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Our Broken America
Why Both Sides Need to Stop Ranting and Start Listening
Foreword by Newt Gingrich
Read by Newt Gingrich
Read by Sabina Brendel
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Who Am I, Why I Care—Why You Should, Too
I am tired of the politically polarized environment of America. How about you? This environment is being enabled by politicians, news organizations, social media, and even my friends and family. I am not alone. According to an Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, over half of Americans believe “the political polarization of the nation is extremely or very threatening, and another 34 percent say it is moderately threatening.”1 Combined, 86 percent of us believe our polarizing political environment is a threat.2
And we are right—the great divide is a threat to our nation; our nation is broken. We must work together to counter division by transforming this threat into a call to action. A call for us to work together—no matter how hard or frustrating that may be—to make our country better.
People from all political stripes are worried about the high level of polarization, and you have probably noticed that it’s virtually impossible to have a civil discussion about politics. In the past, all too often, I steered conversations away from politics to avoid getting trapped in political discussions. This polarization has become so prevalent that it has silenced people and stopped them from engaging with each other.
I, too, was scared to engage in debate. I was scared people wouldn’t like me.
I was so paranoid about these terribly polarizing discussions that I often wouldn’t tell people that my father is former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. His name alone is polarizing to some. People love him or hate him, without even knowing anything about him as a person. Often, when they find out that he is my father, they are surprised. Some say, “I love him, he’s so smart.” Others say, “But you’re so nice” (as if he can’t have a nice daughter).
My sister has been turned down for jobs due to the employers’ disdain of our dad. After three rounds of interviews that she thought had gone well at one company, she finally met with the company president, who told her, “Well, of course you interview well, your dad is Newt Gingrich.”
He then walked her out, telling her she would not get the job.
I have had salespeople yell at me, telling me how much they hated my dad. My children have met people who so disliked my dad that they felt compelled to share his faults with them (this happened when my children were eight and six).
When my dad ran for the Republican presidential nomination, my daughter was in sixth grade. One day, I picked her up from school and asked her if she had been experiencing any middle school drama (I had heard that middle school students often experienced social drama). Her reply, “No, we have enough national drama in our family—there is no room for middle school drama.”
She was right.
This is also good advice that we should heed as a country. Our challenges are so great that we don’t have time for political drama. Enough already. I am no longer afraid to engage in debate; not everyone has to like me, but I have to like myself and stand up for what I believe is right. We have to engage with one another if we are to save our nation from political polarization.
Politics has always been charged, but it seems to have been more highly charged than normal over the past few years. Who’s to blame? The media and Democratic Party blame President Trump, while he blames them. Some blame my father and pollster Frank Luntz, who helped craft the language and wording around the 1994 Republican Revolution.
This narrative is laid out in a November 2018 article in The Atlantic titled, “The Man Who Broke Politics,” by McKay Coppins. The summary? The current nastiness in politics is due to Gingrich’s approach to politics, which led to the 1994 Republican Revolution and established a Republican majority in both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. “He [Gingrich] thought he was enshrining a new era of conservative government,” wrote Coppins. “In fact, he was enshrining an attitude—angry, combative, tribal—that would infect politics for decades to come.”3
As evidence, Coppins cites a June 24, 1978, speech my father made to college Republicans in College Park, Georgia. “‘One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,’ he told the group. ‘We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal, and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics.’”4
What Coppins didn’t include from that same speech was Dad’s reasoning for these aggressive tactics, to beat the Democrats at their own game. “The great strength of the Democratic Party in my lifetime has been that it has always produced young, nasty people who had no respect for their elders.”5 His call to action in 1978 was for Republicans to beat the Democrats at a game they had been winning his entire life using their same time-worn tactics.
Sixteen years later, in 1994, Republicans regained control of the House. His call to action worked. But it was not a permanent change. Even today we have a political system where power between the parties shifts over time.
Both parties have perfected this approach to power, and with the advent of technology and social media, the result is hyper-speed and hyper-partisanship. Add into that the societal changes and we have the resulting toxic environment. It’s not true that he created it, but the approach used by both sides is not working, and it is time for us all to change strategies. That’s why I am writing this book.
