Newt 1968: Gingrich led protests against nude censorship

Newt Gingrich as professor at West Georgia College, circa 1975. 

In the continuing spirit of our recent posts on the 2012 Republican candidates, we give you this nice piece of reporting yestersday from Reuters, sent to us by the Free Expression Network (FEN).  Enjoy… 

(Reuters) – Republican candidate Newt Gingrich attacks President Barack Obama as a “radical” and “community organizer,” but as a Tulane University graduate student in 1968, he helped lead an anti-censorship protest in defense of sexually explicit photographs.

While Republican foe Mitt Romney steered clear of the college campus tumult that year by doing Mormon missionary work in France, (see our post Mitt Romney Part III, the next “Baby Boomer” President? )  Gingrich warned Tulane’s president of an impending “clash of wills” over the university administrator’s decision to ban publication of explicit photographs in “Sophia,” a literary supplement for the student newspaper “The Tulane Hullabaloo.”

The episode illustrates some of the same pugnaciousness that Gingrich now displays as a candidate for the Republican nomination.

It also underscores a sharp evolution in his views on civil protest, an issue that has played out during the campaign because of the growing strength of the Occupy Wall Street movement. During a forum last November, Gingrich suggested that participants in the Wall Street protests, “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.”

.  ….

A spokesman for Gingrich’s presidential campaign did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Accounts published by the Hullabaloo, retrieved from university archives, describe the standoff over two artistic images the literary magazine sought to publish.


One photo showed a Baton Rouge sculptor posing beside what was described as a “mechanized box” carrying “symbolic descriptions” of human body parts, including sex organs. The second image showed a naked sculptor posing with a statue that depicted what Hullabaloo described as “male and female figures with enlarged sexual organs.”

A proposed caption described one photograph as “an ironical statement on the fad for nudism.”

Tulane authorities at the time, including President Herbert Longenecker, banned publication, argued that the images “are considered to be obscene” and could expose the university to “criminal prosecution.”

Demonstrations erupted, including a picket of Longenecker’s residence.  Within days, the movement split into factions. Gingrich’s group called itself Mobilization of Responsible Tulane Students, otherwise known as MORTS.  The same day that MORTS announced its formation, student picket lines spread to the New Orleans offices of Merrill Lynch, a local bank, a  department store and a local TV station.

On March 11, 1968, MORTS leaders, including Gingrich, met with  Longenecker and other college officials. Typewritten minutes held in college archives show that Gingrich was one of the more outspoken leaders at the meeting, employing the kind of bombastic rhetoric that has been a trademark of his national political career.

“It is now a question of power and if the student body wants to demonstrate until May – we are down to a clash of wills,” Gingrich told Longenecker, according to the minutes, which were obtained by Reuters.  As the meeting concluded, Gingrich warned: “There will be increasing attempts of the student body … to test the guide-lines and test the administration. As long as the student body is aroused it will meet.”

Eventually, the protests waned and the university held firm on the photograph ban. Some members of Gingrich’s protest group later went on to form the Tulane Liberation Front, which occupied a student center and demanded that the swimming pool be opened to the general public.

Though college campuses were hotbeds for political dissent into the 1970s, Gingrich’s student activism waned. University records show that by the summer of 1969, his protest days were behind him. He had
persuaded Tulane to allow him to teach a non-credit course in futurology called “When You are 49; The Year 2000.”

Reporting By Mark Hosenball in Washington; additional reporting by Kathy Finn in New Orleans; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Philip Barbara

REALITY CHECK: Newt Gingrich as historian?

OK, I confess.  Yes,  I’ve met Newt Gingrich.  But only once, and it had nothing to do with politics — at least not directly.  

I happen to belong to a very fine organization called the Capitol Hill Civil War Roundtable, a proud coven of Washington, D.C.-area history zealots enamored with the Civil War.   Yes, that includes me. I love going to their meetings when I can.  They usually bring in a guest speaker, and they manage to attract some terrific ones — authors of new Civil War books, expert guides from local Virginia civil war battlefields, staff experts from museums, so on.  

For a speaker, they can be a tough audience.  Everyone in the room is an expert, and if you make even the slightest mistake in describing a Civil War battle or personality, someone will always catch it.  (Full disclosure: I gave a talk to the group once about my own book DARK HORSE on the assassination of president James A. Garfield, focusing on Garfield’s time in the Civil War, and it was great time, even if a few members made a point to stress that Garfield, as anyone should know, was only a very minor Civil War figure as compared to Winfield Scott Hancock, who opposed Garfield in the 1880 presidential election, who was much more important.)

In any event, one time, as its monthly guest, the group invited Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and current leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.  Gingrich, along with a fine co-author named William Forstchen, had just published a new book called Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War (2005) —  a “what if” story showing how, with a few key changes, fortunes at the famous 1863 battle easily could have changed, with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia winning the day over the Union’s Army of the Potomac.  It was the first of a trilogy that later would be followed by Grant Comes East (2006) and Never Call Retreat (2007).

As much as I hate to admit it, and as much as I may dislike his politics, to his credit, Speaker Gingrich did a very nice job that day talking about the Civil War and his book.  He knew his facts, he knew his story, and he knew his audience.  After a brief talk, he let the group pepper him with questions for almost an hour — sharp, hard questions from people who really knew their Civil War stuff.  Gingrich was clearly in his element — relaxed, engaging, interesting, and looking like he was clearly enjoying himself.

