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.