THE BLOG
01/23/2012 02:51 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

How Newt Plays the Race Card: Brilliantly

Glenn Beck University has just been displaced by Newt Gingrich University in the U.S. Bad News and World Be Gone college rankings, not least because NGU's star Professor of Populism is even better than Huey Long at playing to racism while denouncing it.

Beck's moving invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his big rally at the Lincoln Memorial only... er, pales next to Gingrich's of 1995, when, in his inaugural address as Speaker of the House, he led its new Republican majority in an ovation to liberal Democrats and the Civil Rights Movement.

Yes, he did that, and it's worth pausing to appreciate just how "good" this pedagogue/demagogue is at what he does.

Thirty years after Lyndon Baines Johnson had stood at the House podium urging the body to pass the Voting Right Act and had brought the House to an ovation (and tears to Martin Luther King's eyes) by looking up from his prepared text to say, "and we shall overcome," Gingrich stood at that same podium, flush with victory, and behaved as faux-graciously toward the Democrats he'd defeated as he would to the Republicans he defeated last Saturday in South Carolina. In 1995, he said:

No Republican here should kid themselves about it; the greatest leaders in fighting for an integrated America in the twentieth century were in the Democratic Party. The fact was, it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that ended segregation... And the fact is, every Republican has much to learn from studying what the Democrats did right.

When LBJ said "We shall overcome" in 1965, some staunch segregationists in the House, such as South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, sat stone-faced, their hands unmoving. And when Gingrich praised liberal Democrats like Johnson 30 years later for having ended what Thurmond had defended, it was some House Democrats who sat stone-faced, their hands unmoving: Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, Nydia Velazquez of New York looked as if they considered Gingrich's tribute a subtle ploy to divide his national audience by reminding racist whites precisely whom to blame for what had befallen them since the Voting Rights Act.

But that's not the whole truth. Gingrich believes sincerely, even if delusionally, that deregulated capitalism can uplift blacks. Like then-congressman and presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who took that message to inner cities in the 1970s, Gingrich understands that social conservatism isn't just "white." He also went on the road with Al Sharpton years ago to push for certain reforms in education. And when Louis Farrakhan held his Million Man March in 1995, Gingrich commented, amazingly, that a turnout that huge bespoke real pain.

To charges that he praised liberal Democrats in 1995 only to corner them racially, Gingrich would probably respond, with hand on heart, that he was really only saying that "Thanks to a couple of things you Democrats did right, we can now transcend you and carry on your work at a higher level, not with more civil rights legislation, rulings, and enforcement, but with freer markets, which will sweep away the cobwebs of color and caste and stimulate the enlightened self-interest that makes Americans truly free."

Gingrich thought that because liberals didn't understand this, they were only compounding, through new legislative color-coding, the racial divisions they meant to heal and thickening the cobwebs of suspicion they meant to dispel. "He's really tweaking liberals for being less committed to integration than he is," said a conservative acquaintance of mine, watching the speech. "What he really means is that Republicans should study what liberal Democrats did wrong."

How had it come to this? Gingrich, with his Ph.D. in Half Truths, was standing at that House podium in 1995 partly because liberal Democrats had indeed done some things wrong on race that you can read about in the chapter of Liberal Racism where I recount his "inaugural" address as Speaker. But this was the very same Gingrich who would soon lead a shutdown of the whole federal government to bolux Bill Clinton, and later, the most hypocritical impeachment in American history.

As I listened on Saturday night to Newt's tributes to the Republican opponents he'd just defeated in South Carolina, I couldn't help recalling his tribute to liberal Democrats in 1995 and thinking, That's how "good" he is: Good enough to put Glenn Beck and Huey Long in the shadows.

Only if he's lucky enough to overcome his well-known liabilities and to get the debates he wants with Obama about America's direction will Newt Gingrich meet his match.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?