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In this May 24, 2018, file photo, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is interviewed on the “Fox & Friends” television program, in New York. He was opinion editor Boyd Matheson’s guest on the latest edition of “Therefore, what?”
Associated Press

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Newt Gingrich, who’s spent the past 10 weeks in Rome, says ‘we’ve overreacted’ to COVID-19 (+podcast)

The former speaker of the house has been cooped up in Italy — and says the pandemic “is nothing like the level of fear and panic the people have been sold on.”

On the latest episode of “Therefore, What?” opinion editor Boyd Matheson welcomes former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to discuss the coronavirus pandemic from his unique perch in Italy. The fiery and irrepressible Gingrich — whose wife serves as the U.S. ambassador at the Holy See — has spent the past 10 weeks quarantined in Rome.

As conditions in Italy and throughout the United States begin to improve, Gingrich asserts that the pandemic’s effects have been blown out of proportion, priorities have been misplaced and the long-term impact is still unknown.

More from Gingrich:

  • “Why should the nation follow New York?” he asks, questioning why urban-centered media outlets — situated where the pandemic is the worst — drive the narrative for a national audience.
  • How he feels about the federal government leaving many important decisions up to state leaders.
  • What he believes is the greatest trait for a leader to possess during a crisis.
  • Criticism of the 531 members of Congress, from both political parties, who were abdicating their jobs and responsibility to Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer in the Senate, and Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy in the House.
  • His thoughts on China, money and the path toward a better future.

The following is a transcript from the latest episode of “Therefore, What?” It has been edited for clarity.

Boyd Matheson: It has been said that ideas go booming through the world like cannons, thoughts are mightier than armies and principles have achieved more victories than horsemen or chariots. Inspiring ideas, transformational thoughts and powerful principles are exactly what America — and the world — need in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

An intellectually fearless visionary and historian, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich is one of the foremost economic, social, political and security-focused conservative thinkers today. He’s well-known as the architect of the Contract with America that led the Republican Party to victory in 1994 by capturing a majority in the United States House for the first time in 40 years. He also ran for president in 2012. Today, Newt is the chairman of Gingrich 360, a full-service American consulting, education and media production group that connects the past, present and future through its prolific author. He’s nationally recognized as one of the great thinkers, writers and historians — Mr. Speaker, thanks for joining us today.

Newt Gingrich: Well, that’s quite a buildup. But I’m delighted to have the chance to talk with you. There’s a lot going on.

BM: Yes, there is a lot going on in the world today. We appreciate you joining us live from Rome today. And you have been in a very unique position there with your wife, who is a brilliant thinker and writer in her own right, as ambassador from the United States to the Holy See in the Vatican. First, just give us some perspective. What has it been like being in Rome throughout this pandemic?

NG: Well, Italy was hit unusually hard because there were about 100,000 Chinese workers in northern Italy. And the Italian government, for politically correctness reasons, didn’t want to cut off the flights from China. So, for a number of weeks, they were importing the disease, and it spread very deeply across northern Italy, to such a degree that they basically had to close everything down. We got to a point where in the entire country, you could have grocery stores, pharmacies or gas stations, but nothing else. People were told to stay home. You could get a $3,200 fine if you were in the street without a good reason.

And then for about eight weeks, the place was totally locked down. It began to open up in the last few days. I was out today looking and realized that there are more people on the street, there are more people doing things. A little bit more encouraging. But they’re going to have a long climb back because about 14% of Italy’s economy is tourism, and in the near future, there aren’t going to be any tourists. And so they’re faced with a very, very big challenge of how to get this system working again. And I think that it’s going to be quite a project to see what they do and how they do it.

BM: I do think it’s going to be just an extraordinary next step, both abroad and at home. I’ve been dying to ask you — you’ve been in this interesting position since 2017, living over there in Rome, in addition to all your international work. But you’ve sort of had this opportunity — kind of a Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson — to look at America from abroad during some really pivotal times. What has that been like for you? What have you learned?

NG: Well, it’s been very helpful, in a way. Up until the middle of March, I was running back and forth — I’d spend about a third of my time in the states. But now that I’ve been here for the last 10 weeks, looking back. You see the forest and you see patterns that make you sort of scratch your head.

