Gingrich Interview Revealed He’s Statist Lightweight Who Defends Godless Public Schools, Is Soft On Homosexual Issue
By John Lofton, Editor
Because it’s a pretty good bet that Newt Gingrich will run for President, I thought I’d share with you an interview I did with him in 1989. Here it is.
Q. Congressman Gingrich, in this interview, rather than do the usual thing and ask where you stand on a laundry list of issues, I’d like to do sort of an intellectual biography of you, your ideas and their origin. For example, you speak often of the hierarchy of change and you talk about the importance of vision. What is the origin of your vision?
A. I think it’s a combination of my grandmother, who was a devout Lutheran and got me to read a lot of typical children’s material from the late 19th Century, with a very clear sense of good and evil. As a younger person reading a lot of things about natural history, both current and paleontology, and a sense of competition in what happens, what are the rules of nature, of life. And then Toynbee’s concept of challenge and response. Civilizations that respond to challenges survive. And civilizations that fail to respond die. And finally, having grown up in an Army home with a career soldier who took seriously that the world is dangerous, if you follow the rules of survival then your country survives. If you break those rules, you end up ceasing to exist.
Q. What would be an example of a society you read about that survived and why do you think they survived?
A. The longest living culture, at least that the world has come into contact with, going back to the Egyptians, is Confucian China which was able to absorb ideas and concepts and organize society for over 2,000 years, and which literally had a capacity to keep absorbing new things but finally broke down about the 16th Century. If you look at the Romans and their capacity for a very long stretch the period of the decay of the Roman Empire is longer than the history of the United States. These are just very long stretches.
One of the really formative books of my childhood was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a science fiction series which is based essentially on Toynbee’s decline and fall of the Roman Empire. And it gives you a sense of the sweep of history, of the sense that France can be dominant in one century and then Germany can be dominant in another century.
And that there’s a changing cycle of what happens, what leads, why America has been safe for 45 years and what it might be like if we were not safe. And that it’s very important to realize that all it takes is for leadership, and people who lead society in the broad sense, the 10 or 15 percent who are most active, to get complacent and soft, quit paying the price of survival. And a society can be in tremendous trouble very fast.
Q. So, you get your vision, strategy and tactics from history? You’re a historicist?
A. Yes. I think that history is useful not because you repeat it but because the general patterns tend to be the same. And, of course, part of the art is to figure out which patterns apply when.
Q. What, if anything, do you think ought to limit the civil government, the state?
A. I think that’s partially dependent on the crisis. Lincoln, correctly, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War because he faced a crisis of survival.
Q. And this was correct by what standard?
A. That if the society, the state, doesn’t survive under that crisis — if it’s a state that grows out of collective contract with the average person — that if the contract doesn’t survive, the whole system breaks down. So it becomes almost tautological, that unless you believe in anarchy, there has to be some capacity to survive a great crisis.
Q. Well, the more I look at our Congress, the better anarchy looks, assuming, of course, that when I look at Congress I’m not looking at anarchy. But are you really comfortable with the idea that the state should decide when and where to declare a crisis and suspend civil liberties? My question was what, if anything, you believe ought to set the limits of what the civil government, the state can do?
A. First of all, the Constitution sets the limit. And it provides for the right to suspend habeas corpus in a real crisis.
Q. But who declares the crisis?
A. Well, the Civil War seemed to be a real crisis.
Q. It didn’t have to be. But it sure turned out to be one. But if we were sitting here with no Constitution and were trying to figure out what to draft, where would you turn to learn what limits ought to be set on the state?
A. I think I would turn to John Stuart Mill’s definition that, basically, the government should be limited, in large part, to restricting your rights to the degree that you hurt others.
Q. And where do we look to find out what hurts others?
A. That emerges out of the common dialogue.
Q. Maybe, maybe not. Is there an ultimate, absolute standard that we can repair to learn what hurts people? Are you a legal positivist, one who says that the state should limit itself, that there’s nothing outside the state or civil government that ought to limit it?
A. No. I start with the presumption that all rights reside in the people except those they give to the state.
Q. So there’s nothing higher than the people or the people in the states?
A. In the terms of the process of civil contract, of what we’re talking about.
Q. There’s nothing higher than the people? There’s nothing that binds the people?
A. I think, first of all, the reason why the Declaration of Independence says that we’re endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, is that the fundamental rights are given by — this is not a normal interview in the sense that…
Q. But these are questions that philosophers and politicians have talked about for thousands of years — where do right and wrong come from? Where does legitimate power reside? What ought to limit power? I haven’t heard you, yet, speak of anything higher than “the people.” For example, could the people of a state get together and decide to put some other people into ovens? And if your answer is, obviously, no, then why not?
