Newt Gingrich: Against racial dog whistles before he was for them


Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accompanied by Michael Reagan, son of former President Ronald Reagan, in Orlando, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

“I studied history — although, unlike the president, I studied American history!” Newt Gingrich told a cheering crowd in Florida this week. So Obama studied Kenyan history, maybe?

Gingrich, who two years ago said that an understanding of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior” was a prerequisite for understanding the actions of our 44th president, vowed that his own presidential campaign, “will be an American campaign!”

Again, as opposed to what?

When Gingrich repeatedly calls Obamathe food stamp president,’ what is that meant to convey other than that Obama’s the (black!) hero of those (black!) welfare queens Ronald Reagan used to fantasize about? (Though yes, more than a third of recipients in 2011 were white, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while 22 percent were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 19 percent were of unknown ethnicities.)

The GOP candidate recently said outright that he’d like to speak to the NAACP to “talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

And when the former speaker talks about poor children who have no experience of seeing their parents get up and go to work in the morning, there aren’t 16 different ways we can interpret that.

He isn’t the only candidate open to criticism on this front: Ron Paul’s former business associates say publishing racially provocative rants were a conscious part of his business plan decades ago. (Paul said he had no idea his newsletter was doing this, then or for years after the fact. “It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it,’’ Renae Hathway, a former secretary in Paul’s company and a supporter’’ still, told the Post.)

Rick Santorum was criticized for saying that he doesn’t want to “make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Santorum later said he intended to use a word other than “black,” but hasn’t been more specific.

A group of Catholic leaders recently wrote Gingrich and Santorum an open letter, begging them to “stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.”

(Yes, this was before Catholic institutions were sucker-punched by the Obama administration’s recent challenge to religious freedom. And this is not to suggest that such inferences were in any way absent from the Democratic primary in ‘08, when Bill Clinton compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, and Hillary Clinton said her then-opponent Obama was not a secret Muslim, as per persistent rumors, “as far as I know.”)

The candidate who has most energetically introduced race into the current GOP primary, however, used to know better.

At my urging — I know, what a mensch — my husband, the Post’s Bill Turque, dug out the transcript of a couple of his 1988 interviews with Gingrich, conducted when he was covering that year’s presidential race for Newsweek.

There Rep. Gingrich is, during a morning walk around the National Mall, praising Poppy Bush’s willingness to peruse a strategy paper Gingrich had written calling for a huge infusion of federal resources into efforts to make New York, Los Angeles and D.C. “model drug-free cities” so “the world can see that victory against the illegal drug trade is possible.”

He was quite outspoken, too, that his party had to do a lot more and a lot better in reaching out to minority voters, particularly “younger black Americans who share our values.”

“Only by explicitly emphasizing language and examples that make sense to these groups, and by highlighting activists from these groups,’’ Gingrich argued, “can we make the transition from the old model minority to the new model majority Republican Party.”

Excellent advice, really. And I don’t think painting blacks as moochers with no work ethic was what ’88 Newt had in mind.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchor of ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.

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