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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Newt Gingrich: An Enigmatic Portrait

Air Date: Week of

Once an active environmental protectionist, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is better known these days as an advocate of environmental deregulation. Reporter Terry FitzPatrick provides this portrait of Newt's green contradictions. Come spend the speaker's 53rd birthday at the Atlanta zoo.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For the first time in 2 generations the GOP enters the general election as the majority party. And one issue with which many Republicans had hoped to make a big score has instead thrown them for a loss: environmental regulation. Congressional Republicans try to reduce air, water, land, and wildlife protections, but instead of getting points for trying to shrink government they were hit by public outrage. The Democrats then grabbed the environment as a major campaign theme. So, the Republicans are changing their game plan on the environment, and the man in charge is House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich may seem an unlikely choice. He was, after all, the architect of the Contract with America, which some called a stealth attack on environmental protection. But the House Speaker was also once a professor of environmental studies and a member of the Sierra Club. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick has our report.

(A milling crowd. A man sings, "Happy Birthday to Newt!" The crowd joins in. "Happy Birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Newwwwwt...")

FITZPATRICK: Newt Gingrich celebrated his 53rd birthday last month by inviting 2,000 supporters to a place you might not expect: the Atlanta Zoo.

(The crowd cheers after finishing the song. Man: "Now wait a minute, I got something for you...")

FITZPATRICK: This gathering raised thousands in contributions, but not for Mr. Gingrich or the Republicans. The money went instead to the zoo's campaign to protect endangered species.

GINGRICH: The Conservation Fund is part of what's going to allow your children and your grandchildren not just to see gorillas at a zoo but to see gorillas in the wild.

(A harmonica plays. A man sings "Happy Birthday to You...")

FITZPATRICK: As an elephant played the harmonica and unfurled a Happy Birthday banner, the event seemed straight out of the GOP playbook on the environment. Plant trees, pose with animals, all to soften the image Republicans have earned by trying to roll back laws like the Endangered Species Act. That's exactly what a group of demonstrators outside the zoo felt the Speaker was up to.

(A different milling crowd)

WOMAN: This man who's doing all that is making an absolute mockery of Zoo Atlanta by having this function here when he wants to kill all the animals for the greater corporate greed of his supporters.

FITZPATRICK: Actually, Newt Gingrich has been one of the zoo's biggest patrons for years. But the fact that environmentalists would picket his birthday party underscores a problem the Speaker has faced his entire career: balancing his ambitions and conservative agenda against a personal streak of true green environmentalism.

(Traffic sounds)

FITZPATRICK: Newt Gingrich was once an environmental crusader when he first moved to the small town of Carrolton, Georgia, 26 years ago. Inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, he founded an environmental studies program at West Georgia College. Professor Gingrich took students on nature hikes and litter patrols. He criticized companies that polluted local streams and fought a proposed dam on Georgia's last free-flowing river. On the radio Mr. Gingrich predicted dire consequences if America didn't clean up its act.

GINGRICH: One of the grim possibilities and I think one of the likelihoods is that the cancer rate will go up dramatically by the year 2000 because we're inflicting on our body an increasing number of radioactive and chemical abuses which are likely to lead to all sorts of backlashes physically.

FITZPATRICK: The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and Environmental Protection Agency, were all created while Newt Gingrich was a college professor. He lectured these were good laws, and according to student Lee Howell, Professor Gingrich was quick to note these measures were enacted with a Republican in the White House.

HOWELL: He was teaching that his hero, Richard Nixon, was doing it. He favored these programs and he made a point that everybody understood that these were Republican programs and the Republicans really were the reform party, and they believed in -- in helping people in areas that concerned them: clean water, clean air, whatever.

FITZPATRICK: In 1974, Newt Gingrich jumped into politics, taking on an incumbent Democrat who resisted the wave of environmentalism that was sweeping the country.

GINGRICH: I'll be running in the Republican primary. I'm running against a man who's been there 20 years...

FITZPATRICK: The incumbent, Jack Flint, was an easy target for Newt Gingrich, who ran as a Green. Mr. Gingrich's bumper stickers were green; he even signed letters in green ink. He was endorsed by the Georgia League of Conservation Voters, and his campaign headquarters quickly filled with students from his environmental courses. The environment was not his only theme, but it was a constant, says Lee Howell, who joined the campaign as press secretary and speechwriter.

HOWELL: He used to talk about the future and talk about things we need to do. And so people saw Newt and reacted to Newt as somebody who was concerned about the future. And here's a young man who cares.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Gingrich came close in his first campaign but lost, and a rematch 2 years later brought the same result. Only on his third attempt, after incumbent Jack Flint retired in 1978, did Newt Gingrich win his seat in Congress.

(Applause and cheering)

GINGRICH: And we are going to fight here in the district and in Washington to be a model of the kind of representation that can make people proud to go vote and kill apathy in this country. (Cheers and applause follow.)

