The Genius of Newt Gingrich
Bill Long 10/19/06
I was never a fan of Newt Gingrich either while he was a "back bencher" in the House of Representatives (1979-95) nor when he became Speaker of the House after the Republican takeover of the House when they gained an incredible 54 seats in the 1994 elections. But I have always admired the way that he was able to use language effectively to characterize, and dismiss, an opponent. The key to Newt's linguistic success, which he also imparted to fellow House Republicans, is contained in a very short memo/document from GOPAC, which he helped found in the 1980s, and is entitled: "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control." This memo provided two lists of words: one of which Republican candidates were supposed to use to describe themselves and the other of which they used to describe Democrats. As the memo says:
"The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used."
The list of words Republicans ought to use to describe themselves or their plans consists of about 62 words. Let's use a few and then imagine some sentences that might help the cause. (1) Passionate. "We Republicans are passionate in our defense of liberty." (2) Principled. "When you are passionate and principled, you gain momentum." (3) Moral. Well, you don't need a sentence for this one. Obviously the Republicans are the moral ones. (4) Common sense. "My plan is based on principles of common sense, and I will passionately defend them." (5) Peace. It might seem strange that Republicans would characterize themselves as the party of peace, but peace is a good word, and they wanted to gobble it up. (6) Pioneer. Everyone loves a pioneer. (7) Opportunity. "America is still the land of opportunity. Liberty and freedom (words 8 and 9) are our commitment (word 10). Interestingly enough, the Republicans do not have the word "values" as one of their words, though they do have the word "family" (11). And then, they are "pro" certain things. You want to be positive and optimistic (neither of these words are on their list), and so you don't characterize yourself as "anti" anything. You are either "pro-flag," or "pro-children," or "pro-environment" (that is an interesting one, because no one could honestly say that GW Bush or the Republicans today are "pro-environment") or "pro-reform" (12). Just as the Republicans are the party of reform, they are "activists" (13) who are "actively" (14) involved in "change" (15). In order to do this they must "mobilize" (16) people and "listen" (17) to them. Indeed, since they are "building" (18) for the future, they must "challenge" (19) the status quo, "learn" (20) all they can and be "candid" (21) in their speaking. If they do this, they can leave a "legacy" (22) even as they want to "preserve" (23) America. In fact, by exercising "courage" (24) and "hard work" (25) they can restore (not a word on the list) America to its "pristine" (26) beauty. All would want to "share" in this (27). The Republicans are the party of "empowerment" (28). They know how to do their "duty" (29), even though they never have forgotten how to "dream" (30). MLK Jr. might have had a dream, but the Republicans in 1994 wanted to wrest that wonderful word from him and the Democrats in order to establish America in "strength" (31) again. It will take a true "crusade" (32) to do this but "hard work" will lead to "success" (33) One just needs to be "tough" (34) but "fair" (35) and America will have "prosperity" again (36). Who wouldn't want to "share" (37) this "vision" (38) with "us" (39)?
Well, you certainly catch the drift by now, don't you? The Republicans are those who bring hope (even though that isn't a word), reform (yes), enlightenment (though this isn't a word either) and, ultimately success (yes). They will do this through drawing upon American "initiative" (40), though the word "creative" is never used as a positive word.
One phrase grabs you because of its specificity. It is "eliminate good-time in prison" (41). Don't you recall those days of 1994? The victims' rights movement had been alive about a decade, and Republican candidates for office were either tough or tougher on crime. They could show how much they really understood public policy by being tough (a good word) and by eliminating "good-time." If the guy did the crime, he can spend every last day of his sentence in prison. Forget incentives for self-improvement or signs of rehabilitation.
We can already see, even before we go through the negative terms in the memo, that the Republicans have their marching orders in very clear language. In fact, as one of the above paragraphs shows, you can weave together a seemingly choherent narrative using about 40 of these terms, you will sound wonderful and, in fact, will say absolutely nothing. Thus, the true philosophic forbears of Newt Gingrich as he makes this list are the Sophists from Greek antiquity against whom Plato railed in his Dialogues. Then, when you combine these positive terms with some terms from the Religious Right, such as "family values," "God and country," "God's chosen people" or other phrases that draw upon America's sense of mission in the world, you have all the makings of a rhetorical tour de force.
The next essay reviews Newt's negative terms for the Democrats.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long