The words of Newtspeak transformed U.S. politics

In this photo taken Sept. 19, 2016 file photo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich introduces Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Ft. Myers, Fla.  (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Credit: Evan Vucci

Credit: Evan Vucci

In this photo taken Sept. 19, 2016 file photo, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich introduces Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Ft. Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The ever-quotable Gingrich

A selection of quotations from Newt Gingrich during his Georgia years:

In a 1975 speech contending that Republican President Gerald Ford shouldn’t run for re-election: “The United States is in the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.”

On his 1974 and 1976 congressional opponent, Democratic Congressman Jack Flynt: “Jack Flynt has disgraced every citizen he is supposed to represent with a record of inaction that ignores the principles on which this country was founded.”

On Congress in 1974: “Congressmen are not bribed anymore. They simply have a lot of friends who are willing to help them out whenever they find it necessary.”

On the need to overhaul welfare in the early 1980s: “For two generations we’ve basically been a hedonistic society.”

On Democrats in 1984: “The liberal Democrats propose a return to the welfare state with higher taxes for all working Americans.”

When some congressmen opposed the U.S. invasion of Grenada: “Not since Chamberlain appeased Hitler have we heard such talk from elected officials in a free society.”

Mid-1980, during debate on funding the Contras in Nicaragua: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing and, without a dramatic change in strategy, will continue to fail.”

In 1986, on the United States’ balance of trade problem: “We’re going to have to develop a much tougher approach to the international trade system. We need to work at getting the government to be much more aggressive in protecting American interests. … I have to tell you quite candidly that I think President Reagan is wrong on this, the government has not developed the kind of approach we need on trade.”

On 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis: “It’s not that he isn’t a patriot. It is that Dukakis is nuts. … His value system has no relation to reality.”

On a proposal in 1989 to limit speaking fees and outside income, which he called “nuts.” “If you have a scoundrel in Congress, the scoundrel will find a way to cheat. In the state legislatures, you know what they do? They don’t take honoraria. They play poker late at night and the lobbyist loses.”

On Georgia’s Democratic leadership in 1989: “They are not good ol’ boys. They are pleasant people who behind the scenes are thugs.”

On Democrats in the late 1980s: “The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness.”

On then-U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright and the Democratic leadership in the late 1980s: “These people are sick. They are destructive of the values we believe in. They are so consumed by their own Mussolini-like ego that their willingness to run over normal human beings and to destroy honest institutions is unending.”

On Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who killed her two children. Said a few days before the 1994 elections: “I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”

Sources: Gingrich press releases, Gingrich campaign speeches, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The St. Petersburg Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The National Review

A Gingrich political lexicon

In 1990, GOPAC put out a mailing telling candidates and activists how they could sound like Gingrich. Some of the words they should use include:


















hard work


common sense





Negative terms to define their opponents:


















One of Newt Gingrich’s most lasting legacies may be the hot-button political language he curated and promoted from the 1970s through the 1990s — called Newtspeak — that candidates still use today.

Gingrich described his first congressional opponent as corrupt and incompetent. His next one, according to Gingrich, supported welfare cheaters.

After being elected to Congress from Georgia in 1978, his target became the liberal welfare state. He called the Democratic leadership destructive and thugs, dubbed his opponents' positions radical and said some Democrats were willing to kill jobs to help win an election.

Most of the italicized words appear in a 1990 training memo teaching Republican candidates how to “speak like Newt.” Newtspeak lives today — it was issued regularly from Gingrich’s lectern at GOP presidential debates when he ran in 2012 — and if it’s effective now, it was downright revolutionary when Gingrich and others pioneered it in the 1980s. Many credit Gingrich — or blame him — for transforming American politics with words.

“The things that came out of Gingrich’s mouth … we had never heard that before from either side, ” said Steve Anthony, a former Georgia State University lecturer who once headed the state Democratic Party. “Gingrich went so far over the top that the shock factor rendered the opposition frozen for a few years.”

Hardball rhetoric

Newtspeak has become part of the contrasting — some would say hyperbolic — language commonly heard in today’s political discourse.

Joseph Crespino, an Emory University historian, said Gingrich “has the ability to channel a certain disenchantment and to frame certain issues in a way that has a real visceral reaction to people.”

During his final South Carolina primary debate in 2012, he started by getting a rousing ovation when he blamed the “destructive, vicious, negative nature” of the media for making it so hard to govern. He ended the debate calling President Barack Obama “the most dangerous president of our lifetime” who, if re-elected, would bring a “level of radicalism” that would be “truly frightening.”

Some of those who both used and were on the receiving end of Gingrich’s language lessons say it made compromise more difficult and produced a political scene in which the center has largely disappeared.

“I am not sure we did the political system a favor, ” said Rusty Paul, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman and one-time aide to U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp who worked closely with Gingrich. “The language we have used over the past 20 years has so polarized Congress. … The society is as divided as the political rhetoric.”

Former Georgia Democratic U.S. Rep. Buddy Darden, who served with Gingrich, said the Republican’s incendiary language has now become the norm in American politics.

“That probably has been his major contribution to the political discourse, ” Darden said.

Former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, a longtime liberal critic of Gingrich, told The New York Times: “He transformed American politics from one in which people presume the goodwill of their opponents, even as they disagreed, into one in which people treated the people with whom they disagreed as bad and immoral. He was a kind of McCarthyite who succeeded.”