FITZPATRICK: Supporters cheered, but many had noticed a change during the '78 campaign, and in the years that followed. The environment had vanished as an issue in Mr. Gingrich's speeches, in his agenda for GOP ascendancy, and in his 1984 book on America's future entitled Window of Opportunity.

KLAXTON: I was surprised as I read through the book (laughs) -- found next to nothing mentioned about environmentalism.

FITZPATRICK: Bob Klaxton is a history professor at West Georgia College and worked with Mr. Gingrich.

KLAXTON: And of course a few years earlier he was teaching environmental studies here. Where did all this interest suddenly go?

FITZPATRICK: Professor Klaxton says Mr. Gingrich found other issues which were more popular to talk about. But other former supporters, like Lee Howell, see it more starkly: as a case of political opportunism.

HOWELL: He was sort of like a Pied Piper. He'd play his flute and all the -- all the hippies who were into the environment would follow him. He could quote to the people what they read and they said oh boy, he's one of us. Well, he wasn't one of them, he was just using them like he used everybody else.

FITZPATRICK: Still, the new Congressman did back key environmental bills. He co-sponsored reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act and brokered a compromise on acid rain. He supported the biggest public lands bill in US history. He even joined the call for the resignation of Interior Secretary James Watt, who tried to roll back environmental protections under President Reagan. These actions won Mr. Gingrich the endorsement of the Sierra Club, of which he was a dues-paying member. During this period the Congressman also befriended the director of the Atlanta Zoo, Terry Maple.

MAPLE: He told me a long time ago that he felt his party had to be educated on the issues of conservation, and had urged me and empowered me, really, to try to educate people utilizing the zoo in every way we can to see that people would be more astute about the importance of biodiversity in America.

(Bird calls)

FITZPATRICK: But Dr. Maple says things changed in 1989, when Newt Gingrich ascended to a leadership position as House Republican whip.

MAPLE: He's told me this, that when he became Whip he could no longer advocate just his position. He had to advocate the party's position, which is more conservative than his own.

FITZPATRICK: Mr. Gingrich's voting record changed dramatically, and his scores with groups like the League of Conservation Voters plummeted. Publicly, Newt Gingrich maintains his core beliefs didn't change. He says his voting scores fell only because environmental groups were going too far. In a 1995 speech, he likened the situation to an ecosystem out of balance.

GINGRICH: The only way you can understand what's happened to environmental policy is to look at deer population on an island that has no predators. What you had is you had a non-feedback system in which the environmental groups went further and further out of touch with normal Americans and further and further out of touch with science, and further and further out of touch with economic cost benefits. And one morning it crashed.

FITZPATRICK: That crash came with the 1994 elections and the Contract with America, which catapulted Republicans to power. The Contract never explicitly mentioned the environment. What it did mention was creating jobs and relieving American business from excessive regulation. In practice that translated into efforts to scale back pollution controls; increase mining, logging, and oil drilling on public lands; weaken protection for endangered species; and cut the power of the Environmental Protection Agency. The agenda was laid out by one of the new speakers' chief deputies, a former Texas exterminator and current Republican Whip, Tom Delay.

DELAY: The critical promise we made to the American people was to get the government off their backs. And the EPA, the Gestapo of government, pure and simply has been one of the major clohogs that the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents.

FITZPATRICK: In the first 100 days of the Republican revolution, Gingrich deputies rocked the very foundations of America's commitment to environmental protection. And the Speaker himself helped set the tone.

GINGRICH: EPA may well be the biggest job-killing agency in the inner city in America today.

FITZPATRICK: Early in the new Congress, at a forum at the National Environmental Policy Institute, Mr. Gingrich assailed excessive environmental spending.

GINGRICH: We have spent far more money than we've gotten results. We've caused far more economic dislocation than we've gotten results. And we have a highly centralized command bureaucracy artificially trying to impose its judgment with almost no knowledge of local conditions and with a static rather than a dynamic model of life. Now that's exactly what we told Yeltsin to break down.

FITZPATRICK: This tough negative rhetoric was exactly what some had counseled the Speaker to avoid. Former Republican Congressman Don Ritter, who'd invited Mr. Gingrich to the forum, felt an attack on environmental controls without constructive alternatives would alienate voters.

RITTER: He had a chance to be positive and proactive, to lay out an environmental philosophy, which he had, I am convinced, but the timing was that the Republicans were just heady with power and they -- you know, they just went down into trench warfare as opposed to looking beyond, looking ahead, being a little philosophical about it.

FITZPATRICK: Was that a mistake?

RITTER: Oh, it was a terrible mistake. And I'm sure the Speaker realizes that.

FITZPATRICK: Just 6 months into Mr. Gingrich's tenure as Speaker, the Republican assault began to stall. Environmental groups had responded and voters were giving Republicans an earful. As environmental rollbacks came up for floor votes an increasing number of Republicans broke from their leadership. Among them was long-time GOP Representative Sherwood Boehlart of New York.

