Newt Gingrich: 'AA Saved My Life' - Page 2

By Walter Armstrong 12/12/11

The much-maligned Republican front-runner says the Big Book made him see the light. But his critics are not convinced.

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Although his own account of coming to Bill W. finds him hitting bottom when he was on top of the world (in 1994, with his elevation to House Speaker), it seems more true to life that his dark night found him, as it does most addicts, in a state of humiliation and desperation (in 1999, with his flight from Washington under a cloud).

After a period in the wilderness, Gingrich predictably staged a quiet comeback, metamorphosing in the typical manner of the congressional species into a highly paid lobbyist. But as a serious contender for the White House, a convincing makeover was a must if he hoped to compete with the squeaky-clean, no-drama Obama. So the strategy was out with old nasty Newt, in with new nice Newt. His AA conversion served as a smooth transition.

Last June, with his campaign floundering, Gingrich started to once again talk up his affection for AA. On Fox and Friends, he defended President Obama against host Gretchen Carlson’s charges of hypocrisy for invoking “God” and “prayer” in a speech despite the fact that the president does not attend church every Sunday. Gingrich said, “Look, in my new book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, I reprint the entire 12-step program from Alcoholics Anonymous. Six of the 12 steps involve a higher authority…” The relevance of his statement to the issue at hand was less then exact, apart from it being a plug for his book. But it was notable, nonetheless, because Gingrich, never hesitant to heap forgiveness of himself, struck this tone of forgiveness toward the president, and forgiveness is an ethic central to AA.

As Speaker of the House in 1995 Gingrich proposed legislation imposing a mandatory death penalty on drug smugglers and even advocated public mass executions as an effective form of deterrence and prevention.

Last Saturday, at the most recent GOP debate in Iowa, Gingrich dodged the slings and arrows of his fellow Republicans, saying: “I'm a 68-year-old grandfather, and I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I am a person they can trust. It's up to the American people to decide." If the American people decide to elect Gingrich to the nation's highest office, how will his AA affinities affect his policies towards treatment and interdiction?

Nobody really knows. While Gingrich's website elucidates his position on many far-flung subjects, large and small, there is almost no reference to his positions on drug treatment or the drug war, even though he has called substance abuse "perhaps the biggest problem facing America." But talking to reporter Chris Moody from Yahoo News at a stop on a book tour through Florida last November, he let loose with some of the nastiest opinions about the drug epidemic—and addicts themselves—since, well, the old Newt in his heyday as House Speaker. "If you sell drugs, we’re going to kill you,” he famously said in 1995, advocating the death penalty for anyone caught bringing illegal drugs into the U.S., including smugglers of marijuana (two ounces or more).

Judging from Moody's interview, little in the ensuing 25 years has caused the onetime history professor to revise his opinion. He still believes drug dealers should be executed, though he now considers limiting capital punishment to cartel leaders and other high-ups.

Gingrich quickly dismissed medical marijuana as “a joke [because] doctors will prescribe it for anybody that walks in." (True enough, in some cases.) He went on to darkly predict that the legalization of pot “would tear American society apart," employing the old chestnut that herb is a "gateway drug" to harder substances and repeating the lie that nations where pot is legal soon see large numbers of citizens becoming jobless, sick in body and mind, homeless—and therefore dependent on government handouts.

The U.S. should get more “aggressive” not only in its conduct of the war on drugs, he said, but also in its expansion of drug testing of millions of struggling Americans who rely on federal entitlement programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps, welfare, Medicaid. Drug users, under his presidency, would be denied benefits.

No one would call these views, voiced almost offhandedly, mainstream. Indeed, they are so far-out as to appeal only to the most fanatical anti-drug fringe. According to recent surveys of U.S. drug attitudes, Americans have tacked dramatically away from such punitive positions. Instead a majority of Americans now support the legalization of pot and more treatment/less imprisonment for users of “harder” drugs. Will Americans even take Gingrich's views seriously? Needless to say, these "aggressive" drug policies, which rely on increased government intervention, were clearly not crafted to win libertarians and other self-identified Independents to his cause.

It would be tempting to simply dismiss these opinions as yet another example of what Republican Senator Charles Grassley called Gingrich’s temperamental compulsion to “fire first, aim later." But in fact Gingrich’s record during his 20 years in the House offer only a single stark departure from this Big Government approach to addicts. In his most over-the-top utterance, the Speaker advocated in 1995 public mass executions of convicted drug smugglers as an effective form of deterrence and prevention. “The first time we execute 27 or 30 or 35 people at one time, and the [traffickers] go around Columbia and France and Thailand and Mexico, and they say, ‘Hi, would you like to carry some drugs into the U.S., the price of carrying drugs will have gone up dramatically," he said.

Appearing on The O’Reilly Factor at the time, Gingrich agreed with his host that the tiny nation of Singapore, which hangs drug dealers and imprisons drug users in state-run “rehab centers,” was the best model for the U.S. to emulate. “I think it’s time we get the stomach for that, Bill,” Gingrich said. “I would dramatically expand testing. I would make rehabilitation mandatory. We have every right as a country to demand of our citizens that they quit doing illegal things which…are destroying civilization." When critics pointed out that, if implemented, the draconian measure would hardly make a dent in giant drug cartel operations because it would leave the kingpins untouched, Gingrich dropped the issue—until in late November, when he resurrected the Singapore-as-role model link.

As for the War on Drugs itself, which the Obama administration has already militarized to an unprecedented degree, Gingrich would double-down on this four-decade-long wager. As Speaker, he called for a “World War II style victory plan—a decisive, all but cataclysmic effort to break the back of the drug culture.” If implemented, he promised in sharp words, "the U.S. could quickly eradicate its drug problem." He even set a date for this ambitious goal—Jan. 1, 2000, the start of the New Millennium. Now that we're 11 years into the century, with victory looking increasingly dim, Gingrich has scaled back his "cataclysmic" rhetoric, advocating instead “the overhaul of the border patrol, the INS, U.S. Customs and the DEA handling of drugs.” He wants the National Guard to be permanently deployed at the border as soon as triple fencing has sealed it off.

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Walter Armstrong is the Medical Editor at  Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and the former deputy editor of The Fix. You can find him on Linkedin.