I am a wife, mother, sister, daughter, friend, and community volunteer, who happens to have grown up in politics. In 1974, I was seven years old when my father first ran for Congress in Georgia’s mostly rural Sixth District. It included the Atlanta airport down to Griffin and west to the Alabama state line.
He led the 1994 Republican takeover of the House with the “Contract with America.” He then served as speaker of the House from 1995 to 1998. A few years ago, I joined his team’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to win the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
I’m going to tell you a good bit about my early life in politics, my community service, and my faith in God, because those experiences are what frame my thinking. I’m explaining my background so that you can see not only how I view the world, but what my potential biases are.
Each of us makes up our mind about matters of import based on the information we consume. As you gather information, whether from news stories, friends, or colleagues—I would urge you to be aware always of the spoken and unspoken biases that inform their views.
My mom knew my father was obsessed with politics when they first started dating—that was part of the attraction for her. They were both smart and interested in how politics could make a difference and focused on how they could make a difference in politics together.
The question was a matter of when would he run and for what political office, not if he would run. They knew that he would. Dad had taken a year off during his undergraduate career at Emory University to run Jack Prince’s 1964 congressional campaign in the Ninth District of Georgia. It was, and still is, a largely rural district north of Atlanta. On election night, aware of the possibility that votes were being tampered with, he called a local election official to track down a ballot box when one of the precincts did not deliver theirs to be counted. “Son,” he was told when he called, “my people are tired, and I thought they needed a night off before they counted the votes.”
Unsure of whether they were taking a rest or using the time to make sure their candidate (the opponent) had enough votes to win, my dad knew that there was nothing he could do. He learned a lot of lessons during that campaign. Regardless of the events of that night, his candidate lost by a pretty large margin.
After my dad finished his doctoral course work at Tulane University, we spent a year in Brussels, Belgium, where he conducted research for his dissertation. In 1970, our family moved to Carrollton, Georgia, where he taught at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia). By then, he had a wife (my mother Jackie) and two children (my sister Kathy and me).
Once we moved to Carrollton, my dad joined the college faculty and the entire family joined the town’s First Baptist Church. My maternal grandmother lived in Columbus, two hours away, and we often visited her there. In a small town in rural Georgia in the 1970s, most of our lives revolved around high school football—and church. Our church was the center of our social life. We attended not only Sunday school, but also choir, Sunday night service, Wednesday night dinner, and Bible study.
In 1974, my dad first ran for office in the Sixth Congressional District race against the incumbent, John J. Flynt, Jr., the dean of the Georgia delegation. If you remember 1974, or if you have read about it, you’ll recall the impact that Watergate was having on the nation as a whole. My dad’s campaign also felt it. Bear in mind that, at that time, Georgia was a mostly Democratic state. About midsummer, Dad realized that he would probably lose—but we kept campaigning. He lost that election, even though he earned 48.6 percent of the vote. But we were not defeated; we got up the next morning and went to the Ford Atlanta Assembly Plant across from the Chick-fil-A Dwarf House (the first restaurant in the now national chain), shook hands with constituents, thanked them for their votes, and asked them to support him again next time, because we were certain there would be a next time.
Two years later, he ran again. This time, he thought he had a real chance, until the spring of 1976, when Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter began picking up the Democratic presidential primaries in the early states. Carter was very personable and incredibly hardworking, an absolutely fantastic candidate. He inspired hundreds of volunteers (the Peanut Brigade) to pay their own way to travel from Georgia to the primary states to help his campaign (my mother-in-law was one of them). They ran a strong ground game, going door-to-door during the days, then staying up at night to write (by hand) notes thanking each of the men and women they had talked to that day for their time, and asking them to vote for their candidate, a peanut farmer from Georgia.
My dad continued to believe he had a good chance at winning that year, until Election Day, when he went to the public library in Carrollton that was his polling place and saw caravans of buses pull up, and people file out to cast their ballots. There was no real Republican organization in the state. He knew that the bus program was being run by Democrats to get out the vote for Carter and that the people on the buses were not there to vote for some Army brat history professor with a funny name, Newt Gingrich. He was right.
Once again, he lost, securing 48.3 percent of the vote. But once more, we got up the next morning, drove to the Ford factory, and shook hands with workers there during shift change, stopping across the street between shift changes for coffee and food. Visiting the original Dwarf House in College Park reminds me of my childhood, the time we spent campaigning as a family, and our belief that hard work and perseverance would pay off.