There’s a brilliant writer named Claire Berlinski, who recently wrote an essay on the age of hysteria. And I think it captured something fundamental about what’s going on right now. We have reacted — I would argue we’ve overreacted — to the problems we’re faced with, and that we have a lot of reasons to believe that this is, in the end, going to be manageable. But the pattern of social media and the pattern of the news media makes it harder for all of us to find a way to try to make practical, common sense out of what we’re experiencing.

Newt Gingrich and U.S. ambassador at the Holy See Callista Gingrich pose in front the St. Peter’s Basilica during a reception for the Cardinal Newman Canonization at Pontifical Urban College, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019 in Vatican City, Vatican. Callista Gingrich has served in that position since 2017.
Associated Press

So, I think in that sense, I see things more like a historian. I look at stuff and I think, as a historian, that we have an enormous disservice bought from our news media, because they refused to take these things seriously and slow down and actually try to cover. If you watch President Trump’s interaction with these reporters, sometimes it’s pathetic because they go for the dumbest and lowest-quality question as though it makes any sense. And they skip a lot of big questions that should be asked. My newsletter today is going to ask the question about this study from the Imperial College in London that said 2,200,000 Americans were going to die. Well, a lot of our policies were based on that level of fear, because that’d be literally about five times the number of people who were killed in World War II, and about a thousand times the number of people who died at 9/11.

So, if you’re the president, and somebody walks in and says, “a scientist” — and they’re always scientists — “this scientist has told us this,” just out of basic common sense and decency, you have to take very, very bold steps, because you realize these people are in danger of losing an enormous number of people. Well, it turns out that estimate was totally wrong. This is a problem — it’s a significant problem — but it is nothing like the level of fear and panic the people have been sold on. And I think that’s a very important lesson for all of us to learn.

BM: And I want to go one step further with that, because as a student of history, you’ve studied and written extensively about so many great leaders over time, over history. And again, from your unique vantage point, you’ve been up close to the highest levels of power here in the United States. You’ve seen it around the world. And, now again, you’re watching this from a very interesting perch right now. What have you learned in terms of leadership in a crisis?

NG: To stay calm. The most important characteristic of great leaders is the ability to be calm and to look at the facts, and then when you make a decision, to live it out, to recognize that, you know, implementing the decision is as big a deal as making the decision. And sometimes that means you’ve got to stick to something, even when everyone around you disagrees. And I, frankly, have admired President Trump for the courage he has shown in going out here and standing up for what he believes in, and at times taking risks. I mean, he has said things that got him in some trouble, but he’s always pushing, pushing, pushing. And he’s trying to find a way to both defeat the virus and to reestablish the economy. And I think that’s a pretty good goal.

BM: I think that’s a challenge, too, and I think many have put that as the ultimate fake fight and false choice in Washington — that it’s either the economy or lives, and there’s no middle ground. And yet, it’s the leadership. It’s what you did with the Contract with America, in capturing the imagination of the American people about some practical, tactical things that could be done to make the country better.

NG: Well, that’s right. And look — the fact is, we’re going to have to get the economy started again. And we’re going to have to get people back to work. And if you look at a number of states, because of the nature of where the news media is located, we are much too much affected by New York City. I mean, New York City is a disaster, partially because the quality of government — both the city government and the state government is so bad. Frankly, New York will be a case study in how could that many people die in one city.

And then you look at the whole rest of the country, and other there are places in the country where virtually nobody has the virus. You have to say to yourself, “So, why would you lock up people in a place where nobody has the virus?” And yet, the people who want this nationwide, automatic, shut-everything-down approach are doing a great disservice to what we have to learn how to do, and how we have to learn to do it.

BM: I think that’s so critical. And that leads me to something else I wanted to discuss with you, and that is the role of federalism. That was a big part of your leadership as speaker, to make sure that the federal government was doing the things that only the federal government can do, and then letting the states do what they need to do. What is the role of federalism and all of this?

