Newt Gingrich: A leader more like Woodrow Wilson than Teddy Roosevelt

December 12, 2011

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Newt Gingrich’s leadership style.

In recent weeks newly crowned Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich has billed himself as the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt. While there are some superficial similarities between the former House Speaker and the boyishly exuberant 26th president, like a tendency toward bombastic rhetoric and a narcissistic fondness for the sound of their own voices, Gingrich’s political persona nevertheless more closely resembles that of another Roosevelt contemporary who went on to defeat the Rough Rider in the hotly contested 1912 presidential election: Woodrow Wilson.

Like Wilson, Gingrich spent a formative portion of his life in the deep South, drinking in that region’s traditional conservative attitudes on government and culture while displaying a strong sympathy for the old Confederacy.  Both labored in the halls of higher education for several years before finally opting for a career in politics—Gingrich with a Ph.D in history from Tulane and Wilson with one in history and political science from John Hopkins.

Yet while Gingrich rose to national political prominence through the old tried and true congressional route, winning the speakership in 1995, Wilson earned his way by less conventional means. After serving a distinguished stint as president of Princeton, he successfully pursued the governorship of New Jersey in 1910, winning by a wide popular margin. This minor difference aside, both share a remarkably similar political philosophy.

They adhere to what Wilson once termed the “New Freedom,” a belief that less is more when it comes to the federal government’s role in an average person’s life. “Do you want the court to appoint guardians for you or are you old enough to take care of yourselves?” Wilson asked. Gingrich finds no fault in this, as he commonly rails against those whom he deems as the elites and their supposedly baneful influence on economic progress and individual freedom. “You can’t trust anybody with power,” Gingrich once said.

 But advocating less government doesn’t necessarily mean having no government. After all, Wilson is the same president who gave us the Federal Reserve Bank, the graduated income tax, the Federal Trade Commission and a ban on child labor. “We have been proud of our industrial achievements,” Wilson said in his inaugural address of 1913, “but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly the years through.”

Likewise, Gingrich has not been shy about extending the long arm of federal authority when perceived necessity dictates. Just this fall, the GOP presidential hopeful had a difficult time explaining to party conservatives why he had once endorsed a cap-and-trade policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions, the believed chief cause for climate change among many in the scientific community.

Things did not end well for Wilson, of course. Seeking a “peace without victory” at the end of World War I, he tried to ramrod through the Senate the Treaty of Versailles, a game-changing diplomatic agreement that would have made the United States a charter member of a global collective security organization known as the League of Nations.

 When treaty opponents, led by Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, expressed what in retrospect appear to be modest and sensible reservations about the treaty, Wilson refused to yield ground.

He instead mounted a whirlwind speaking tour of America’s heartland to sell his vision of a new global order directly to voters, thus bypassing the Senate and his main critics. But the immense physical toll associated with taking on such a high-stakes political task proved too much for Wilson. He suffered a debilitating stroke and remained in an invalided state for the duration of his presidency. He passed away in 1924, a broken and embittered man. Needless to say, the treaty he poured so much of his heart and soul into went down to flaming defeat in the Senate.

So what does this have to do with Newt Gingrich? Plenty, I’d argue.

Gingrich exhibits a singularly uncompromising “my way or the highway” governing style that would be better suited for an old school European monarchy than a modern democratic state. Furthermore, as any cursory review of his short yet controversial tenure as House Speaker makes clear (remember the 1995 federal government shutdown, anyone?), Gingrich shows little inclination to bridge the gap with representatives from across the political aisle. In fact, he goes out of his way to demonize them. Just ask retiring Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, who Gingrich not so magnanimously suggested be put in jail during a recent Republican presidential debate.

Even veteran members of his own party can’t help but shake their heads at such impertinence. “This is a man only interested in his own grandiosity,” retired Oklahoma Congressman Mickey Edwards recently told the Boston Globe.

This same take-no-prisoners approach ultimately doomed Wilson in the League fight, and it would be equally disastrous if employed by a President Gingrich in the highly charged partisan environment of our nation’s capitol today. We need tolerant, broad-minded leaders who can put aside their petty differences and work together for the common good.

Recalcitrant political bomb throwers need not apply.

Thomas J. Whalen is associate professor of social science at Boston University. He is the author of several books, including A Higher Purpose: Profiles in Presidential Courage.

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