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Driving Mr. Gingrich

February 03, 1997 [ Printer-friendly version ]

It was a tragic day in Newt Gingrich's life when in 1993 Jim Tilton, his best friend for 30 years, died of pancreatic cancer. It wasn't just the loss of what Gingrich has called "one of the most wonderful and most stable parts of my life" but the fact that the vacuum he left was filled by Joe Gaylord -- a political consultant whose destructive influence on Gingrich is the untold story in the dramatic collapse of the man once regarded as more powerful than the president.

Gaylord has been described as "mysterious, yet everywhere apparent" by Roll Call and refuses to talk to the press.

During dozens of interviews over the last few months with Gingrich's friends, associates and staffers, I have been stunned by the intensity of the anger against Gaylord -- and equally stunned by the fear he generates, more commonly associated with people in the Witness Protection Program. Not one of them would allow me to put even the least damning of their torrent of condemnation on the record. They were convinced that nothing would ever dislodge Gaylord and that he would block their access to the speaker of the House.

"Gaylord will be the last lifeboat left, and sadly, that lifeboat will not have Gingrich on it," a close Gingrich friend predicted. "Joe is the last person on the planet Gingrich would drop," said another. "Maybe Marianne is the last person. I'm not sure. It's a close call."

Gaylord has been labeled the "master coordinator of the totality of Newt's life." In a 1993 memo to Gay Gaines, then chair of GOPAC, buried on page 422 of the Ethics Committee report, Gingrich lays out Gaylord's role: "Joe Gaylord is empowered to supervise my activities, set my schedule, advise me on all aspects of my life and career. He is my chief counselor and one of my closest friends."

So how did this "chief counselor" counsel Gingrich down to his 15 percent popularity rate -- the lowest for any American politician in recorded history?

A close adviser who was ousted by Gaylord explained that "part of Gaylord's power over Gingrich is that he has been there day and night at every crisis, supporting him through it all." The question that no one has asked in public -- though many are asking in private -- is: How many of these crises did Gaylord create, promote or allow?

Ultimately, of course, the fault is in ourselves, not in our stars or our chief counselors. But history and literature are full of subordinates who drove leaders to disaster. Perhaps the most celebrated is Shakespeare's Iago, the seductive counselor who uses half-truths to sow dissension and feed Othello's propensity to focus on every slight and injury. Gaylord is a master at this, constantly feeding Gingrich's tendency to whine about the media and his liberal enemies.

As far back as the balmy days of January 1995, Gaylord was the lone voice at a meeting in the speaker's office advising Gingrich to attack his enemies during a speech that day to the Republican National Committee. The speech foreshadowed the even greater disaster last month when Gingrich lashed out at the world during a town hall meeting in his district.

Just before the RNC speech, Gaylord was instrumental in Gingrich's agreeing to a $4.5 million book deal. Many of the protesters -- including his press secretary, Tony Blankley, pollster Frank Luntz, and close friends like Vin Weber, Jack Kemp and Bob Walker -- spoke in tones normally reserved for warning a friend about to back into a precipice. But Gaylord was just as loud and unequivocal and, most important, told Gingrich what he wanted to hear: Go do it.

In Gaylord's kingdom, voicing independent opinions is punishable by banishment from the inner circle. "Newt and I used to fight a lot," said a very close former colleague. "But at least with me he knew he was getting independent advice. Now, all who would challenge him have gone. There is only Joe left, and he never throws himself in Gingrich's path."

So the inner circle has come down to two: Gingrich and Gaylord in a death embrace in which, at times, there is hardly room for Marianne Gingrich. Memos by advisers urging a greater public role for Marianne are repeatedly dismissed by Gaylord, who considers even the wife a threat to his absolute control.

At different times, he has gone after every gifted person around Gingrich whom he could not control, including Blankley, Gingrich's longtime scheduler Hardy Lott, Jeff Eisenach and Gay Gaines. Now they have all gone of their own accord -- each giving a different excuse for leaving. Dan Meyer, his chief of staff, and Leigh Ann Metzger, his communications coordinator, have also joined the exodus.

Gaylord's standing practice is to turn on anyone who refuses to concede that he is the only way to Newt. A consultant who arranged Gingrich's California schedule for years was instantly and unceremoniously dumped when he dared set up a meeting for Gingrich without going through the official gatekeeper.

"There will be no freelancing" is one of Gaylord's driving principles. And to ensure he knows everything that goes on when Gingrich is out of sight, he has an intimate friend, Barry Hutchison, always traveling with the speaker. Hutchison -- listed in the Federal Elections Commission reports as Hutchison Consulting -- is on Gaylord's payroll, not Gingrich's, and his primary responsibility seems to be to cover Gaylord's base.

