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Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative

Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative

by Craig Shirley


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The definitive, authorized biography of the one of the most important, provocative, and visionary political figures of our time.

In one way or another Newt Gingrich has been leading a revolution for most of his life. Citizen Newt is the definitive account of that struggle. Writing with the full cooperation of Speaker Gingrich and the players around him, New York Times bestselling author Craig Shirley captures the events, ideas, failures, and successes of Newton Leroy Gingrich—one of the most complex, influential, and durable political figures of our time.

Returning to Gingrich’s childhood in Pennsylvania and his formative years as a young history professor, Citizen Newt moves through Gingrich’s first forays into politics and takes readers behind the scenes of the Congressman’s crucial role in the Reagan Revolution, his battles with George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and his masterly orchestration of 1994s “Gingrich Revolution” and the Contract with America, which catapulted him to national prominence and forever changed congressional and national politics.

Drawing upon untold stories from Gingrich and those who know him best—political allies and opponents, Washington insiders and political iconoclasts, Capitol Hill staffers and colleagues—Shirley has crafted a fascinating, humorous, humanizing, and insightful account of a true American original.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595554482
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 08/29/2017
Pages: 576
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Craig Shirley is the author of four critically praised bestsellers about Ronald Reagan, Reagan's Revolution, Rendezvous with Destiny, Last Act, and Reagan Rising. His book December 1941 appeared multiple times on the New York Times bestseller list. Shirley is chairman of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and is a widely sought-after speaker and commentator. The Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, Shirley is on the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch and lectures frequently at the Reagan Library, and he has written extensively for Newsmax, The Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, the Washington Times, the Los Angeles Times, Townhall, Breitbart, National Review, LifeZette, CNS, and many other publications. Considered one of the foremost public intellectuals on the history of conservatism in America, Shirley also wrote Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington's Mother, which won the "People's Choice Award" from the Library of Virginia. He is now working on The Search for Reagan and an examination of the Donald Trump presidency titled American Prometheus.

Read an Excerpt



"If he gets elected, he would be the only anti-establishment Republican in the House of Representatives"


Race and race relations were part of the backdrop of American politics in 1974. The Supreme Court had ordered "forced busing" as a means of achieving racial integration in public schools, and many communities — black and white — had risen up in protest. Curiously, this controversial order had gone down easier in some places in the South — where one might have expected trouble — than in the North, where terrible riots broke out in Boston, the very seat of liberalism, a clear sign that the "New South" of 1974 was different from the "Jim Crow South" of earlier decades. Beantown officials asked for federal marshals to come in and help restore order. One national newspaper went so far as to proclaim, "Race is no longer the leading overt issue in the South."

Everybody knew this was bull.

Other issues dominating the national debate included nuclear proliferation, the environment, and world hunger — a cause popularized by the late singer Harry Chapin. In bars and over kitchen tables, however, more immediate issues dominated. Feeding a family and gassing up the car were becoming problematic propositions with wages stagnating. To combat the growing recession, Senators Ted Kennedy and Walter Mondale proposed a personal income tax cut of nearly $6 billion. Their bill was folded as a rider into a larger package of tax cuts being offered by the Democrats, but Richard Nixon and most Republicans opposed it as "a dangerous step." Instead, the Nixon Administration had been poised to "pour out as much [federal] money as necessary to avoid a recession."

Georgia voters were just as affected by these problems as everybody else in the nation, in some cases more acutely, with its high rural population of farmers and working poor. Unemployment was slightly lower than the national average, but so, too, was household income. Though still an agrarian-based state, Georgia was slowly emerging from her rough-and-tumble past. Newt Gingrich recalled a "[h]uge military presence beginning with World War II, a lot of textile mills, Lockheed had a huge aircraft plant, there were Ford and General Motors plants in the Atlanta area, the Atlanta Airport was already the dominant airport in the South."

Gingrich formally entered the race at 7:30 in the evening on April 8, 1974, with a statement issued at his campaign's headquarters in Carrollton. Earlier, he'd kicked off his campaign with a 10:00 a.m. press conference at his headquarters in South Fulton. It did not begin softly. He lashed the "incompetency and indifference" of Washington, and a Congress "more interested in party squabbling than in problem solving."

Gingrich struck a decidedly populist pose, attacking an insular Congress that no longer held its doors open for the citizenry: "I can no longer sit idly by while my future — and the future of this country — is endangered by political hacks who do not understand what is happening to the people they supposedly represent." He promised the Georgia media press conferences every week. The campaign's photo of the candidate had him in a garish plaid sports coat, dark purple shirt, and a wide plaid tie. He sported a broad and friendly, slightly lopsided grin.