A. You’re asking much more philosophical questions than I am answering. I was answering, essentially, a tactical question within normal discourse. Rights ultimately derive from man’s relationship to God. And from a sense of right and wrong which is, essentially, non-rational, essentially — that is, right and wrong tend to be abstractions which I think you acquire by seeking God’s will and trying to understand what, in a sense, that transcends being everyday life, what’s right and wrong. The reason the Holocaust was wrong transcended any kind of normal discourse. You start with concepts of good and evil.
Q. And where do we get these concepts? Where do you turn for these judgements?
A. I think a lot of it is taught to you.
Q. This begs the question. How do you know if what you are taught is good or evil? You mentioned God’s will a minute ago. How do you know what God’s will is?
A. There are two traditions that interact. One is that you approach God through prayer and seek to understand what God’s will is. And the other is that you have a long tradition that starts with the Bible and people who have tried to understand the Bible to understand God’s will.
Q. What do you do?
A. I do both. It’s the interaction of the two. Each informs the other.
Q. Do you think the Bible says anything about what ought to limit the state, the civil government?
A. I think the Bible says a great deal about what’s right and wrong — much more than what it says about what limits government.
Q. So you don’t think the Bible says much about civil government?
A. I think it’s more limited. If you read the Bible for example, there are periods in the Bible which involve theocracies in which the government had extraordinary powers.
Q. Actually, God had extraordinary power and these governments had almost no power. Their powers were very limited. Their role was ministerial and administrative. They simply carried out God’s law. They didn’t legislate. It’s only when God’s law is abandoned and man makes his own laws, that the state and it’s bureaucracy become huge and, incidentally, don’t work. I know you’re concerned about the drug problem. Why do you think millions of our people use illegal drugs and what can the state do about this?
A. I think a lot of people use illegal drugs because for them it works. It provides a temporary pleasure , a refuge — in part, the same reason people become alcoholics. It fills up a vacuum in their lives.
Q. Which ought to be filled by what?
A. I think that the collapse of traditional values and beliefs and the whole vacuum in modern secular society alter these people to pursue false Gods that are available. Q. For sure. Are you a member of a church?
A. I’m a Baptist, a Southern Baptist.
Q. You’re also interested in education. What exactly, is it that you think students should be taught?
A. I think, in part, you have to go back to almost the McGuffey’s Reader approach. First, people should learn skills. Reading, writing and arithmetic are liberating skills and —.
Q. But these skills aren’t more important than the substance of what they are reading and writing, is it?
A. No. But it’s an important first step to just read.
Q. We originally read, in this country in Colonial times, so that our children could read the Bible and be protected against the Devil.
A. Yes, but I think it goes far beyond that. It’s true, particularly in the Protestant tradition — one of the reasons you had a historically high literacy rate was partly religious.
Q. But, in your judgement, is there a fixed body of knowledge which everybody should believe is true to be a truly educated person? And if so, what is it?
A. I think that you have put your finger on it, as you have on a couple of questions, on a very profound area, one which we haven’t fought over for over a quarter of a century. It’s clear to me that there is a large body of values and attitudes that are real. And that which without you probably can’t run a civilized democracy. And that we, in fact, face the great crisis that for the last 25 years we have taught those things less and less. We have people who are lacking both skills and knowledge.
Q. But does anything specific come to your mind regarding something we were once taught but are no longer taught, and this lack has a lot to do with our educational crisis?
A. Yes. There was a whole body of knowledge up until the 1950’s that started with the notion that there is a God and that religious values matter and morality matters in the broad sense, ethics matter in the broad sense. And that patriotism matters. And in the absence of those values you, in fact, can’t have a civilized society.
Q. What is morality in the broad sense, as you put it?
A. Let me give you an example that is broken everyday now. If you are dishonest, the person you cheat most is yourself. When you learn that over half of all college students have cheated, it tells you something about the whole underlying quality of the civilization.
Q. I agree. But what is morality in the broad sense?
A. I think in the broadest sense the McGuffey’s Readers were designed, and parallel readers, to teach people a broad sense of being moral.
Q. Should there be any state-run schools at all and, if so, why? What is the compelling case for so- called public education? Why shouldn’t there be a separation of school and state?
A. I think the compelling case for public education — - which is different than public bureaucracy — is that it is in the interest of society that everyone have a minimum standard of education.
