So we have reached that latest stage of the campaign. Let the speculation begin. Gather around your favorites and put your chips down. Mine: Vice President Newt Gingrich.
Readers in this space will know I’ve spent months urging a Trump-Cruz ticket. At least as I understand it from the Cruz camp, the phrase “when hell freezes over” is an understatement. So be it.
Listen to Donald Trump’s public statements on the issue of the vice-presidency, as here in this story posted at CBS News:
“I have the business — let’s call it talents,” Trump, now the likely nominee after Cruz’s exit from the race, told MSNBC early Wednesday. “I think I’ll probably go the political route, somebody that can help me with legislation and somebody that can help me get things passed and somebody that’s been friends with the senators and the congressman and all.”
Got it. The qualifications for his version of the job: The political route. A helper to be the President’s man on Capitol Hill, helping him get things passed. Somebody who’s been “been friends with the senators and the congressman and all.”
In other words? In the world of vice-presidents present and past Trump is looking for a Joe Biden, a Cheney, a Gore, a George H.W. Bush or Walter Mondale. All of those VP’s were exactly to their presidents (respectively Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter) what Trump says he wants in his own. In particular Cheney stands out as a role model for an obvious reason. Cheney himself, unlike all of the others named above, had no presidential aspirations for himself. What made him such an effective VP was his thorough knowledge of Washington and the complete trust of his boss. Cheney had worked his way through Washington, literally beginning with an internship for a congressman, moving on to the bureaucracy and eventually jobs low and high in the White House and the Pentagon. By the time he arrived in the vice-presidency, Cheney knew, to borrow the phrase, where all the bodies were buried. And he had no hesitation in sharing that knowledge with his boss.
Suffice to say, Newt Gingrich has learned Washington from the bottom up. Years ago — not to date myself but in 1976 — I ran for the Republican nomination for the state legislature in suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At 24 I was, um, precocious. In building a campaign in an area in which my family had barely lived for six years, I needed a campaign treasurer and turned to a very smart young woman I had met through my involvement in the Jaycees. As the campaign wore on — blessedly Republican primary voters decided in spite of my party-endorsed status that I was just a tad too green and I lost — my treasurer would wax enthusiastically about her brother, a Harrisburg native who had moved to Georgia and was running (for the second time) for a Georgia congressional seat against a Democrat incumbent. Her brother, she assured me, was definitely a comer, a man with a big future. Brilliant, hardworking. With my own dose of youthful ignorance I quietly asked myself why her brother would venture political suicide in a state with such a long history of Democratic ties. That year her brother lost his congressional race — again. But as she insisted — he would be back.
Indeed Newt Gingrich would be back, finally winning that congressional seat in 1978. Arriving in Washington he was the Republican House leadership’s worst nightmare. I too arrived in Washington in 1978, and it didn’t take long as a young House staffer for Congressman Bud Shuster from my adopted home state of Pennsylvania to understand exactly why.
The GOP had lost the House of Representatives in 1954 — a full 24 years ago. That means one year shy of a quarter of a century. It didn’t take much in the way of observation to realize that the way the House was run was a bit like a contentious country club or even a junior high school. There was an in-crowd — that would be any Democrat from the Speaker on down to the lowliest House Democratic staffer. And there was the out-crowd. That would be any Republican from the House Republican Leader (John Rhodes of Arizona in 1978, replaced by Bob Michel of Illinois in 1981) to the lowliest House Republican staffer. (That latter category included me.) There were, to me at least — and I quickly realized I wasn’t alone — two questions. How in the world in a supposedly competitive two-party system could Republicans have managed to be in the minority this long? And two? Was the answer to the first question some political approximation of something that had burst onto the American scene in 1974 with the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the Hearst heiress who had been seized by the leftist revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army? Only to emerge as a sympathizer with her captors and, shockingly, a bank robber — something her defenders would later insist was something called “Stockholm Syndrome.” Were GOP House leaders exhibiting uncomfortable signs of a political Stockholm Syndrome? Playing golf and socializing in return for a few political crumbs of the powerful House majority. I recall on one occasion being shut out of some committee staff meeting because, well, the Democrats decided to do it. As it were, the message was: get lost.