There was a charming amateurishness to Gingrich's 1974 quest. The budget, all told, was around $90,000, which was respectable, but Gingrich insisted all his materials be produced in green, to signal his concern for the environment. Even his bumper stickers were green and white and simply proclaimed, "NEWT!" When asked about using just his first name, he quipped, "No one will remember the last name!" His brochures declared, "The Politicians Had Their Chance. Now You Can Have Yours," "His Only Special Interest Is You!" and "We need a congressman that's as angry about the current mess as you are." The bureaucrats also came in for some good licks in Newt's campaign material. It wasn't infrequent that Newt would call a press conference and no one would show up, according to Chip Kahn.

This campaign was the longest of long shots. The last time anybody had seriously tried to take on Flynt was in 1966, and G. Paul Jones of Macon had gotten waxed by a 2-1 margin. Newt's lackluster athletic record, rather than his burgeoning academic career, was the most relevant preparation for his "Hail Mary" political challenge. He had been a high school football player but frankly was not very good. "At that stage," he admitted, "I became a punching bag, but it was good training." Indeed.

Newt's announcement was picked up verbatim in the Atlanta Daily World but was relegated to the bottom of page 3, which was essentially the black society page, with other stories covering PTA meetings and a "Big Easter Show" featuring the Chi-Lites.

A print ad — timed the day before the election — appeared in the Atlanta Daily World headlined "The 6th District Needs Newt." It states that "Newt Gingrich is a 31-year-old college teacher who is running against a 60-yearold rural oriented man who has been in Congress 20 years. Vote for Newt and give a chance to a young man with fresh ideas. Elect Newt Gingrich. Punch 74 on Nov. 5." A pleasant photo of the candidate accompanied the ad, though the disclaimer spelled his name "Gingrick."

The district — much of it covering Fulton County — had changed since the 1970 census; by 1974 it included some of the suburbs of Atlanta and stretched to the Alabama border. Gingrich took note of this and stressed the need to understand "Metropolitan problems." In his campaign, he also promised to install a toll-free number for constituents to call at a district office at the Atlanta Airport.

Though Atlanta was becoming more cosmopolitan, the Atlanta Daily World — the poor country mouse to the powerhouses Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution — still ran candidates' press releases verbatim. On page 2, they ran one of Gingrich's. The "story" contained quotes, including that he was "presenting a serious challenger to [a] 20-year incumbent ..." and saying that "Gingrich ... has used youthful energy to develop a major campaign based on honesty and candidate availability."

The paper somewhat surprisingly endorsed the Republican Gingrich over the Democrat Flynt in an editorial, saying he was "fair-minded on racial issues. His election would give President Ford more support and it is important that there be closer cooperation between the President and the Congress." Gingrich was far more progressive on racial matters than Flynt.

Coming in to endorse Gingrich was Governor Ronald Reagan, doing what he could do to shore up the GOP's fading chances. According to Paul West of the Atlanta Constitution, Reagan was there "to boost" Gingrich's candidacy. "Although a roomful of Republican candidates were gathered in hopes of receiving a blessing from Reagan, the California chief executive mentioned only Gingrich and [one other candidate] by name during his 30-minute appearance." Reagan got bollixed by reporters when he defended President Ford's economic policies, but he also blasted the Treasury Department for selling too many high-yield notes, which he said would spur inflation on even more. He took a pass on saying whether he'd challenge Gerald Ford or whether he would support the nomination of Rockefeller, but he went especially hard after "McGovernite Democrats," whom he said had politicized the whole Watergate mess.

Gingrich later accompanied Reagan to the airport. "He had one state trooper where there was no staff that I remember ... and he got tired of chit chat and he said, 'How would you like to see how I did in the speeches?' I said, sure, yeah. So he put out his cards and he walked me through his theory.'" And Reagan explained to the young man how he put together a speech, how he told a story, how he mixed it up and worked in current material to keep the speech fresh and keep his own interest, along with that of his audience. "If I were to give exactly the same speech every time, I would get bored. They would sense I was bored and then they would get bored."

A day later, Gingrich went solid after his opponent, charging Flynt with "using tax dollars to subsidize his own farm." Flynt had been employing an old political crony, Joe Akin, on his congressional payroll for years at an annual salary of $10,500. But Akin's real responsibility was managing Flynt's six-hundred-acre farm in Spalding County. Akin tried to pooh-pooh Gingrich's charges, admitting that while he did both jobs, managing the farm wasn't all that hard because "the only thing we have is about 100 head of cattle and some corn."

