Broken marriages and extramarital affairs are not the only baggage Newt Gingrich will be bringing with him to the 2012 presidential race.
Writing at The New Republic, Ed Kilgore sheds some light on Newt Gingrich’s days as a history professor, a liberal Republican, and a champion of environmentalism who sought support in his early campaigns from liberal democrats.
Here is a taste:
In the 1970s, I was a budding Georgia political junkie (and, actually, a Republican activist). I recall Gingrich, whom I first met at a Republican state party convention, as an overtly eccentric and extremely talkative history professor at West Georgia College who lived a sort of strange double life as a politician obsessed with getting elected to Congress. He had been born in Pennsylvania, landed in Georgia during high school, and as a graduate student at Tulane University in 1968 became the Southern regional director for the brief and unsuccessful presidential campaign of the liberal Nelson Rockefeller—not the sort of item a Southern Republican in those days usually wanted on his resume, but a first step on the political ladder nonetheless.
A few years later, having fathered two children with his high school math teacher (whom he had married at the age of 19), Gingrich returned to Georgia and launched his electoral career, running for Congress in 1974 and again in 1976. His incumbent opponent was John Flynt, an old-fashioned conservative Democrat best known for being on the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” list of environmental reactionaries. Unlike many Georgia Republicans who sought to out-flank Dixiecrats by coming across as better-bred right-wing extremists, Gingrich ran to Flynt’s left, emphasizing environmentalist and “reform” themes, and enlisting significant support from liberal Democrats. Unfortunately for him, these were the two worst election cycles for Georgia Republicans since the 1950s (the Watergate election of 1974 and Jimmy Carter’s Georgia landslide of 1976), and he lost narrowly both times.
But then Flynt retired, just as Gingrich’s form of liberal Republicanism was falling out of fashion nationwide, in the run-up to Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980. When Gingrich ran for Congress again in 1978, this time against a more conventional Democrat, he reinvented himself as a fighting conservative focused on anti-tax and anti-welfare messages. He also burnished his conservative credentials by heading up a statewide group opposed to President Carter’s Panama Canal Treaty, a major right-wing (and specifically Reaganite) cause at the time. Gingrich won as a newly minted conservative, riding a conservative trend in his state and the country. It’s hard to know whether his earlier liberal persona, which seemed consistent with his private behavior and the polyglot crew of environmentalists he hung out with at West Georgia, or his later conservative incarnation was more genuine. But it is clear his turn to the right was well timed, and launched him not only into Congress but into a career as a national political celebrity.
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