Newtie, We Hardly Knew Ye

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Newtie, We Hardly Knew Ye

A de-evolutionary study of the surprisingly green past--and strangely murky future--of Congress's new Mr. Big
By Ned Martel

"If at some point in the next 50,000 years the Earth tilts, as it will...that slight tilt will change totally the ecosystems [that environmentalists] are prepared to spend endless quantities to save. The Sahara may well once again bloom...and you may have new deserts in areas that are now wet. And that's the nature of history over time." --Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, addressing business leaders in Washington, D.C., earlier this year

For good reason, environmentalists have been confused by the man called Newt. The knee-jerk postelection assessment saw him as automatic bad news--James Watt in a Phil Donahue fright wig. But a look at the record is a bit surprising. A Sierra Club member from 1984 to 1990, Newt opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fought dam projects, and stumped for a stronger Clean Air Act. Once he even tremblingly admitted to an aide, "I would have a hard time explaining to my daughters if elephants went extinct and I hadn't done anything to prevent it." Such hopeful blips made greens imagine that the new Speaker might play against type. But the pall began descending when Newt's "earth tilt" speech endorsed the idea that world-wracking development is in keeping with nature's long-term script. Soon after, Newt advanced a freeze on environmental regulations and started chucking verbal cluster bombs at the Environmental Protection Agency.

So what happened? Newtian advancement. Longtime Newt scholars point out that environmentalism paid off early in his career, but during his scrabble to the top he handed out chits to many of the same brownfellas who are now wailing about pernicious federal interference. Still, there is a glimmer of hope, because the man is unpredictable. As the story unfolds, all agree that Newt, a rare amphibian who has mutated grotesquely in the CO2-enriched habitat of Capitol Hill, will evolve in ways that are fascinating and terrible to behold. Here's a once-and-future analysis of an emerging life form.

Newt as Shiny, Happy Wonk
Raised in a central Pennsylvania mining region, the ten-year-old Newtie McPherson (the name Gingrich and the move to Georgia came via his stepfather) showed early signs of being a notable critter activist. Then as now obsessed with zoos and kid-enthralling beasts--Speaker Newt has ordered large dinosaur replicas for his office, and over the past few years he's purchased snakes, Komodo dragons, and two black rhinos for ZooAtlanta--young Newt took a solo bus ride to Harrisburg, the state capital. There the large-foreheaded, astonishingly composed child tried to sell city and state officials on his plan for a "moat-surrounded" zoo. Sadly, his first policy foray began with a telling portent: a fib. Before hitting the road, Newt told his mother, "I'm going to the library."

Newt Hits the Real World
A twentysomething in the late sixties, Newt spent his Easy Rider years bookworming through college library stacks. By 1971 he was teaching environmental studies at West Georgia College and had decided to challenge an ossified Democratic congressman, John J. Flynt, whose industry-boosting record had placed him on the League of Conservation Voters "Dirty Dozen" list. In 1978, on his third try, Newt won with help from local environmental activists.

Eager to come off as a big-picture Republican with a green eyeshade, Newt told one Georgia lobbyist that he considered acid rain to be "the next most important issue" after ending South African apartheid. He defied GOP chieftains by voting for the Alaska Lands Act and was an early critic of James Watt. Following the 1984 publication of his policy tome, Window of Opportunity, Newt told the conservation chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club: "My next book is going to be about a new Republican environmental agenda."

Newt Starts Wrigglin'
Sometime in the late eighties, the Georgia greens sensed that Newt's resolve was eroding, typified by his votes against wilderness expansion in western states and rainforest protection abroad. Why? In part because his hunger for a GOP leadership role forced him to start smooching the toes of western Republicans. Another factor was Georgia's 1990 legislative redistricting, which handed Newt a more conservative constituency. His old friends started backing away, even as Newt wheedled that he was simply "thinking further ahead" than they were. "He'd say, 'If you're thinking short-term gains, I wouldn't stay with me either,'" recalls Bill Mankin, a Georgia environmentalist who sometimes advised Newt on policy matters. The enviros didn't. In 1992, the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Newt's opponent for the first time.

Will Godzilla Be Naughty or Nice?
As House rowdies monkeywrench 25 years of environmental regulation, listen for Newt to distract attention with gee-whiz lectures borrowed from the pages of his old friends Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the Future Shock forecasters. Then watch to see if he follows up. The Tofflers view environmental decay as the debris of an almost totally exhausted Industrial Age, and the Speaker has often expressed his longing for a future in which spiffy technology helps tidy up the Rust Era's burps and spills. "Since this is all intellectually obvious," Newt has said, "why can't we break through?" Well, Newt, as the Tofflers might put it, the holographic basketball is in your court.

As for the immediate rough and tumble, the best hope is that Newt's even crabbier conservative brethren will annoy him enough to bring out his cuddly side. A pest to watch is a man whom Newt openly dislikes: Representative Don Young of Alaska, the strident new chairman of the House Resources Committee, who calls environmentalists "waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating intellectual bunch of idiots." The high-road hope is that Newt will corral Young's ambitions to reopen the Arctic oil-exploration issue because he wants to prove he can still be environmentally sensitive. The low-road hope is that he'll simply squash the guy for fun.

Another major test will begin if the Endangered Species Act comes to the House floor for its long-delayed renewal this summer. Already, some conservative lobbyists have blasted Newt for linking up in the last Congress with Representative Gerry Studds, a despised liberal from Massachusetts, on a failed bill that, contrary to Newt's general development pattern, would have strengthened the act. (A recent memo from Myron Ebell, an anti-ESA lobbyist with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, insolently mused: "We must find better spokesmen than Newt.") Among the tantalizing wild cards are Newt's elephant-loving daughters. Will the gals let daddy rest easy if bear cubs and salmon fry are tormented? At press time, Newt's 1995 position was inscrutable. His main public utterance on the issue since becoming Speaker was big-picture and typically vague: He suggested "privatizing" species protection by giving the job to--who else?--zoos.

Ned Martel frequently writes about environmental issues for Outside.

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