Fake News—Back in the 1970s
It was never fun to lose, but we knew it was part of the process. I remember, after Dad’s first loss, going to school soon after and having an administrator tell me that he was glad that my father had lost the election. Yes, even in the 1970s, there were plenty of mean-spirited people who felt free to share their opinions—even if that meant they hurt the feelings of an elementary school student. I can also remember reading in the press about my father being chauffeured around in a limousine. I knew it wasn’t true. That was my introduction to fake news.
My father mounted his third campaign in 1978. This time, he and my mom both took the year off from work, and my maternal grandmother moved in with my sister and me so my parents could travel and campaign. My dad took out a personal loan to cover expenses (which he paid back many years later), and they worked nonstop. It was during this time that our family “rescued” a Christmas tree from the elementary school trash bin and adopted it as our own. Money was tight. I wore my sister’s hand-me-down clothes; we used cinder blocks and wood planks for bookcases; dinners at home often included Spam; and we almost never ate out.
Finally, in Dad’s third race, there was no incumbent. Flynt had decided to retire, so my dad ran against the winner of the Democratic primary, Virginia Shapard.
There were a few other changes, too. Dad changed his campaign colors from green and white to blue and white. While that might not seem to be a big shift, it had a big significance. Green was the color of environmental conservation, a traditionally liberal cause, while blue and white were being used by the Tory Party, the conservative party, in Britain. The campaign also rented a Winnebago, which they covered with “Gingrich for Congress” signs. My mom often drove it for the campaign.
Although my dad was the policy wonk and speechmaker, my mom was the one with a natural love of meeting and talking with people. She could strike up a conversation with a telephone pole.
In addition to campaigning in strip malls and by knocking on doors, we walked in parades and attended Rotary and Kiwanis Club cookouts. My father preached in dozens of churches throughout the district (he was a Baptist deacon), and the rest of us would often show up and listen. Small country stores at four-way stops were not too small to stop in to see if we could perhaps find a voter or two. I loved traveling with my dad, campaigning, and spending time with him.
There was no social media, Facebook, or YouTube in 1978. Atlanta, which was an hour away from our home in Carrollton, was the nearest big media market. It covered much more than the Sixth District of Georgia, but was just too expensive for our tiny campaign budget. Ours was a real grassroots campaign, including the “Newt for Congress” sign that we attached to the roof of our light blue Chevrolet Impala. While the sign attracted the attention of voters, it also attracted the attention of sheriffs in the small towns where my dad campaigned. I can remember sitting in the backseat of the Impala while sheriffs wrote speeding tickets for my mom or dad. We eventually learned to make sure we adhered to in-town speed limits, often spying the signs behind trees.
Lesson from Dad: Try, Try, Try Again
It all paid off that November, when Dad finally won an election and began his congressional career. Dad won the next several campaigns with ease. But that changed when Georgia’s growing population led it to be awarded an eleventh congressional seat, and the state was redistricted for the 1992 races.
In 1990, my dad was the only Republican congressman from Georgia, but his district included Bremen, the hometown of Georgia Speaker of the House Tom Murphy. During the redistricting process, Murphy, who had made no secret of his dislike for my dad, tried to get rid of him as his congressman. Murphy cut the Sixth District, which my dad was representing, into three then-Democratic districts. The new Sixth District was formed in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. Murphy had hoped that my dad would be voted out of office. Instead, my father moved to the new Sixth District, and was introduced around by Matt Towery, who had recently won the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Georgia.
After I graduated from Presbyterian College in 1988, there were few jobs available due to a recession, so I went back to graduate school full-time and worked thirty hours a week in business valuation at BDO Seidman, an accounting and consulting firm, in Atlanta. After I graduated with my MBA in 1990, I earned my Chartered Financial Analyst designation. My next step was to work for a startup wireless company. I worked in finance, marketing, management, and eventually helped sell off the various parts to bigger players in the industry. It was a wonderful experience. There were weeks when we had to decide which vendors to pay, and which not to pay due to cash flow constraints. In a small company you get experience in every area.
