Thu Jan 26, 2012, 01:11 PM
Mira (16,191 posts)
Gingrich, Offstage by Adam Clymer [View all]
January 25, 2012, 10:18 pm
By ADAM CLYMER
Those raucous Republicans thrilled by hearing Newt Gingrich denounce the “destructive, vicious, negative nature” of what he often calls the “elite media” during debates might be shocked to watch him on other occasions. He enjoys consorting with the enemy.
The presidential wannabe who has won ovations for attacking Juan Williams and John King plainly likes answering questions from reporters, bantering with them and, far from disdaining all things emanating from The Washington Post or The Times, quotes them as authorities when it suits him.
The amiable side of his relationship with the press may not help his campaign for the White House the way his showy denunciations do, but there is nothing new about either. More than 30 years ago, when he was still just a bumptious backbencher, he was always accessible, eager to explain his attacks on Democrats and sketch his long-term plan for a Republican House.
This continued when he was speaker. You could just wait outside his office and talk with him on his way to the House floor and get his up-to-the-minute reactions, not canned talking points.
He would also hold press conferences to denounce stories he disliked, like one I wrote in 1995 on a New York Times/CBS News Poll showing that “the American public fears plans of the Republicans to curb Medicare spending, scoffs at their tax cut and flatly does not believe that the plan would produce a balanced budget by 2002.”
He called it “a disgraceful example of misinformation” based on “deliberately rigged questions.” But the day after he was as cheerful and responsive as ever when I caught up with him outside his office.
That accessibility, despite his occasional annoyance with a particular article, continues today. As the Times political reporter Jim Rutenberg told me in an e-mail: “Gingrich will dive headlong into a scrum of press that his rivals — well, particularly Romney — will run from. So it was that as a horde of cameras and reporters descended upon him at the State Capitol building in Columbia, S.C., a few days ago, he merrily took every question that came his way, his press aide R.C. Hammond dropping his earlier attempts to shut down reporters asking to interview him. As he well knows by now, Mr. Gingrich often acts as his own press secretary; it was futile.”
Another campaign reporter suggested that the former speaker “rather enjoys answering questions, to show how wise he is.”
There are other explanations, too. Nancy Sinnott Dwight, who ran the House Republican campaign committee in his early years in the House after he arrived in 1979, admired his accessibility to the press, because it “gave him feedback, often challenging, that congressmen hardly ever get from their staffs or colleagues.”
Rich Galen, a press aide when Gingrich was speaker, said that despite what the “on-stage Newt” would say, Gingrich enjoyed “talking to people who are at an elite level” and thought reporters often were among those who qualified.
I once got a sense of his curiosity. In 1992, interviewing him on a plane, I had asked all my questions and we still had time before we landed. So he asked if he could ask me something.
I agreed. He wanted to know how The Times decided what to put on Page 1 and where. (It’s a question reporters sometimes ask, too.) He picked up that day’s paper, and while I did not know specifically about the previous afternoon’s choices, I had been to enough Page 1 meetings to offer educated guesses about why certain articles appealed to the top editors. He listened and seemed intrigued. He never used those explanations to denounce the paper.
Over the years, he has been a great interview subject, listening to questions more than most politicians, and saying interesting, sometimes surprising things, even after we broke stories about his ethics problems and we insisted that the $300,000 payment demanded of him by the House Ethics Committee in 1997 was a “fine.” Or when I concluded a magazine profile by writing that his scorched-earth tactics to win the House were the equivalent of the Air Force major who explained the devastation of Ben Tre, Vietnam, in 1968 by saying “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”
So new supporters drawn by his denunciation of the news media for its alleged soft treatment of President Obama or for his lines about making “it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” should remember something. He doesn’t hate the press as much as he makes you think.
After last week’s debate, when he blasted CNN’s King for asking about his second ex-wife’s “open marriage” charge, he went up to him and chatted amiably. Next he praised King on CNN. Then he trashed him on Fox.
So Thursday night at the next debate, whether he makes nice to Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s moderator in Jacksonville, or rips his head off, you’ll be seeing just one of the two Gingriches.
Adam Clymer was a reporter and editor for The Times for 26 years. He retired as the Washington correspondent in 2003.
Heard that 24% of the GOP is seeking help for mental illness. This bothers me. It means 76% are going untreated.
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