Gingrich and his team dug up several bills that his opponent, Virginia Shapard, had voted against — sloppily drawn legislation, some said — that had aimed to cut taxes and monitor welfare recipients. One of the resulting ads showed a woman’s hefty arm — Shapard was overweight — doling out cash and a voice accusing her of giving money to welfare cheats. Another showed the arm stamping “No” on the tax-cut bill. Another suggested that by going to Washington, Shapard was breaking up her family.
In contrast, Gingrich cast himself and the wife he would soon divorce as ordinary people struggling to pay their bills and keep the family together.
While some on his staff counseled releasing the harsh ads quietly, Gingrich did the opposite.
“Newt said ‘Let’s have a press conference to launch them,’ ” recalled Frank Gregorsky, who worked for Gingrich from 1978 until 1983. “He knew it was going to take buzz bombs to break up the Democratic majority. You had to do things like that — start a controversy.”
It worked, and the underdog had his first political victory using a polarizing technique he continued to preach. As a party leader, he advised Republican candidates to define Democrats in negative terms, and famously distributed a list of acidic words — among them traitor, radical, pathetic and sick — that have become a regular part of political discourse.
In Sarasota last week, Gingrich smiled at the mostly white, mostly elderly crowd.
He cast himself as a defender of “classic America” and Obama as a believer in “Saul Alinsky radicalism” to huge cheers.
“I studied history — although, unlike the president, I studied American history!” Gingrich said to roaring applause.
“This president has been the best food-stamp president in history!” he went on.
“Yes! Yes!” yelled a man in a straw hat.
“This will be an American campaign!” Gingrich said.
“Yeah!” shouted the man in pressed khakis, Bob Cunningham, 59, who said he liked Gingrich because “Newt throws red meat, and we’re rabid. We want our country back.”
Bartender Adele Ober, 47, nodded.
“I don’t think Obama is for America,” she said. “He’s a landlord for handouts.”
She liked Gingrich, she said, because he said what she was thinking.
“Hardworking Americans are angry,” she said. “We don’t need a softy right now.”
Start of political fame
In the annals of his rise to power, Gingrich’s brazen, 1984 confrontation with Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill marked the start of his political fame and, many argue, a steady decline in political civility.