I started Newt Gingrich’s 1998 book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way, which is about Newt’s tenure as Speaker of the House. I have two items.
1. On pages 9-10, Newt discusses the National Endowment for the Arts. He states:
“Nor had we conservatives taken the measure of how reluctant certain important senators were going to be about going along with certain key aspects of our agenda. For instance, one big disappointment for the conservatives was our failure immediately to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. Certainly any listing of the most bizarre and extreme misuses of taxpayer money would have to include such examples of NEA artistic grants as that to a certain HIV-infected homosexual ‘performance artist’ whose art consisted of cutting his uninfected fellow performer onstage and dangling the blood over the audience so they could experience the risk of contracting AIDS, or to two professors standing at the Mexican border and handing out $10 bills to illegal immigrants as they cross over into the United States, and so on and on. Everyone has his own favorite cases. There is no question that if the majority of ordinary Americans were to see many of the examples of where NEA money goes, they would favor abolishing the system. Yet in the Senate there has always been strong support for the agency, for the NEA also supports such things as opera, ballet, and art museums, and the major private donors to such honored art institutions are also major supporters for senators. In any case, the social pressure of the elites—-and what is better loved by the elites than the arts?—-has always been more strongly felt in the Senate than in the House.”
The context of this passage is Newt’s discussion of how the Senate obstructed some of the passionate ideas of House conservatives. On the one hand, Newt acknowledges that George Washington wanted for the Senate to be a place of moderation, for Washington described “the Senate as the cooling saucer into which the hot coffee from the cup of the House should be poured” (Newt’s words on page 6). On the other hand, Newt wonders if Washington intended for that moderating influence to go as far as it does, and to be as obstructive as it is!
Newt’s discussion of the NEA stood out to me because Newt chose to highlight that the performance artist was a homosexual. I’m not sure that this would float nowadays. Granted, Newt expresses conservative views on marriage being between a man and a woman, and he criticizes what he considers to be governmental attacks on the religious freedom of Catholic charities to discriminate against gay couples who want to adopt. But he doesn’t publicly treat people’s homosexuality in a pejorative sense. My impression (and I am open to correction) is that few public figures do criticize people for being homosexual these days, at least not in public. In the 1990’s, however, it was different, for homosexuals were criticized by many right-wingers for being homosexuals. (Here’s what wikipedia says about the case that Newt is discussing.)
Regarding his comments on the NEA, I thought that Newt made somewhat of an effort to understand the motivations of Senators and also to see why many would consider the NEA to be valuable, for the NEA does good things, such as supporting the opera, ballet, and art museums. But I thought that his balance ended when he treated art as something for the elite—-as if others cannot be edified by a little culture.
2. On pages 16-17, Newt states:
“The key to those years was to keep focused on what I dreamed of bringing about for the country in general rather than on the liberal city in which I was spending most of my working life. For remember: To work in Washington is to wake up each morning surrounded by the Washington Post, the New York Times, the national television networks, National Public Radio, lobbyists who even if they are personally conservative are focused only on who’s got the power today, the Washington bureaucracies, and the Washington social scene. From the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, unless you take steps to defend against it, you are bombarded with opinions, signals, and agendas that are antithetical to a conservative’s own.”
The context of this passage is Newt’s discussion of how transformative leaders should hold fast to their vision for the country, even though they will be criticized. Newt refers to Ronald Reagan, who did not care what the elites thought about him (going back to his days as a B-movie actor), and also to Margaret Thatcher, who chose not to read negative press stories about her.
One reason that I liked this passage was that it highlights that not all criticism is constructive criticism. We have to sift through what is constructive and what is not. Another reason is that Newt says that even a conservative can become wrapped up in a Washington culture that is antithetical to his or her values. Conservatives believe in less government, and they tend to champion advancement through hard work, merit, and productivity rather than through political machinations and ingratiating (think of Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and contrast them with James Taggart). But Washington, D.C. is all about using political machinations and ingratiating yourself with the “right people” to get what you want, and conservatives can fall victim to this! I’ll add that such is the case even with progressives, who may go to Washington intending to serve the people and to bring about reform, yet they find themselves part of a system that likes the way things currently are, and there is pressure on them to abandon their commitment to change.