NBC anchor Brian Williams didn't exactly strike a tone of toughness with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she was elected, asking her softball questions on NBC Nightly News about what "drain the swamp" meant, and what she would say to the president, and how "history was riding along with her," and what her thoughts were on her family at the historic moment.
But twelve years ago tonight, one week after Newt Gingrich's big win, on November 15, 1994, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw hammered Gingrich in a snide and negative ten-minute "Dateline NBC" hit piece. Brokaw pushed every negative button. Gingrich had a "long streak" of "casually reckless" remarks. He admitted "he smoked pot" and "got a marriage deferment" to avoid service in Vietnam. He went to first wife Jackie's hospital room "the day after her cancer surgery" to discuss divorce terms. He made a "very ominous" charge that FDA chief David Kessler threatened to ruin businesses. And his "well-heeled admirers," called "Newt Incorporated," showed he was already ethically compromised, since voters would think donors "were trying to buy his heart if not his vote, at the least."
Here's how the Dateline segment was promoted at the beginning of the show. The adjectives stuck out:
Brokaw: “He’s been called brilliant, a control freak, pompous, power-hungry. Suddenly he is one of the most powerful people in Washington. But some who have known him for years think he could be dangerous.”
Brantley Harwell: "I personally think that Newt is amoral when it comes to politics.”
Brokaw: “Tonight, some startling admissions from the man who went from spoiler to Speaker.”
Gingrich: “Truth is, occasionally, I’m not very smart.”
Out of the MRC transcription archives, it's a remarkable hit piece, the kind in which Brokaw announced that Gingrich wasn't the only man in politics with a "slash-and-burn" style. The segment's title was simply "Power Broker":
Tom Brokaw: "You can call him an archconservative or an arch-enemy of President Clinton's policies, but in less than two months, you'll have to call Newt Gingrich, Mr. Speaker -- the new Speaker of the House. The man who has spent years in Congress as the leading guerrilla fighter in the Republican war on Democratic turf. Suddenly, he's won a major battle. Now, he's coming out of the jungle to claim the spoils of victory -- the great power of Speaker of the House. While the votes were still being counted, questions did arise about whether this true believer and his take-no-prisoners style can adapt to the role of statesman.
Election Night, one week ago. It is 9 P.M. in Marietta, Georgia. Things are moving fast. Polls still are open in the West, but early returns are promising, very promising."
[Gingrich: "So far, so good."]
Brokaw: "By 9:30 P.M., Democrats are falling everywhere. The architect of their defeat is the combative Newton Leroy Gingrich -- who says he wants to reform Washington's ways. But, when Democrats tried to reform lobbyists recently, he called their efforts 'Stalinist.'
"[To Gingrich] ...But, we call them Stalins? Stalin is the man who, after all, created the Gulag, who killed hundreds of millions of people, one of the great tyrants of the twentieth century. Don't you see how people react to you?"
[Gingrich: "Of course, I can see that that would be difficult. What would you like? OK, it has a potential for a level of power resembling dictatorship. How's that?"]
Brokaw: "Newt Gingrich assessing the White House: [To Gingrich] Do you regret saying that the Clinton Administration is the enemy of normal people?"
[Gingrich: "Yes. I wish I had said that they threaten the values and the pocketbooks of middle class Americans. I think `enemies of normal people' was wrong. And I wish I hadn't said it."]
Brokaw: "But, you have a long string of those things, Congressman."
[Gingrich: "Well, truth is occasionally, I'm not very smart. I mean --"]
Brokaw: "But, I get the impression, you're so pugnacious that what you say is hard for you to reel it back in right away."
[Gingrich: "I probably need to be, oh, thirty percent less pugnacious and fifty percent less negative."]
[Unidentified Voice: "With ten percent reporting, it's gonna be a good night."]
[Gingrich to Aide: "After this should I go over and declare victory or what do they want me to do?"]
[Gingrich aide, Barry Hutchison: "No, too early."]
Brokaw: "But, Gingrich's supporters can barely wait. For forty years Democrats have controlled the House, frustrating conservatives and their agenda of smaller government, fewer taxes, less welfare."