It had been suspected for a long time that the farm was a major profit center for Flynt. Not only was he profiting from the cattle and crops, he was also receiving federal farm aid and, as a bonus, picked up a check from the Ford Motor Company for $12,500 for allowing the auto manufacturer to "park 14,000 Torinos" on the land. Not surprisingly, Gingrich also discovered that both Henry Ford II and Benson Ford, scions of the fabled Detroit company, had each contributed $200 to his opponent's campaign.

The sweetheart deal was appalling in part because it was so crass, so out in the open. There was plenty of land closer to the Ford plant on which to store cars, but Flynt was an influential member of Congress whose committee had oversight on emissions regulations. He was also on the committee that handled congressional ethics — a committee the Atlanta Constitution described as "largely dormant."

All of Gingrich's charges were backed up with documentation, but he may have gone too hard after his older, though popular, opponent by calling him a "moral coward." Flynt, who had been ducking the Republican for months, finally responded by calling Gingrich a "desperate liar" in his advertising, but again refused to meet him in any open debate. Gingrich responded in kind with TV and radio ads blasting the Democrat. The charges — which Flynt never really addressed — resonated in the Georgia media for days.

Only a few days earlier, Gingrich had stormed, "I am amazed and appalled that a member of the House of Representatives Ethics Committee would be engaged in activities that, if not illegal, are so clearly on the borderline of conflict of interest." Flynt took the bait and denied that his decisions in Congress were at all affected by his business dealings with Ford Motor Company. Finally, Gingrich had an issue he could sink his teeth into. "And boy, did he p--s off Flynt, oh wow," said campaign aide Kahn.

One day later, Gingrich proposed "a four-point program to stop special interests from exploiting the American people." His four points were pure William Jennings Bryan. He called for stricter government oversight of corporate America and "strengthening" antitrust legislation.

Just a few days before the election, a leading columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, "Reg" Murphy, reviewed the race and said it was not outside the realm of possibility that the young upstart could win. Murphy clearly understood the anti-Watergate mood, aligning Flynt with the Washington crowd but Gingrich with "new faces, new ideas, fresh beginnings." He continued, "Seniority is a dirty word. Experience is not prized." He also noted that while conservatives were siding with Gingrich, so, too, were labor unions, including the powerful Communications Workers of America and, most astonishingly, the local chapter of the United Auto Workers (UAW). Gingrich was also receiving the support of the airline pilots (of which there were many because Atlanta was a major hub for Delta) as well as churches and farm groups.

"If he gets elected, he would be the only anti-establishment Republican in the House of Representatives," Murphy presciently wrote. Gingrich wanted no less than to replace the "people who were in power. And at a secondary level, a replacement of the principles by which power is exercised."

In the waning days, Gingrich went hard after the corruption of Congress and corporate America, bashing the real or imagined special interests and "the bureaucratic power wielders ... the entrenched leadership ... the lobbyists." He was in the local media on a daily basis, making news, making charges, storming the gates of the good ol' boy establishment. One reporter noted the most obvious fact: Gingrich's "flair for gaining publicity."

He'd already picked up the endorsement of the African American Atlanta Daily World and the Atlanta Suburban Reporter. On November 4, the day before the election, he also surprisingly garnered the support of the powerful Atlanta Journal, though its sister paper, the Atlanta Constitution, did not endorse either candidate, only giving Flynt "the little edge." Though Flynt was being cast as the old man in the race, he would not turn sixty until November 8, three days after Election Day. He was still nearly twice his opponent's age.

In its endorsement, the Journal wrote, "... Gingrich [is] a relatively young man with the proper amount of maturity and comprehension of the problems bothering Georgians today. He is serious about serious matters, but at the same time he has a sense of humor."

Yet another writer for the Constitution wrote, "Most political observers give Gingrich a good chance at taking Flynt's seat." The challenger confidently predicted victory, telling his supporters in Hapeville he would win "because of a base of support that embraces conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, whites, and blacks." Issuing the most understated line of the campaign, Gingrich called it an "odd coalition." Adding to the odd coalition was Bob Beckel, a hard-drinking Democratic operative, working on behalf of a liberal group who gave Gingrich a generous donation.

