-science teacher, but they just did not make any sense. I am trying to think through how to remain a teacher without being self-destructive.

TIME: The House ethics committee has voted to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether you improperly used tax-deductible contributions to fund a college course you taught. Where do you think this investigation will end up?

Gingrich: If there is any unethical behavior going on, it is on the part of Democrats who have filed totally false charges. There were 65 allegations, 64 of them dismissed. They did conclude I should not have used an 800 number once. Would you like to go back to the Congressional Record and find out how many people have ever put an 800 number in the record?

So now we are down to one charge. Except that next week, David Bonior [the Democratic minority whip] will file new charges. And it will be reported with a straight face. It is a joke.

TIME: Where do you hope to be by the year 2000? Running for President?

Gingrich: I do not know. Some mornings I hope to be out looking for dinosaurs and visiting zoos. I do not plan that far ahead.

TIME: But you’re a person who thinks in historic cycles, and with the millennium coming up…

Gingrich: I think the odds are at least even that I will end my public career having been Speaker of the House.

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