It was during this 1992 race that my dad’s opponent in the primary ran a nasty personal attack ad that was untrue. The opponent falsely claimed that my father had abandoned his wife and children. After hearing the untrue allegations, I called my dad and offered to appear in a commercial for his campaign. He took me up on my offer.
I addressed the outrageous personal attacks directly, and noted that they just weren’t true. James Farwell, a political and communications expert, oversaw the production. The commercial was successful, and my dad won the primary by 980 votes.
He won the general election easily. After the 1992 elections, the Georgia delegation comprised of seven Democrats and four Republicans—including my dad. Murphy’s plan had backfired; he now had three more Republican congressmen than he had had the year before.
After my brief foray back into politics, I focused on my work. As we sold parts of the company to strategic partners, we downsized, meeting often to determine who would be let go in the next round. Eventually, I volunteered to be next and suggested they keep the person with accounting experience. I moved on to BellSouth Mobility, a much bigger player in the industry.
It was a fabulous experience, moving from a 25-million-dollar company to a several-billion-dollar company. I started in financial reporting, moved to mergers and acquisitions, partner relations, back to financial planning (managing the budgeting process for a $3 billion division), and finally landed in strategy. My entire experience at BellSouth was great.
During this time at BellSouth, my husband Jimmy and I were married. Our union, built on our love, was also the union of two families with different political backgrounds. Jimmy’s grandparents and parents were early supporters of Jimmy Carter. They helped him run first for governor of Georgia, then for president. Jimmy’s grandfather Philip Alston, Jr., served as ambassador to Australia under President Jimmy Carter. The family has a long history of community service and civic support in Atlanta. The appointment of Callista Gingrich by President Donald J. Trump as the United States Ambassador to the Holy See has strengthened our families’ history of service to our country.
My husband and I were a little nervous when the families met, but we soon found out we were nervous for no reason. The simple fact that our two very political families get along while focusing on family first provides an example of how families can bridge divisive politics. After Jimmy and I were married, I continued working throughout my first and second pregnancies, but then took a step back from corporate life to focus on our family.
Moving into the World of Writing
You may be wondering when writing entered the picture. After all, here I am, writing a book, and here you are, reading it. It started when I began writing for an Atlanta neighborhood newspaper. My first piece was written spur of the moment, the night of President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004. My thoughts about the election spilled onto the computer screen and I e-mailed the article to a friend (Thornton Kennedy), who was the editor of the Neighbor Newspaper. To my surprise, he ran it and asked for more. I wrote for him off and on for a while and eventually became a weekly columnist. After several years, and quite a few rejections, I became a syndicated columnist for Creators Syndicate.
Since then, I have written three books. I co-authored the first one with my father, 5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours (Crown Forum, 2009). At the time, I was involved with “Learn, Earn and Achieve,” a program for middle and high school students who needed academic help. The program provided them with after-school tutors and paid them to attend tutoring sessions. The students learned that they were capable of learning and improved academically. It was truly inspirational to be part of the academic and personal growth of those students, and they inspired me to write the book.
It included interviews with over thirty people from various backgrounds, as well as stories from my dad and myself. The principles include Dream Big, Work Hard, Learn Every Day, Enjoy Life, and Be True to Yourself. Although the principles are timeless, they require ongoing recall and activation. The book is as applicable today as it was when it was written.
My second book, The Essential American: 25 Documents and Speeches Every American Should Own (Regnery, 2010), provides a foundation of our shared American history. It begins with Patrick Henry’s speech “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” and ends with President George W. Bush’s speech the evening of September 20, 2001, as he stood in the well of the House of Representatives after the terrorist attacks on our country. I wrote it because the stories we tell ourselves about our country and its past influence our future.
It was, and still is, clear to me that all Americans need to read and understand the basic foundational documents and speeches that helped shape our country. The book includes the documents and speeches as well as commentary on their historical importance and why they remain relevant today.
Before he entered politics, my dad was an environmental studies professor at West Georgia College, where he extended his work outside the classroom. (He also taught a course titled “The Year 2000.”) I remember our family picking up trash next to a highway in 1971, on the second Earth Day. I grew up camping, canoeing, and hiking and learned to appreciate the outdoors. My love of nature explains my service on the advisory council of the Trust for Public Land. This organization saved the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., from being torn down and protected the headwaters and other key river tracts of the Chattahoochee River in north Georgia. (My father helped secure the federal funding for this work decades ago.)