BOEHLART: They gave him lousy advice. I mean they didn't get it. They thought they were doing the business community a favor. They thought they were doing the American people a favor. I don't question their motivation. I think people like Mr. Delay really thought they were doing the right thing. I think they were dead wrong, and they were proven dead wrong.

FITZPATRICK: Early this year GOP pollsters discovered that even most Republicans did not trust their own party when it came to protecting the environment. Meantime there was open rebellion on the House floor, and President Clinton was seizing upon the environment as a major theme. It became clear Speaker Gingrich had made a major mistake. He began to distance himself from some of the harshest environmental proposals, saying he'd been too busy with other parts of the GOP agenda to pay close attention. No longer willing to leave the issue to others, the Speaker has begun to recast the debate. He's convened a special task force to forge a compromise on Superfund, safe drinking water, and coastal protection. And to present a more moderate view to voters, Mr. Gingrich has begun to pointedly speak out.

GINGRICH: I want a sound, good science, rational, incentive-based environmental program. I think we can create a new environmentalism that can be popular and deeper and stronger than the regulatory litigation-oriented model. Sometimes that's a direct disagreement over how do you get certain things solved.

FITZPATRICK: The Speaker explained his greener vision during a recent Capitol Hill interview with Living on Earth.

GINGRICH: You have to start with the understanding that much of what the environmental movement set out to do in the 70's actually worked. Now the question is what lessons can we learn out of a quarter century? Science has moved very dramatically. We have some real lessons about how to organize human society. Regulatory bureaucratic litigation adversarial systems don't work very well in a free society. They're very important if it's something vital. I mean if you're trying to dramatically change something very, very important, then you want to intervene decisively.

FITZPATRICK: But if those bills, as they were crafted in the 70's, have worked why change them now?

GINGRICH: Because the big things they worked on are mostly done. I mean everybody in America could agree, having the Cuyahoga River catch fire was just a sign of how far we'd allowed chemical pollution to get out of control. So when you clean up the Cuyahoga River and it's now a cleaner river, the next question becomes much more marginal and much more difficult to manage.

FITZPATRICK: Those difficult questions include how to clean up toxic waste sites without spending millions of dollars on lawsuits. And how to resolve the standoff between Federal authorities and property owners over endangered species. The Federal Government should play a role in situations like these, the Speaker says, but a limited role. He supports Federal standards but wants local authorities or even individual business' figure out how best to meet them. In trying to stake out more moderate ground, Mr. Gingrich seems to be pleasing few activists on either side. To Dan Weiss, political director of the Sierra Club, the Speaker's recent remarks are a smokescreen to divert attention from continued Republican efforts to cut environmental funding and enforcement.

WEISS: He has realized that the Republicans have completely overplayed their hand. So now they're trying to go under the radar. They're trying to do some things that will actually be good, like pass a compromise Safe Drinking Water bill. And also continuing to do bad things but do them more secretly.

FITZPATRICK: The criticism of Mr. Gingrich comes not only from the left, but from mining, ranching, and logging interests, who felt betrayed when the Speaker recently quashed a bill to loosen the Endangered Species Act. Bruce Vincent is a Montana logger who's president of the Alliance for America.

VINCENT: We think he's been too sensitive to the extremists who claim that any kind of reform is gutting the laws because the media and the extreme environmental groups that have largely strangled this debate have been very good at pointing out that anyone who tries to change any law is somehow a Neanderthal wanting to gut 30 years of progressive legislation. And we think that he's been too sensitive to that.

FITZPATRICK: Moderate Republicans, though, like Sherwood Boehlart, feel the Speaker's strategy is paying off. He thinks the recent compromise on the Safe Drinking Water Act and a GOP vision statement about ensuring a healthy planet for future generations have diffused the environment as a campaign issue for Democrats. Still, says Congressman Boehlart, there are limits to the Speaker's ability to bring his party together. He says things like the Speaker's Task Force can only accomplish so much.

BOEHLART: I don't think any panel is expected to reconcile all differences with diverse elements within their party. I mean, we are a majority now because we are diverse and I would say, suggest to you if we're monolithic we'd probably still be a minority. And to expect that this panel is going to reconcile all differences is just totally unrealistic.

FITZPATRICK: The bitter fights of the 104th Congress have left bad blood. Not only between Republicans and loggers and environmentalists, but also within the party itself. Despite this, Mr. Gingrich seems determined to persevere and recast the GOP's environmental image. To do this, he's asking questions that many feel he should have posed all along.

GINGRICH: How do we get free Americans to do the right thing by setting up the right incentives? How do we get government and citizen to work together as partners? And that's a very legitimate challenge for everybody who cares about the environment, is to have a positive environmental policy that is incentive-based rather than an adversarial policy.

FITZPATRICK: So far the Speaker isn't offering many specifics about how to build this partnership. As well, it's unclear whether a politician as unpopular with voters as Newt Gingrich can persuade both the Congress and the public to accept his vision for the future. But it is clear the speaker has recognized the environment is not only an issue of importance to the American people, but an issue that's key to maintaining Republican control of Congress. For Living on Earth, this is Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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