As Crespino noted, American politics has long been a bare-knuckled affair. In 1800, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson went after each other with a viciousness that remains the standard for presidential elections. Candidates were described as criminals, tyrants, cowards and, in the case of Jefferson, an atheist and “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Crespino said Gingrich’s brand of hardball rhetoric came out of an era when Republicans were a distinct minority in both Congress and the South.

“Gingrich was a Republican in a state and a region in which Republicans were trying to gain a foothold, ” he said.

His first congressional opponent was longtime U.S. Rep. Jack Flynt, whom Gingrich considered part of the Democratic machine that had run Congress for decades.

Gingrich told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that year: “Congressmen are not bribed anymore. They simply have a lot of friends who are willing to help them out whenever they find it necessary.”

Gingrich went after both parties, but he narrowly lost to Flynt twice. When Flynt decided to retire, Gingrich called for a “tax revolt” and put out campaign literature accusing his Democratic opponent of joining civil rights activist and Georgia lawmaker Julian Bond to protect “welfare cheaters.”

Once elected in 1978, Gingrich spent more than a decade as a provocative back-bench bomb-thrower, assailing taxes and government bureaucracy, denouncing what he saw as “radicalism” and portraying Democrats as “counterculture” backers of the “liberal welfare state.” He compared some congressmen to Hitler appeasers and accused Democratic leaders of having “Mussolini-like” egos as well as being sick, muggers and thugs trying to “destroy our country.”

At one point Gingrich called the attacks by him and his colleagues “pin pricks” against the Democratic majority. The plan was to bleed the enemy. He promoted a partisan view that Republicans could stand to gain politically from portraying the majority as a corrupt party, which he repeatedly referred to as the “Democratic machine.”

Tactics for revolution

In the early years, he used the C-SPAN network as a televised bully pulpit to sell a Conservative Opportunity Society and hammer the Democratic majority. Gingrich drew a rebuke from House Speaker Tip O’Neill when he said the Republican questioned the patriotism of some Democrats. He criticized the “value system” of opponents and called 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis “nuts.”

He took over leadership of GOPAC, which trained Republican candidates in the tactics and language of what Gingrich hoped would be a Republican revolution.

In 1990, he worked with pollster Frank Luntz to put out a memo of focus group-tested words for GOP candidates to use.

The cover letter, signed by Gingrich, was titled “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control” and encouraged candidates to “speak like Newt.”

“This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media, ” the memo said. “The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible.”

The "optimistic positive governing words" included changemoralcouragereformfreedom and common sense. Negative, contrasting words to be used on opponents included destructiveliberalwelfaretraitorsradical and corruption.

Paul, now the mayor of Sandy Springs, said using such language is meant to evoke an “emotional response in your political base.”

“The carefully chosen words and phrases are important because they don’t appeal as much to the intellect as to the emotion, ” he said.

Gingrich used the rhetoric in his own campaigns. On one randomly chosen page of a fundraising letter in 1990, he used liberal to describe his opponent seven times. He also used sufferrecessionrecord levelsnegativevicious cycle (twice), special interestfederal handoutsever-expanding federal programsmassive tax increasesmore government programs and tax-and-spend.

Change of status

The Republicans’ Contract With America, coupled with disenchantment with the Clinton administration, brought a GOP victory in the 1994 elections, and Gingrich became speaker. Many of those elected in the early ’90s became leading purveyors of Newtspeak.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, said he has had his differences with Gingrich over the years. But when Democrats ran the Georgia statehouse, Ehrhart was known for his biting, straight-to-the-heart critiques of Democrats that were reminiscent of Gingrich.

“Newt has always been good at the politics of the clear statement, ” Ehrhart said. “Here’s where I stand, here’s where you stand.”

Gingrich and his colleagues used wedge issues — such as flag burning and school prayer — to drive that contrasting message home, Ehrhart added. Georgia Republicans did the same during the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The practical reality was that in the clubbish world of politics, you were co-opted, ” he said. “Some might consider it pugnacious or odious — but it worked. You don’t gain anything by holding hands and dancing around the maypole.”

On the other hand, once Republicans took power in Congress, Gingrich’s statements and actions sometimes proved troublesome for his own party.

At a 2012 GOP presidential debate, during a sharp exchange on immigration, Mitt Romney accused Gingrich of using “the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long.”

But that same sort of rhetoric helped the Republicans win a congressional majority after decades in the minority, said Paul, the former state GOP chairman. In fact, he said, the victory would have been impossible without the inflammatory language and conservative message Gingrich and other “mavericks” spread to contrast their positions with those of the Democrats.

“There is no way the Republicans could have broken out of their perpetual second-class status” without it, he said.

Susan Meyers, who was the Southeast communications director for Gingrich’s 2012 campaign and is a former AJC reporter, called him “one of the great communicators of our lifetime.”

“What Newt says on the campaign trail right now is what every frustrated American feels,” Meyers said.

Crespino, the Emory historian, called Gingrich “one of the most successful leaders on the right in framing issues around a certain set of ideals and using language in a very strategic way.”

“He has, as all successful politicians have,” Crespino said, “a sense of the theatrical and the ability to use language and frame words in contexts that appeal to lots of people.”

A version of this story first appeared during Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.