[Gingrich: "My point is that there were two systemic things that happened in the late sixties. A structure of replacing traditional systems with the government called the Great Society. And a wave of elite attitudes called the counter-culture. Those are systemic changes. Those systemic changes have been devastating."]
Brokaw: "By 10:00 P.M., the crowd could taste its new power. At last, they had a conservative champion who could deliver the long awaited prize -- a Republican U.S. Congress.
"How did 51-year-old Newt Gingrich get to be the man who is about to be the next Speaker of the House? That's third in line for the Presidency. Well, we know that he was raised as an Army brat. He went on to college and then on to graduate school at Tulane, where he got a Ph.D. in history. That was during the 1960s, and he does admit that he smoked pot and participated in student demonstrations. He also became a college professor and he got a marriage deferment during the time of Vietnam. Newt Gingrich ran twice for Congress as a moderate Republican. He was defeated both times before he was finally elected.
"Lee Howell was a friend and Gingrich's speechwriter. Remember this was the Watergate era. Republican was a dirty word. And yet, listen to what Gingrich told Howell in 1974."
[Lee Howell: "He says: 'I'm gonna be Speaker.' He says: 'I'm going to build a Republican Party. Campaign, ya know, get the position where I can campaign for people around the country build 'em up to a majority. And, then get elected Speaker.' And, I said: 'You don't want to be President?' And he said: `Well, no. I want to be Speaker. That's where the power is."]
Brokaw: "Some early supporters say that Gingrich reinvented himself after his first win in 1978 -- moving to the right. He was more combative, perfecting his trademark scorched-earth-tactics. That change caused a split between Gingrich and his Baptist minister, and close friend, Brantley Harwell."
[Brantley Harwell: "I personally think that Newt is amoral when it comes to politics. He'll do anything to get elected. He'll do anything to get his person elected. The way he's gone about it lately, it's just like he'll do -- the end justifies whatever means he wants to use."]
Brokaw: "Gingrich dismisses Harwell's judgement claiming it is tied to Baptist Church politics and Harwell's friendship with Gingrich's first wife whom he divorced. For many of his friends, that divorce from Jackie Gingrich, was a breaking point."
[Howell: "She was just recovering from cancer during his successful race in 1978, and yet she campaigned for him full-time."]
Brokaw: "How did he explain it to you?"
[Howell: "He told me that it had been a gnawing thing and that he and her had had problems; and that it was like a pain in the neck, that just wouldn't go away; and finally, if you want to get rid of it, you had to cut it out."
Brokaw: "The day after her cancer surgery, Gingrich went to his wife's hospital room to discuss the terms of the divorce. She threw him out."
[Gingrich: "I'm not gonna to discuss my ex-wife. Period."]
Brokaw: "Gingrich, who makes so much of family values, is touchy on this issue, blaming personal grudges of former friends. He can be quick to blame. It has served him well in politics. In his sixteen years in Washington, Gingrich has distinguished himself, not for his legislative record, but for carrying the conservative torch and burning Democratic initiatives. Among his trophies, the resignation of former House Speaker, Jim Wright, the disastrous outcome of the House Banking scandal: four Democrats, and he can be casually reckless in his attacks on enemies. Here, he goes after the F.D.A. chief David Kessler."
[Gingrich: "I had six different meetings in six different places with people who said to me, 'I am afraid to speak out because I believe Kessler and the Food and Drug Administration will destroy me.'"]
Brokaw: "But, wait a minute, are you saying that Kessler has told these companies, 'I'll bankrupt you'?"
[Gingrich: "I am saying that companies have asserted that to me. Yes."]
Brokaw: "That's a very ominous charge, Congressman."
[Gingrich: "Yes, it is."]
Brokaw: "You're a powerful figure in Congress, why didn't you just pick up the phone and call the director, Dr. Kessler."
[Gingrich: "Call him and said what -- why didn't you tell me that you're acting like a bully and a thug?"]
Brokaw: "We called Dr. David Kessler, who runs the F.D.A., but he did not want to be interviewed. However, his spokesman said, the F.D.A. does not operate that way. 'We don't know what Congressman Gingrich is talking about.' Gingrich does have a lot of well-heeled admirers who have helped him build a political empire. Call it Newt Incorporated."
