NBC anchor Brian Williams didn't exactly strike a tone of toughness with new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after she was elected, asking her softball questions on NBC Nightly News about what "drain the swamp" meant, and what she would say to the president, and how "history was riding along with her," and what her thoughts were on her family at the historic moment.
But twelve years ago tonight, one week after Newt Gingrich's big win, on November 15, 1994, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw hammered Gingrich in a snide and negative ten-minute "Dateline NBC" hit piece. Brokaw pushed every negative button. Gingrich had a "long streak" of "casually reckless" remarks. He admitted "he smoked pot" and "got a marriage deferment" to avoid service in Vietnam. He went to first wife Jackie's hospital room "the day after her cancer surgery" to discuss divorce terms. He made a "very ominous" charge that FDA chief David Kessler threatened to ruin businesses. And his "well-heeled admirers," called "Newt Incorporated," showed he was already ethically compromised, since voters would think donors "were trying to buy his heart if not his vote, at the least."
Here's how the Dateline segment was promoted at the beginning of the show. The adjectives stuck out:
Brokaw: “He’s been called brilliant, a control freak, pompous, power-hungry. Suddenly he is one of the most powerful people in
. But some who have known him for years think he could be dangerous.” Washington
Brantley Harwell: "I personally think that Newt is amoral when it comes to politics.”
Brokaw: “Tonight, some startling admissions from the man who went from spoiler to Speaker.”
Gingrich: “Truth is, occasionally, I’m not very smart.”
Out of the MRC transcription archives, it's a remarkable hit piece, the kind in which Brokaw announced that Gingrich wasn't the only man in politics with a "slash-and-burn" style. The segment's title was simply "Power Broker":
Tom Brokaw: "You can call him an archconservative or an arch-enemy of President Clinton's policies, but in less than two months, you'll have to call Newt Gingrich, Mr. Speaker -- the new Speaker of the House. The man who has spent years in Congress as the leading guerrilla fighter in the Republican war on Democratic turf. Suddenly, he's won a major battle. Now, he's coming out of the jungle to claim the spoils of victory -- the great power of Speaker of the House. While the votes were still being counted, questions did arise about whether this true believer and his take-no-prisoners style can adapt to the role of statesman.
Election Night, one week ago. It is 9 P.M. in
Brokaw: "By 9:30 P.M., Democrats are falling everywhere. The architect of their defeat is the combative Newton Leroy Gingrich -- who says he wants to reform
"[To Gingrich] ...But, we call them Stalins? Stalin is the man who, after all, created the Gulag, who killed hundreds of millions of people, one of the great tyrants of the twentieth century. Don't you see how people react to you?"
Brokaw: "Newt Gingrich assessing the White House: [To Gingrich] Do you regret saying that the Clinton Administration is the enemy of normal people?"
Brokaw: "But, you have a long string of those things, Congressman."
Brokaw: "But, I get the impression, you're so pugnacious that what you say is hard for you to reel it back in right away."
[Unidentified Voice: "With ten percent reporting, it's gonna be a good night."]
[Gingrich to Aide: "After this should I go over and declare victory or what do they want me to do?"]
[Gingrich aide, Barry Hutchison: "No, too early."]
Brokaw: "But, Gingrich's supporters can barely wait. For forty years Democrats have controlled the House, frustrating conservatives and their agenda of smaller government, fewer taxes, less welfare."
Brokaw: "By 10:00 P.M., the crowd could taste its new power. At last, they had a conservative champion who could deliver the long awaited prize -- a Republican U.S. Congress.
"How did 51-year-old Newt Gingrich get to be the man who is about to be the next Speaker of the House? That's third in line for the Presidency. Well, we know that he was raised as an Army brat. He went on to college and then on to graduate school at Tulane, where he got a Ph.D. in history. That was during the 1960s, and he does admit that he smoked pot and participated in student demonstrations. He also became a college professor and he got a marriage deferment during the time of
"Lee Howell was a friend and Gingrich's speechwriter. Remember this was the Watergate era. Republican was a dirty word. And yet, listen to what Gingrich told Howell in 1974."
[Lee Howell: "He says: 'I'm gonna be Speaker.' He says: 'I'm going to build a Republican Party. Campaign, ya know, get the position where I can campaign for people around the country build 'em up to a majority. And, then get elected Speaker.' And, I said: 'You don't want to be President?' And he said: `Well, no. I want to be Speaker. That's where the power is."]
Brokaw: "Some early supporters say that Gingrich reinvented himself after his first win in 1978 -- moving to the right. He was more combative, perfecting his trademark scorched-earth-tactics. That change caused a split between Gingrich and his Baptist minister, and close friend, Brantley Harwell."