Q. And what makes you think the state is best capable of providing this?
A. I didn’t say it was.
Q. Are you for the government running any schools?
A. Sure. I’m not opposed.
Q. Why not, since they’ve done such a terrible job?
A. In a lot of places, they didn’t do a terrible job.
Q. But what principle do you invoke for the right of the state to run any school? I agree that everyone ought to be educated.
A. So what mechanism would you use to provide for it?
Q. Well, how about the one we had before we had state-run schools?
A. Which didn’t work, which is why we went to state-run schools.
Q. Didn’t work? You just said we had a high rate of literacy.
A. No, I said in the 19th Century.
Q. But the literacy rate was high in Colonial America, too.
A. That is explicitly not true.
Q. But it is. Of the people who went to school then, a higher percentage were literate than of those who go to public schools today.
A. But of the total percent of the population —.
Q. I’m not talking about this. I’m talking about those who went to school.
A. You can say the same thing now. Of those who go to elite prep schools, a very much higher percentage get educated.
Q. I doubt that this is true. But are you going to sit here and tell me you think the state does a better job of educating our children than private Christian and home schools? Isn’t there a message here when these private schools do much better, on the average, than the average state-run school?
A. Yes. There’s a very important message here.
Q. What is it?
A. I said I believe in public education. I didn’t say I necessarily believe in public bureaucracy.
Q. You really believe you can have state-run schools without bureaucracy? I don’t think so. But I still don’t understand what principle you’re invoking that gives the state the right to run any school. State-run schools aren’t producing.
A. I think they were producing a great deal up until the 1960’s. And I think you can argue that for the first half of the 20th Century American public schools were a model for the planet. They absorbed immigrants, Americanized them. They created a real base of literacy. They established a pool of people informed enough to compete in the world market and were educated enough to be citizens. I think that’s unequivocally true.
Q. But I still don’t understand where you think the state gets the right to run a school.
A. What I’ve said is that I am for public education. I am not necessarily for the current bureaucracies. I believe in parental choice — vouchers and tax credits to increase the range of choice. But I am for the society having the right to insure a minimum standard of education.
Q. Where do you stand on abortion, the premier moral question facing this country?
A. I think life begins at conception.
Q. What ought the law to say about abortion?
A. It should provide that the child is protected except in the case of the life of the mother.
Q. Is this a state matter? Do we need a federal law? Or a constitutional amendment?
A. I think we’re going to fight it out at the state level for the moment. The society badly needs to have this argument. When the Supreme Court made Roe vs. Wade, it did something fundamentally wrong because this is precisely why you have a free society. People need to argue out where their values are going to end up. There needs to be a public debate.
Q. Do you favor some sort of legal protection for the unborn baby up until birth?
Q. What should be done to a woman or doctor involved in an abortion? Should there be criminal penalties?
A. There ought to be a sanction against the doctor but not the woman.
Q. I saw you on TV saying that the rumors about one congressman’s alleged homosexuality got into a zone that is none of the country’s business. If a person in Congress is homosexual, do you believe this is none of the country’s business, that this person’s homosexuality says nothing about his character?
A. The question I ask you is what right do people have to have lives? The only way, if you go back to what I was talking about.
Q. But your question is a good one. What is your answer? Does a person being a homosexual tell us anything about the individual’s character?
A. I think it tells you a lot about how deviant they are from Western values. I want to draw a distinction between private behavior by citizens, where I don’t see any value to our pursuing citizens in their private lives. I think people have a right to privacy.
Q. An absolute right?
A. No one has an absolute right. Conversely, I mean, if you took your own arguments as far to the absolute extreme on the other end, they would be equally silly.
Q. Like what?
A. The absolute right to intrusion.
Q. By the state?
A. Who else? By reporters. By gossips. By the person living next to you. I mean, who’s going to intrude? It seems to be there’s some common sense zone in the middle. And I would draw a distinction between what adults do in their private lives and the fostering and propagation of the homosexual lifestyle.
Q. Are you against laws that prohibit homosexual sodomy? Your state (Georgia) prohibits this, even among so-called consenting adults in private.
A. It’s not a topic I’ve ever gotten involved in. It doesn’t occur to me that it’s very helpful, in a world of murders and drug dealers, to spend a great deal of police resources chasing adults who engage in consenting behavior in private.
Q. But do you think homosexuality, including homosexual sodomy, should be a crime? Bestiality?
A. You’re getting close to the line. It seems to me reasonably clear that bestiality should be a crime.
Q. But you are less sure about homosexuality, including homosexual sodomy?
A. If it’s committed in private between consenting adults, I don’t think the state has any business intruding.