12:15 pm Dec. 2, 20114
When Representative Peter King called me between votes on Thursday afternoon to talk about his party's current presidential front-runner, Newt Gingrich, he joked that the conversation would ruin his day, but that he would "try to be even-handed."
He duly started out with the nice stuff.
"First of all, we would not have won the House back if it weren't for Newt," King said. "He did have a vision. We had that first 100 days with the Contract with America. We got through at least ten pieces of legislation. He certainly provided direction at the start."
But, King said, "The problem was, over a period of time, he couldn't stay focused. He was undisciplined. Too often, he made it about himself."
King was first elected to the House by the voters of Nassau County, running on an anti-tax, anti-abortion platform, in 1992, two years before the Contract With America helped deliver the House to Republicans, and the speaker's gavel to Gingrich. The two men never quite saw eye-to-eye. In 1996, King, a son of Irish immigrants who grew up in Sunnyside, accused Gingrich of having "a Southern, anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings."
On Saturday, Gingrich will have a revival of sorts out on Staten Island, where he'll speak to a Tea Party meeting, and possibly encounter another old enemy. Former congressman and current Romney supporter Guy Molinari called Gingrich "an evil person" this week, and threatened to show up at the event (though he conceded he probably won't).
King said the episode that epitomized Gingrich's reign as speaker happened during the government shutdown, when Gingrich complained that he was not treated well by President Clinton on the long flight to Yitzak Rabin's funeral. Gingrich said Clinton never spoke to him on the flight, and that he was made to use a rear exit, and he implied that the slight had contributed to the government shutdown.
"[Gingrich] said it to a group of reporters, then later on they were saying he was tired or whatever," King recalled, by way of debunking that claim. "But no, the next morning at the Republican conference, he got up and went into this whole detail about how Clinton had snubbed him, had him sit in the back of the plane, get off the back of the plane, didn't talk to him during the trip.
"And he compared it—'Somebody did this to Woodrow Wilson in 1919,' or whatever the hell it was, 1918 [and] 'caused a national uprising.' And once the American people find out that he was treated like this, the country was going to turn on Clinton. I mean, this was all Newt.
"So when he said that to reporters later, this was all that was on his mind. That's what he got out of Rabin's funeral, that's what he got out of the government shutdown, all of this, in Newt's mind, he had focused it all on himself getting off the back of the plane. Of course, as it turned out, they had pictures of him talking to Clinton during the trip. But that's neither here nor there."
The country never turned on Clinton, and the Republicans were punished severely in the election.
"That's the main reason I think we ended up losing that fight, is because it looked like Newt being petulant," King said.
There was also a question of focus, according to King.
"It was like Newt would read a book and we'd go off into a different topic," King said. "He'd go on 'Meet the Press' and he'd go off message. If you're the speaker and you lay out an agenda, or a particular bill, you stay on that until the bill is passed. With Newt, it was hard to get that type of discipline. He'd say something else or come up with a different argument.
"He also has this incredible sense of exaggeration. Like, I don't know how many times he'll say, 'This is the most corrupt act in the history of Western Civilization,' or 'the most despicable.' You can only say that so many times. So to me, I just didn't see him having the sense of discipline or the sense of direction that's really needed."
King said he wasn't the best person to assess how Gingrich treated his members, since the two sparred often, but he offered his own experience.
"I thought he was condescending," King said. "I used to see him on the floor, even with his staff, it was like a presidential entourage having to follow him. And 'I want this done, and I want this done.' That type of thing.
"I thought he was somewhat dismissive. I was never on his staff, never part of his circle, but in my dealing with him it was very professorial—not even professorial—very pedantic. He would come in with like four books under his arm and telling us to read these during the break, and all that. I just found him to be too much putting himself at the center of whatever he was trying to do."
I asked King about the roots of their bad blood.
"Part of it was, and this is parochial on my part I guess, but the fact that he would never miss a chance to take a shot at New York. And this was even after we had elected Giuliani as mayor, Pataki as governor. That was like part of his routine, to attack New York. Big-city bosses. New York corruption, that type of thing. I just got tired of that.
"And then, just his style. I thought it was very, not just abrupt, that's the wrong word, because I don't mind guys being tough. It was just a very superior complex—a superiority complex—and I don't think he had that much to be superior about."
Part of the problem with Gingrich 2012, as King sees it, is that Gingrich won't be able to capture independent voters.
"President Obama does not have them," he said. "If we have a plausible candidate, we should get them, or we have a very good opportunity to win the independent voters. Newt Gingrich will drive them away. And I think it opens up an opportunity for someone like a Mike Bloomberg, an independent candidate, to come in. Independents who are fed up with Barack Obama but are not going to vote for Newt Gingrich.
"To me, if someone like Mike Bloomberg is looking to make a third party race, that could open it up for him. Which could end up, give the election to Obama. Or maybe elect Mike, I don't know. But as a practical matter, if there is going to be a third-party candidate, there's much more of a chance for that if it's Gingrich, rather than Romney."
But King (who hasn't endorsed anyone yet, but is leaning toward Romney) said his antipathy for Gingrich isn't quite strong enough for him to buck the party, even for a hometown candidate like Bloomberg.
"I would support the nominee of the party," he said, flatly.
Even if he's worried about what a Gingrich nomination might mean for the G.O.P.
"It's only a matter of time before Newt—not implodes, because Newt is quick enough to always recover—but there's always damage done," he said. "He will say something or do something which will hurt himself and the party. Then, he's smart enough to bounce back but you never bounce back all the way. And by the time the campaign is over, you've damaged yourself too much, which is what happened when he was speaker. He won back the House for Republicans and within four years he had to step down."
King said the "most egregious example" of Gingrich hurting the party in recent memory was his comment on "Meet the Press" that Paul Ryan's budget proposal, which had become a banner for the party in the budget battles, was "right-wing social engineering."
"If we do have an intellectual in the party right now, it's Paul Ryan, and whether you agree with what he's saying on Medicare—all or part of it, and any Republicans should at least agree with most of it—and if you're going to disagree, you do it in a respectful way," King said. "The guy has put his political career on the line for this and he's put a lot of effort into it and to just dismiss it in the cavalier way that Newt did—if anyone had done that to Newt, he would have been offended forever.
"And I would say Ryan has real intellectual substance, unlike Newt who is sort of superficial on a lot of stuff. You can mention so many books you've read and all that. But any guy who talks about it that much isn't usually as smart as he says he is."
Despite all that, King doesn't expect his old rival to fizzle like the other candidates who've briefly held an elevated poll position as the leading alternative to Mitt Romney.
"I think it'll stick," King said. "He does have a lot of substance. He knows what he's talking about, which is different from some of the other candidates. You're never going to see him like Rick Perry, stumbling for a minute to find an answer. You're not going to see him like Herman Cain, forgetting where Libya is.
"I think Newt is very smart. I think he's patriotic. Newt would do what is best for the country. His problem is he often equates what's best for him as what's best for the country."