The book itself was generally well received among Civil War fans, even if somewhat slanted toward the South, and it made no pretense at scholarship (no footnotes or archive references, for instance).  Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly summed it up–   

“This well-executed alternative history imagines a Confederate victory at Gettysburg. Former House speaker Gingrich (Contract with America) and historical fiction author Forstchen (Down to the Sea) create a plausible scenario: Robert E. Lee resolves to command, rather than merely coordinate, the efforts of that gaggle of prima donnas known as the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus, when he leads them into battle against the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, he does not commit his soldiers to a desperate head-butting on the ground chosen by the Union’s General Meade. Instead, he maneuvers around the Union flank, placing his tightly run army between Meade and Washington, D.C., scooping up Union supplies and forcing Meade to launch desperate attacks with disastrous results for the Union cause. 

“The authors show thorough knowledge of the people, weapons, tactics and ambience of the Civil War, though their portrayals of historical figures like Lee, Meade, Longstreet and Richard Ewell betray a certain bias (the Confederate men are noble and wise, the Union leaders hot-tempered and vindictive). The novel has a narrative drive and vigor that makes the climactic battle scene a real masterpiece of its kind (it’s not for the weak of stomach). The military minutiae probably makes the book inaccessible to anyone who’s not a Civil War buff or military fiction fan, but those two sizable groups will find this a veritable feast.”

So does writing a first-rate Civil War book qualify somebody to be President of the United States?  Not really, and I’m definitely with the group that thinks Gingrich is too bombastic, erratic, self-absorbed, confrontational, and out of touch for the job — before even starting on his positions on policy issues.   

Still, after you finish voting against him in the primary or caucus of your choice, don’t hesitate for a minute about buying one of his Civil War books.  You’ll be glad you did both things.   

Politics: Congress’ game of Budget Chicken. Does it matter? Yes!!!

Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich before closing the government in 1995.

Remember how they played “chicken” back in the 1950s?  Two guys in hot-rod cars drove toward a cliff.  The first to jump out was Chicken.  His friends all laughed.  Click here to see how it played out in the classic film Rebel Without a Cause.   Notice how the winner got to celebrate by being killed while his friends drank beer.  

James Dean with Corey Allen before
Allen drives off a cliff in Rebel Without a Cause.

What a perfect game for politicians: pointless, self-destructive, with big headlines.  Not surprisingly, playing chicken with American finance has become a favorite sport of the US Congress.  And  2011 seems destined for a spectacular crash, with a choice of two on-rushing cliffs to drive off:

  • First, on March 4, the Continuing Resolution (CR), the law that funds most of the US federal government, expires.  This is no accident: Republicans last December insisted on the short fuse. Unless the CR is extended or replaced, the government must shut down that day.  

  • Second, in late March, the Debt Ceiling, which limits the total amount of money the Federal Treasury can borrow — set last year at $14.3 trillion — is scheduled to be reached.  Since Treasury borrowing is needed not just to fund the government but also to replace expiring bonds and pay interest, failure to raise the ceiling could cause the US government to default on its bills.  

Government shut downs?  Defaults?   The last time Washington shut down was in 1995 when then-House Speaker Newt Ginrgich insisted then-President Bill Clinton accept a list of spending cuts, which Clinton refused.   For a full week as the polticians jockeyed, offices closed, benefit checks froze, and national parks and monuments went dark.  The public cringed at the whole futile exercise.  As for defaulting on bonds, the US government has never done this in its entire 213-year history (with a partial exception in 1933 when FDR eliminated the “gold clause” in US obligations, allowing debt paid in paper currency.( Click here to see Alex Pollock’s take on this from the American Spectator. )

US “full faith and credit” — its commitment to pay bills — is enshrined in the Constitution as the basis of our national ability to borrow.  It is as close to sacrosanct as anything in finance, and the only thing that separates us from Greece and Ireland in the eyes of lenders.

So why are Congressmen and Senators — particularly Republicans of the Tea Party stripe — threatening once again today to play chicken with America’s global fiscal standing by refusing the raise the debt ceiling or extend the CR?   Is it really just simple, self-serving, annoying politics-as-usual?   

Take a look at this chart:  It shows the US national debt since 1940, in constant dollars.  Notice the explosions starting in 1980 (Reagan tax cuts), in 2002 (Bush tax cuts plus two wars), and the near-vertical climb since 2007 (Wall Street financial melt-down).  Today, US debt is nearly 80 percent of our gross domestic product.   Almost nodoby disagrees that, unless reversed soon and sharply, this trend threatens to swamp our economy, our national security, and our future. 

For years,  politicians have gabbed about cutting the debt, but almost never do anything about it.  Just last month, President Obama and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell negotiated a tax cut deal increasing the debt by a projected $900 billion in two years, while solemnly promising to “get serious” about the debt “next year.”  The fact is, nothing can be done to save money in Washington — not spending cuts, not taxes increases — unless some politician on one side or the other agrees to surrender. 

He or she has to agree to jump out of his car and be called “chicken.”  And unless the car is careening toward a cliff, nobody will jump.

This is why, as much as I hate to admit it, the Tea Party crowd has a point.  IF the goal really is to force Washington to do something serious about the debt, then playing chicken with the CR and Debt Ceiling is a bold way to do it.  Presumably, the Republicans will refuse to relent until Obama agrees to big spending cuts. And then, their egos protected, a few of them will jump from the car and let everyone avoid the crash.

If Obama refuses, the government will close or default on its bonds.  Or, if Obama reciprocates, using the Tea Party gambit as an excuse to put forward his own set of perhaps-more-reasonable cuts and modest revenue enhancers, all sides could walk away with a victory.

This is a dangerous game.  Remember James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.  His rival, Corey Allen, got his sleeve jammed in the car door and, as a result, when he needed to jump, he couldn’t.  Off the cliff he flew.  So too could Obama or the Tea Party if they play this wrong, and the big loser will be the US economy.  Knowing when to jump, when to refuse, and how to open the door, are key.

Have we really come to this?  I’ve given up on trying to find the adults.  Let’s just hope the children don’t burn down the house.