[GOPAC Receptionist: "Good afternoon, GOPAC."]
Brokaw: "GOPAC, with a two million dollar annual budget is the centerpiece. Gingrich says it's like a farm team to coach conservatives on the way up. GOPAC helps pay for and arrange a lot of Gingrich's travel. Over the past year he visited forty-one states to stump for conservative candidates. Gingrich's frequent mode of travel? Well, the man who so stridently complains about the Washington elite, flew thousands of miles on jets provided by corporate friends. This one came from a tobacco company.
"Other Congressional leaders have similar programs, but unlike GOPAC, they list all of their donors. During the campaign, before the election, we asked Gingrich about GOPAC. [To Gingrich] These people are giving money not just because they're interested in sending out lecturers and sending out training tapes, they want to have access to you and they want to be in your good graces."
[Gingrich: "First of all, I'm not sure that anybody has any unusual access to me."]
Brokaw: "But, if this is all so appropriate and ethical, why not disclose the names of the contributors to GOPAC?"
[Gingrich: "Well, I think candidly that was a mistake."]
Brokaw: "In fact, on Sunday, GOPAC announced it would name future donors. Gingrich has another enterprise."
[Unidentified Announcer: "Congressman Newt Gingrich, an adjunct professor at Reinhardt provides..."]
Brokaw: "A video-tape college course called `Renewing American Civilization.' In fundraising letters he says, he hopes the course will yield 200,000 committed citizen activists. The tax-exempt Progress & Freedom Foundation, funds the course. [To Gingrich] People who are running the Progress & Freedom Foundation are some of your oldest and closest friends and intellectual advisors. Forty percent of the people who gave to that foundation also gave to GOPAC. Obviously, there is a political, partisan agenda here because you're not a nonpartisan man."
[Gingrich: "There is certainly a political agenda, but there's not a partisan agenda."]
Brokaw: "But can't you see how voters who are looking at this for the first time, would say `Hey, these guys must be trying to buy his heart if not his vote, at the least."
[Gingrich: "You know, you wonder at some point where the cynicism just becomes nonsense, all right?"]
Brokaw: "In a letter obtained by Dateline, two weeks ago [Democrats on?] the House Ethics Committee asked Gingrich to answer charges that his tax-exempt foundation is purely political and not purely educational. 11:30 P.M. Election Night, Gingrich declares victory and seems to strike a conciliatory tone."
[Gingrich: "We now have, I think, some real work to do as Americans, working together as Americans."]
Brokaw: "But, a few hours later many were wondering whether Gingrich was returning to his old slash-and-burn style. After winning such a big victory, President Clinton called Gingrich and it took the Congressman 90 minutes to return the call of the President of the United States. He then referred to Bill and Hillary Clinton as counterculture elitists, McGovernites."
[Gingrich: "It was a mistake because there was no point to my saying it. And, it was, frankly, a foolish thing to do."]
Brokaw: "As Speaker, Gingrich vows he will make the House vote on the Republican's Contract With America within the first one hundred days of the new Congress. It's a reform package to fight crime, impose term limits, cut taxes, reform welfare. Republicans have not said how they'll pay for all that, but they have said it will cost $40 billion a year."
[Gingrich: "We have not had a new team in charge of the House in forty years. The truth is we haven't got a clue yet about all the details."]
Brokaw concluded: "Gingrich denies reports that made the rounds last week that shortly after the election he went out and bought a shiny, new black Cadillac, a car befitting his lofty, new role as Speaker. Gingrich says he still owns a 1967 Ford Mustang."
Now just try to imagine a brutal NBC piece on Pelosi that asked about every personal issue: whether she's had plastic surgery, which recreational drugs she's used, the strange donors who support her, the most outrageous words that have ever tumbled out of her mouth. A piece labeling her as a left-wing guerrilla fighter with a slash-and-burn-Bush agenda, an "archliberal and archenemy" of Bush.
It's awfully hard to imagine when today's NBC anchor asks simple questions a high-school kid at a town-hall meeting could ask, like "Leader, what does 'drain the swamp' mean?"