Keach Hagey, of Politico, has written an eye-opening article about Newt Gingrich’s symbiotic relationship and history with the media. The article focuses primarily on Newt’s success in utilizing C-SPAN to advance his political pursuits but also extends to his general handling of the media:
“He has proven himself to be a very good debater in these presidential contests,” said Bob Walker, the former congressman who was one of Gingrich’s early comrades-in-arms and today advises Gingrich’s campaign. “I think at least part of it would go back to the days when he was debating on the House floor.”
Gingrich’s astute use of C-SPAN to project an energized and combative conservative caucus engaged in challenging the dominant Democratic majority – with him as its dynamic leader – showed an understanding of the political power of television and of messaging that was revolutionary for its day.
The cable network gave Gingrich both the conduit to reach a generation of conservative activists and a laboratory for figuring out how to dominate the news cycle — skills he has relied on in his debate performances this year and which will be crucial Saturday when Gingrich faces what’s likely to be a newly combative Mitt Romney at the ABC News/Des Moines Register debate in Iowa.
Behind his “elite media” bombast is a canny student of how to directly reach voters.
…But once he was speaker, Gingrich’s appetite for the kind of radical openness C-SPAN represented began to wane. Democrats accused him of “pulling up the ladder” that got him to where he was, and he rebuffed C-SPAN’s pleas for more access, as have the speakers that came after him.
But Gingrich’s appetite for media attention had not been curbed at all. As Ben Jones, the former “Dukes of Hazzard” star and Democratic congressman who ran against Gingrich in 1994 put it, “The most dangerous place in Washington, D.C .was to be standing between Newt Gingrich and a television camera. That’s probably been used by others at other times, but I said it first.”
That it has been used at so many other times to describe so many other lawmakers – it was being applied to Phil Gramm, then a Republican senator, back in 1994 when Jones was using it – is a testament to how fundamental the media is to wielding power in Washington. Gingrich was simply better at it than most.
“He understood that, if you compromised, there was no market value in that, in terms of going on television,” Clift said. “If you were bombastic and controversial, you were much more likely to be invited back.”
This information has numerous applications to the battle for the GOP nomination. While Newt’s detractors frequently point out his shortcomings and weaknesses – and, in all honesty, he has plenty – you can make the argument that Newt’s ability to massage and work the media to his advantage bears more relevance to the office of the President than do Romney’s undeniable skills as an executive and administrator. After all, the role of the President involves persuading, articulating, and influencing much more than, say, micromanaging the vast federal bureaucracy.
As many people have asserted recently and in years past, people tend to view as most effective the presidents with supreme powers of persuasion – Reagan, Lincoln, Kennedy, Truman, and both Roosevelts, to name a few – rather than those who governed more as administrators-in-chief – Bush 41, Ford, Carter, and Eisenhower for example.
I’m sure this will prompt much heated discussion and debate between the pro- and anti-Romney forces, but in the interests of intellectual honesty and the constraints of modern political reality, we ought to consider it.