California Forum

Creators of politics as a blood sport

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich Associated Press file

What do Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh have in common, apart from their arch-conservative political views? Their demagoguery has poisoned the political well and prompted millions of Americans to shun politics or shed party labels and become independents.

Rush routinely whines that “squishy” independents are like RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and implores his “Ditto-head” followers to keep the one true faith. His spiteful shtick, which has managed to make him a pariah among women, minorities and just about anyone else who doesn’t buy into his daily screeds that Barack Obama is destroying this county, keeps this demagogue atop the right-wing talk radio empire. It has also spawned numerous Rush wannabes who constitute the “I-want-my-country-back” choir.

Limbaugh would have his critics believe that he’s just having harmless sport with liberals and others who raise his ideological ire. Never mind that he characterized a young Chelsea Clinton as the “First Dog” on his short-lived TV program, or called women’s health advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut,” or mocked Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease, or called women activists “feminazis,” or sneered that he admires the women’s movement, particularly from behind.

I first heard Limbaugh on my car radio in 1989 and have been listening periodically to his rants ever since. Demagogues rousing the rabble with a microphone are hardly a new phenomenon in this country. Father Charles Coughlin did so during the 1930s, railing against all manner of supposed evildoers, particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom the splenetic radio priest savaged as a “liar,” a “betrayer” and “anti-God.” These cheap shots continued until an embarrassed Roman Catholic Church finally silenced his rancid radio program.

Alas, Rush will keep polluting the airwaves so long as his sulfurous style turns a tidy profit for his corporate enablers. At least Newt Gingrich has been relegated to the relative obscurity he so richly deserves.

I spoke with Newt when he was merely a GOP backbencher honing his rabble-rousing skills on CSPAN. As a fellow history major, I expected him to be an interesting interview but was left instead with the impression of a self-promoter on steroids. That certainly proved to be the case once he engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and became speaker.

Just prior to the midterm elections, Gingrich made infanticide a campaign issue and publicly equated the drowning of Susan Smith’s sons in South Carolina with a countrywide moral rot that required Republican cleansing. His political action committee was instructing Republican candidates on how to win office, complete with cassette tapes. Newt’s character-assassin strategy depicted Democrats as “the enemy of normal Americans.” GOP contenders were urged to declare that their opponents’ immoral ideology essentially rendered them unfit to govern.

Speaker Gingrich would ultimately be hoisted on his hypocritical petard. After dethroning Democratic Jim Wright for ethical violations, Newt was subsequently nailed with ethics woes of his own and shown the door by House colleagues who had tired of his hubris. What’s more, Newt was exposed as a family values phony for having a sexual affair with a staffer while blasting President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

Gingrich may be gone but his poisoning of the political well persists, with GOP strategist Karl Rove leading the attack-dog pack. Triple-amputee Vietnam veteran Max Cleland was branded a Saddam Hussein sympathizer and lost his Georgia Senate seat in 2002. Sen. John McCain was smeared during the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary and his honorable war record was even questioned, as was presidential challenger John Kerry’s four years later.

Little wonder so many voters have become fed up with the blood sport that politics has become, thanks in large part to demagogues like Limbaugh, Gingrich and their cut-rate acolytes who appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at