The better you are at what you do, the more likely you are to be ousted. Luntz discovered this when he helped Gingrich articulate the Contract With America and then when he was brought back, through Blankley's insistence, to help Gingrich prepare for his pre-election PBS debate. The debate was universally hailed as the best of Newt, which immediately prompted Gaylord to block Luntz from working with Gingrich again.

Gaylord's tentacles are particularly evident in Gingrich's ethics problems. First of all, he constitutes an ethics violation all by himself. The Congressional Accountability Project filed a formal complaint about Gaylord's interviewing potential staff for official positions, attending Republican leadership meetings and impacting policy without filing the financial disclosure forms required of all congressional staffers earning more than $85,000.

At the same time, the GOP was bemoaning consultants like James Carville and Paul Begala who advised the president without being on the White House staff. GOP Rep. Frank Wolf introduced an amendment to force them to file financial disclosure forms -- which the president finally ordered them to do. "If these individuals," Wolf wrote in October 1993, "were providing 'regular services' to the White House, doesn't the public have the right to know who they are, their connections and their potential conflicts of interest?" Surely Republicans should demand nothing less of those providing "regular services" to the speaker of the House.

According to FEC reports, in the last two-year election cycle, Gaylord received $240,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee, even though he is only described as "adjunct staff," $26,000 from the Republican National Committee, where he keeps his office, and $349,875 from Gingrich's political action committee, Friends of Newt Gingrich. Of course, since he does not file financial disclosure forms, we will never know who else is paying him and how much. What is certain is that his annual income is substantially higher than that of his boss.

When it comes to the speaker's case now before the Internal Revenue Service -- whether a tax-exempt organization was used for partisan purposes -- there were few with more experience to know better than Gaylord. After all, the American Campaign Academy he created was the subject of a 1989 U.S. Tax Court ruling that it did not qualify for tax-exempt status because it was a Republican rather than a non-partisan undertaking. If there were such a thing as consultant malpractice, shouldn't someone be suing Gaylord for negligence?

Instead, when things went massively wrong, Gaylord's first instinct was to look around for a scapegoat. Jan Baran -- whom Gaylord chose as Gingrich's lawyer -- was an easy target. Many of Baran's friends and clients are up in arms: "Jan did absolutely nothing without Joe's approval," one of them told me. The scapegoating turned ugly when Gingrich, at Gaylord's instigation, was reported to be contemplating a suit against Baran for the $300,000 he had been fined.

"Gingrich has to stop picking at the scab," Jim Cole, the independent counsel, told me last week. But picking at scabs is a Gaylord specialty. After all, the more Gingrich feels persecuted by the independent counsel, Minority Whip David Bonior and the liberal media, the more important Gaylord becomes as a source of solace.

His view of politics as a blood sport is made clear in a memo he wrote that was made public last month by a member of the Ethics Committee. "Shore up our five on the committee," the memo commanded, and "target" two of the Democrats. "Get the Clinton administration under special prosecutor problems," it continues in vintage Gaylordese, "and have the Clinton administration get the House Dems to back down."

Continuing the war metaphor at a Gingrich staff meeting at the Republican Convention, Gaylord distributed green plastic toy soldiers to pump up the troops. He shocked the room when he stepped in front of an African American member of the staff and said: "And here is our affirmative action."

Gaylord's colossal insensitivity is only matched by his mediocrity as a strategist. Only Gaylord would have devised a strategy to soften Gingrich's image by wrapping himself in snakes on Jay Leno.

Much more devastating was the "Dare to Be Dull" campaign he conceived, which had as its proud offspring Gingrich's beach-volleyball speech at the San Diego Convention. The speech ended up attracting considerable news attention for its sheer banality.

But Gaylord continued to control NRCC funds going to candidates, as well as the choice of districts Gingrich would campaign in. A Republican member from California told me how disturbed he was when he asked Gingrich for some funding for a woman candidate he was trying to help, only to be told: "See Joe." Joe, in turn, told him to forget about her and just help re-elect Dornan.

But Gingrich, who has labeled Gaylord "the best student of congressional campaigns in the country," continued to quote his advice and predictions as though Gaylord were the Delphic oracle. During a conference call on Election Day, he repeated to disbelieving GOP members Gaylord's confident forecast that they would "gain at least half a dozen seats and perhaps more." Instead, the GOP lost nine seats.

Republicans around the country are asking with different degrees of intensity -- the intensity rising the closer you get to Capitol Hill: Can Gingrich recover? Perhaps the question needs to be made more specific: Can Gingrich recover while Gaylord remains his "chief counselor" and "closest friend"?

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