Kahn recalled many knock-down, drag-out fights with Newt over how to run his campaign and how to present him, as a moderate reformer, as post-partisan or something else. "You couldn't be an animal of both schools." Truth be told, Gingrich was hard to categorize, but he mistakenly thought "he could please everyone because he was Newt Gingrich." Still, "When Newt ... talked about doing things outside the box, people saw in that something different ... 'Well, this guy looks at things in a new way.'" Kahn was certain that Newt's wife Jackie was pro-choice in 1974, and Newt may have been, although when the issue came up, he simply said he was pro-life and quickly moved on.

The race was not settled until the day after the election, when all the precincts had been counted. Alas, it was not to be for Gingrich, but he had lost by the slimmest of margins, a bit less than 3,000 votes: 49,082 for the incumbent Flynt, and 46,308 for the young Republican challenger. He lost by less than 3 percent and had won several counties. Two years earlier, with no real opponent, Flynt had won more than 99 percent of the vote. As of Election Day, Flynt had said he thought he'd win by 70 percent; he later offered a more modest assessment of 62. He was appalled to have come so shockingly close to losing.

Gingrich called his loss a "moral victory," a line often associated with narrowly losing candidates. Still, he'd been outspent and out-incumbented and out-Watergated and out-registered and yet he came amazingly close. As a result, he would live to fight another day if he chose to, and Newt chose to do so.

The rest of the Republicans were wiped out across the country, losing governorships, dozens of House incumbents, more senators, and hundreds of locally elected officials. As a result, the US House was controlled by the Democrats by a more than 2–1 margin. Having lost 4 seats in the Senate, the GOP was at 38, below the number needed to block legislation. The Republicans were especially battered in the South, where they had made tiny gains since 1964 — now these were gone as well.

The famed "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon had faltered badly. Georgia's lone House Republican, Ben Blackburn, was also easily defeated. That is not to say there were not conservatives in the Georgia delegation. The congressional Democrats there were all by and large to the right of center on most issues.

Democrats now controlled two-thirds of the governorships and most of the state legislatures. Indeed, after November 1974, only in Kansas, Wyoming, and New Hampshire did the Republican Party control the governorship and both houses of their state legislature. The Sunflower State's incumbent, Bob Dole, barely squeaked by reelection in one of the bloodiest campaigns in recent memory.

No one had forecast that November would be this horrific.


Excerpted from "Citizen Newt"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Craig Shirley.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue, xv,
Introduction, xix,
Part I: The Candidate (1974–1978),
Chapter 1: Professor Gingrich, 3,
Chapter 2: Again unto the Breach, 13,
Chapter 3: Third-Time Charm Offensive, 23,
Part II: The Congressman (1979–1989),
Chapter 4: The Freshman, 41,
Chapter 5: The Year of Reagan, 57,
Chapter 6: Carter Down, Reagan Up, 67,
Chapter 7: Off Course, 77,
Chapter 8: A Decade of Great Debates, 87,
Chapter 9: Morning in America, 97,
Chapter 10: Family Feud, 117,
Chapter 11: Republican Versus Republican Versus Democrat, 125,
Chapter 12: Playing for Keeps, 139,
Chapter 13: End of the Trail, 151,
Chapter 14: Just Say No, 159,
Chapter 15: Trust but Verify, 171,
Chapter 16: Wright and Wrong, 187,
Part III: The Whip (1989–1993),
Chapter 17: Two in the Bush, 203,
Chapter 18: A New Order Goes Up, A Wall Falls Down, 217,
Chapter 19: Trouble in Paradise, 225,
Chapter 20: Beating the Bush, 235,
Chapter 21: The "T" Word, 243,
Chapter 22: Nervous Breakdown, 253,
Chapter 23: The Whip Who Went Out into the Cold, 261,
Chapter 24: Fallout, 273,
Chapter 25: The Mother of All, 283,
Chapter 26: Shadow of the Fat Man, 291,
Chapter 27: Alpha and Omega, 301,
Chapter 28: Bloody Noses and Crack'd Crowns, 319,
Chapter 29: The Tempest, 329,
Part IV: The Speaker (1994),
Chapter 30: War of the Rebellion, 347,
Chapter 31: The "Get Clinton Conspiracy" Meeting Comes to Order, 357,
Chapter 32: Panic in Lafayette Park, 365,
Chapter 33: The Republicans Talk Contract, 379,
Chapter 34: You Say You Want a Revolution?, 391,
Chapter 35: Eve of Destruction, 403,
Chapter 36: Realignment, 411,
Epilogue, 421,
Acknowledgments, 429,
Notes, 431,
Bibliography, 505,
Index, 513,
About the Author, 543,

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