Getting lost was not in New Gingrich’s mindset. And as time passed, as the Carter era gave way to the Reagan era, Newt Gingrich and some of his young House GOP compadres, including my future HUD boss Jack Kemp, were all too willing to challenge the status quo. Not only were they the intellectual spark plug behind the Reagan Revolution in the still-Democratic controlled House (with Kemp himself the Godfather of what became known as “Reaganomics,” the classical economics that fueled the boom of the ’80s,’90s, and beyond), they were the rocket fuel to the rebellion against the seemingly eternal Democratic rule — and abuse — of the House of Representatives.
By now I had the opportunity to watch Newt Gingrich in action. In 1984, my boss was Drew Lewis, my fellow Pennsylvanian and the ex-Reagan Secretary of Transportation who had gained fame for firing the illegally striking air-traffic controllers. In 1984 Drew was the White House point man on the GOP platform. And lo and behold, there was, unbelievable as it may seem, a move by the GOP Establishment to allow Ronald Reagan to raise taxes. That ball was carried in the platform hearings by then-Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole — with Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, and others defending Reagan and the Reaganomics realization that raising taxes led inevitably to slowing if not killing economic growth outright. Dole would joke about a busload of supply-siders going over a cliff but the bad news was there were some empty seats. The young Georgia Congressman observed that Dole was the “tax collector for the welfare state.”
Suffice to say, with the help of a comma in a key sentence, the Reagan/Gingrich/Kemp view carried the day.
As time moved on, I volunteered to be the White House staffer who was the liaison for the newly formed (by Newt in 1983) “Conservative Opportunity Society” — a group of young conservatives who huddled periodically in the basement office of California Congressman Duncan Hunter (father of the current Congressman Duncan Hunter). This was, it was clear from the get-go, no ordinary group of Republican congressmen. Newt was a leader — in a roomful of leaders. It was clear among other things that Newt was growing increasingly impatient with the House GOP leadership — not to mention the acceptance of the status quo idea that the GOP just had to sit back and accept its minority status. Play golf with then Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright? Not a prayer. Newt led the charge, beginning in 1988, to bring an ethics case against Wright — an action that led eventually to Wright’s resignation. His goal, said Newt as he bid for the job of House GOP Whip in 1989, was to “build a much more aggressive, activist party.”
And so he did. In 1994 — a full forty years after the GOP lost the House in 1954, Newt Gingrich led House Republicans back to majority status, becoming Speaker of the House.
In the time since? Yes indeed. Controversy — but never a willingness to accept the status quo. Mistakes? You bet. In his 1998 book Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report, the man I first heard about from his sister so long ago wrote about what he had learned along the way in his time in Washington. What he learned was lessons that are doubtless some lessons already learned by Donald Trump in the rough and tumble of New York and international real estate — others that are Washington specific. “Learn to keep your mouth shut” is doubtless already in the Trump knowledge bank. But a chapter on “Don’t Underestimate the Liberals” illustrates the kind of Washington knowledge that a newly triumphant president from “Outside the Beltway” needs to heed.
The newly elected Speaker of the first GOP House in forty years was cautioned by Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell as follows:
“We have not won the war, we are simply on the beach at Normandy and now have to fight our way through the hedgerows and across Europe. The Left is not about to ask for an armistice or negotiate their own surrender. They are going to do everything they can to throw us back into the minority and end our threat to their values and their power structure.”
One of the biggest and most important lessons I have learned as Speaker is never to underestimate the tenacity of our opponents in the press, universities, the unions, and among the trial lawyers and other profiteers from the liberal worldview.
As Donald Trump considers his vice-presidential choices, it is surely worth remembering Newt Gingrich’s wisdom after a lifetime of doing battle on Capitol Hill and in the larger American society where the American Left holds so much sway. And understanding that among other things, if elected, President Trump will need a vice president who isn’t simply a conservative — as Newt is without question — but in addition to knowing his way around Washington he will need a vice president who can be utterly loyal — and understands exactly the forces that will be poised to try and bring a President Trump to his political knees. A vice president who knows from lessons learned the hard way exactly how to fight back.
And by the way? Newt’s sister was right.