When Newt Gingrich stepped up to the podium in Boe Chapel on Thursday, April 10, the standing-room-only audience greeted him with enthusiastic applause.
“That’s a very warm welcome, and I was not quite sure,” he said.
Gingrich quickly moved on from this opening comment, claiming it was not due to protests occurring outside Boe Chapel, but it was hard not to interpret his statement in light of the on-campus controversy that had preceded his visit. Shortly after the Political Awareness Committee PAC announced Gingrich as its spring speaker, “Boycott Newt” posters appeared around campus. Plans also surfaced for an alternate event titled “General Assembly: Money in the Chapel, Students to the Quad.” Event organizers objected to PAC’s collaboration with the Young America’s Foundation YAF in bringing Gingrich to campus and to the increasing role that money plays in politics.
“We are paying an organization [YAF] run by a man who has brought about a disparaging twist in campaign finance,” organizers said in an open letter summarizing their position. “We do not all oppose conservatism. We oppose the increasing role of money in political campaigns, and we oppose hypocrisy.”
Organizers also doubted the relevance of Gingrich’s message.
“When Newt Gingrich says things like ‘There is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us,’ as he did in his presidential campaign, it obliterates respect and paves the way for manipulative politics,” event coordinator Brody Halverson ’14 said. “Gingrich may have been politically relevant 15 years ago, but [he] now appears to us as little more than an aging political celebrity, a lobbyist and a pundit.”
PAC coordinator Rachel Palermo ’15 responded to these objections with a reminder that PAC works through agencies for all guest speakers.
“It costs less with an agency like this because they work with him regularly,” she said. “I can’t say specifically how much it cost, because if a school makes public how much they’re paying, then a school nearby can [negotiate for an identical price], but even with the agency’s contribution it still ended up being significantly less than Bob Woodward [2012 PAC fall speaker]. It was comparable to Stephanie Cutter [2013 PAC fall speaker].”
Palermo went on to emphasize the necessity of bringing diverse political opinions to St. Olaf.
“I think the point of college is to hear a wide variety of viewpoints,” she said. “We’re not a school affiliated with the Democratic party. I had more people be upset that people were upset he was coming. Republicans were saying, ‘We feel like our views aren’t as well-accepted here, so why can’t people at least let someone bring in a more conservative speaker without being upset about it?'”
Inside the chapel, Gingrich presented a version of that conservative viewpoint in his talk, titled “The Future of Conservatism.”
“My goal is to move conservatism from the left versus right model that has existed since 1932 to a future-past model,” he said. “I want to build a better future.”
Gingrich invoked examples of the individual creativity that he believes will drive that better future. He glorified the policies of Ronald Reagan that inspired his own 1994Contract with America document, a list of actions the Republican Party promised to take if it regained a House majority in that year’s Congressional election. He also praised the Wright Brothers for their perseverance and self-reliance.
“They were doing it because they had passion, and they were doing it because they wanted to create a better future,” he said.
Gingrich indicted government bureaucracy and partisan politics as “prison guards of the past” and impediments to the country’s progress. In a progressively more digital and fast-paced world, he said, the government’s inefficiencies become increasingly unacceptable.
“This is not a Republican or a Democrat issue,” he said. “It shouldn’t even be a liberal or conservative issue. It’s a future-past issue. The gap between the convenience of your cell phone and the inconvenience of the government becomes wider every day. I am opposed to reform because I think it’s a total waste of time. I want to replace these systems.”
During the question-and-answer session, Gingrich reiterated many of the positions that have made him such a controversial figure. A long line of students did not hesitate to address tough topics like climate change, reproductive rights and the role of money in politics. Gingrich offered direct, often blunt answers, once simply answering “sure” before going on to explain. However, the event remained respectful, and the closing applause gave Gingrich a send-off to match his welcome.