[Brantley Harwell: "I personally think that Newt is amoral when it comes to politics. He'll do anything to get elected. He'll do anything to get his person elected. The way he's gone about it lately, it's just like he'll do -- the end justifies whatever means he wants to use."]
Brokaw: "Gingrich dismisses Harwell's judgement claiming it is tied to
Brokaw: "How did he explain it to you?"
[Howell: "He told me that it had been a gnawing thing and that he and her had had problems; and that it was like a pain in the neck, that just wouldn't go away; and finally, if you want to get rid of it, you had to cut it out."
Brokaw: "The day after her cancer surgery, Gingrich went to his wife's hospital room to discuss the terms of the divorce. She threw him out."
Brokaw: "Gingrich, who makes so much of family values, is touchy on this issue, blaming personal grudges of former friends. He can be quick to blame. It has served him well in politics. In his sixteen years in
Brokaw: "But, wait a minute, are you saying that Kessler has told these companies, 'I'll bankrupt you'?"
Brokaw: "That's a very ominous charge, Congressman."
Brokaw: "You're a powerful figure in Congress, why didn't you just pick up the phone and call the director, Dr. Kessler."
Brokaw: "We called Dr. David Kessler, who runs the F.D.A., but he did not want to be interviewed. However, his spokesman said, the F.D.A. does not operate that way. 'We don't know what Congressman Gingrich is talking about.' Gingrich does have a lot of well-heeled admirers who have helped him build a political empire. Call it Newt Incorporated."
[GOPAC Receptionist: "Good afternoon, GOPAC."]
Brokaw: "GOPAC, with a two million dollar annual budget is the centerpiece. Gingrich says it's like a farm team to coach conservatives on the way up. GOPAC helps pay for and arrange a lot of Gingrich's travel. Over the past year he visited forty-one states to stump for conservative candidates. Gingrich's frequent mode of travel? Well, the man who so stridently complains about the
"Other Congressional leaders have similar programs, but unlike GOPAC, they list all of their donors. During the campaign, before the election, we asked Gingrich about GOPAC. [To Gingrich] These people are giving money not just because they're interested in sending out lecturers and sending out training tapes, they want to have access to you and they want to be in your good graces."
Brokaw: "But, if this is all so appropriate and ethical, why not disclose the names of the contributors to GOPAC?"
Brokaw: "In fact, on Sunday, GOPAC announced it would name future donors. Gingrich has another enterprise."
[Unidentified Announcer: "Congressman Newt Gingrich, an adjunct professor at Reinhardt provides..."]
Brokaw: "A video-tape college course called `Renewing American Civilization.' In fundraising letters he says, he hopes the course will yield 200,000 committed citizen activists. The tax-exempt Progress & Freedom Foundation, funds the course. [To Gingrich] People who are running the Progress & Freedom Foundation are some of your oldest and closest friends and intellectual advisors. Forty percent of the people who gave to that foundation also gave to GOPAC. Obviously, there is a political, partisan agenda here because you're not a nonpartisan man."
Brokaw: "But can't you see how voters who are looking at this for the first time, would say `Hey, these guys must be trying to buy his heart if not his vote, at the least."
Brokaw: "In a letter obtained by Dateline, two weeks ago [Democrats on?] the House Ethics Committee asked Gingrich to answer charges that his tax-exempt foundation is purely political and not purely educational. 11:30 P.M. Election Night, Gingrich declares victory and seems to strike a conciliatory tone."
Brokaw: "But, a few hours later many were wondering whether Gingrich was returning to his old slash-and-burn style. After winning such a big victory, President Clinton called Gingrich and it took the Congressman 90 minutes to return the call of the President of the
Brokaw: "As Speaker, Gingrich vows he will make the House vote on the Republican's Contract With America within the first one hundred days of the new Congress. It's a reform package to fight crime, impose term limits, cut taxes, reform welfare. Republicans have not said how they'll pay for all that, but they have said it will cost $40 billion a year."
Brokaw concluded: "Gingrich denies reports that made the rounds last week that shortly after the election he went out and bought a shiny, new black Cadillac, a car befitting his lofty, new role as Speaker. Gingrich says he still owns a 1967 Ford Mustang."
Now just try to imagine a brutal NBC piece on Pelosi that asked about every personal issue: whether she's had plastic surgery, which recreational drugs she's used, the strange donors who support her, the most outrageous words that have ever tumbled out of her mouth. A piece labeling her as a left-wing guerrilla fighter with a slash-and-burn-Bush agenda, an "archliberal and archenemy" of Bush.
It's awfully hard to imagine when today's NBC anchor asks simple questions a high-school kid at a town-hall meeting could ask, like "Leader, what does 'drain the swamp' mean?"