While I have been a council member, we supported and paid for the first study of Atlanta’s Beltline, a 22-mile loop of abandoned railroad corridor that connects 45 neighborhoods in downtown and midtown. The Trust for Public Land is working toward ensuring there are parks within a ten-minute walk for people living in urban areas and making the Chattahoochee River more accessible for people to use and enjoy.
I’m passionate about the environment.
Education is also incredibly important to me. My mother, who was the first in her family to go to college, went on to work as a high school math teacher. She was selected as a Student Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) teacher several times (by her high school students who had earned the STAR designation). Many of her students have told me that her belief in them and their ability to learn changed their lives. My appreciation of education and my love of learning led me to serve on the board of the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, which focuses on quality, early learning, and healthy development for all children, from birth to five years of age. I also serve on the board of the CFA Society Atlanta Foundation, which focuses on improving financial literacy.
Helping to Secure a Home for a Homeless Shelter
For over seventeen years, I’ve served on the board of directors or the advisory council, and volunteered at Our House, a homeless shelter for newborns and their families. This life-changing organization provides shelter to live and education to thrive. When families arrive at Our House, staff members assess them to determine what led them to become homeless. The next steps are to focus on the health of the mother and baby, then job training and placement, and finally the organization works to find a place for them to live permanently. Our House continues to follow up with the families for five years. When Our House had to leave its former location, I joined with others on the board and signed a loan for the shelter to ensure they could renovate new space and move in before the deadline. We couldn’t have a homeless, homeless shelter. We were successful.
As I have stated, my experiences have shaped my world outlook and my biases. Growing up in the place and time I did, my career experiences, and the ways I’ve been blessed to serve my community, have all shaped my understanding of the world. It is my involvement with community groups that has framed my belief that limited government is most effective and that solutions emerge when people, communities, corporations, and foundations come together and work together.
Choosing Community Empowerment over Government Control
I understand the intellectual appeal of government control but recognize that it contains two key flaws: (1) Government is neither efficient nor effective; and (2) When government attempts to overcome its inefficiencies, it does so by taking away people’s freedoms. It’s a trade not worth making. Give me my freedom and a relatively inefficient government. With the help of involved citizens, we can make anything happen, but it has to happen at the community level—not through government control.
National governments can’t solve problems through top-down approaches—just look at the failures of communism in Russia and Cuba. For us to leave the world a better place for our children, we all need to pitch in and help. And part of being a good American is committing oneself to working with others in our communities.
Socially, I am pretty libertarian. For example, I believe Republicans totally missed the boat on the topic of civil unions. They should have said “Yes.” Yes, the government should recognize civil unions and provide the same benefits to single-sex and opposite-sex couples. And yes, the government also should have let religious organizations decide whom to marry or not.
This would have allowed those couples who want to go beyond creating a legal relationship through a civil union where to go for a church wedding. It would have been a perfect separation of church and state.
When my father ran in the Republican presidential primary for the 2012 election, I served as his campaign’s senior adviser and national media surrogate. Focusing on strategy, messaging, and media work, I handled countless news interviews: CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc. I was the one they often sent in to the adversarial media outlets (MSNBC)—and I enjoyed the challenge. I’ve had decades of experience dealing with nasty comments.
Fake News in an Irish Bar
For example, the first meeting between my dad and my husband-to-be took place at an Irish bar in Atlanta, when my dad was speaker of the House. The bar was crowded, and I stayed back a bit to give Jimmy and my dad a chance to talk. Two guys were seated near me at the bar, and I could hear one tell the other, “That’s Newt Gingrich. He abandoned his wife and children.”
Well, this repetition of a fake news story infuriated me. I went over and corrected him, nicely, I think. Their faces initially showed disbelief that I was Newt’s daughter, but soon their expressions transitioned to embarrassment. They confessed that they had just said what they had heard from news sources and apologized to me.
Unfortunately, I cannot correct everyone who has mistaken ideas about our family. Fortunately, my dad and my boyfriend (now husband) Jimmy got along famously—and still do today.
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