NG: Well, actually, I do a free podcast at Newt’s World. And we just did an interview with Chris DeMuth, who had written a brilliant paper in which he said this is the first time we’ve had a crisis and the federal government has not tried to take over everything. And he gave Trump great credit for saying, you know, each governor has to know their state, and they have to make decisions.

So, Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, a state which has had a very, very low death rate, is taking a bigger gamble. Meanwhile, the governor of Illinois has the whole state locked down, even though in southern Illinois that’s an irrational policy, but he’s going to have to bear the cost of that. And I think the president was very wise to get this stuff decentralized.

Now, there are things the federal government can do. The federal government can close the border. The federal government can say, we are not going to allow people to come in here who have diseases. The federal government can can acquire resources and then get them to the states. If you look, for example, at New York City when it was at its worst state, President Trump was pouring resources into the state. And as a result, you had a lot of people who said they thought they were, for example, going to be short of hospital beds. Well, we built one hospital up there in four days — removed a Navy hospital ship up there. I mean, by the time they got done, they had really, very dramatically improved things in a way that people would not have thought possible.

I think that’s a real tribute to the American ability to go out and do these things. And I think that the president, in that sense, was wisely participating where he had to, but at the same time, he wants the mayor, he wants the governor, he wants local community leaders — he wants all of them to be engaged in saving their own community.

BM: I think that’s so vital and such a part of the American fabric. Here in Utah, we’ve been watching how a civil society has come together between faith groups and hospitals and the universities, and they have produced five million masks. So, 10,000 people a week go pick up a bunch of kits, they sew 100 masks each and they bring them back on Saturday. It’s been going for three weeks now. Three million masks are in.

Civil society — talk to us about that a little bit, in terms of how you think that’s going to be vital to America’s future.

NG: Well, look, I think that’s an important part of what makes America so unique, and it’s something that the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about in the 1830s. He said, America is not just government and it’s not just business. It is also going to be a country where people organize themselves voluntarily to help their own communities in a way that virtually no other country in the world does. He was very passionate about this. He thought it was one of the things that made us such a unique country. And I think as a result, we have been in a position to organize ourselves to do things that other countries have found very, very hard.

BM: I want to go now from the really local level, the civil society space, and I want to go all the way to the international stage, where you’ve done a lot of great thinking, a lot of writing. Your book that came out last year, “Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat” — very prophetic, in many ways, in terms of where we are with China right now. Give us just a quick snapshot of how you think that relationship is. And I want to ask you specifically, I think one of the big threats to American entrepreneurs and businesses is the intellectual property problem in China. Give us some international perspective.

NG: Well, I wrote “Trump vs. China” because I felt that this was a huge issue that we had to engage in. And we had to recognize that China was not what we thought it was. That in fact, the Chinese have been very, very difficult to deal with. By every standard that I’m aware of, they have cheated dramatically on their willingness to steal things.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich waits for the arrival of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the Vatican for an audience with Pope Francis, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.
Associated Press

Obama’s director of national intelligence said, at one point in 2015, that the Chinese steal between four and five hundred billion dollars a year in intellectual property, more than all of our exports to China combined. We’re just not used to dealing with a country that thinks and acts at that level. And as a result, they have, on such a significant number of occasions, taken advantage of us. I think that’s something we really have to come to grips with. And it’s a little difficult because it’s hard for Americans to believe that there could be a totalitarian government, which, as a matter of automatic behavior, tries to steal from all of its neighbors. But that’s reality. That is who we’re dealing with. And therefore, I think we’re going to have to find ways to to be able to deal with them and to be able to be much tougher-minded than we have been up to now.

BM: I want to take you now to Washington. Obviously, the typical division continues to go on there. You have those who are profiting off of that division, as they always have, with the fake fights and the false choices. But I think there are also some members in D.C. who are policy entrepreneurs who can get some exciting things going.

When I was in Sen. Lee’s office, my phrase was, “If there’s an idea meeting or a policy entrepreneurship meeting going on, and if former Speaker Gingrich isn’t in the room, it doesn’t count as a creative meeting.” But what are some of the creative things? What are some of the ideas you wish Congress would get to and address?

NG: Well, first of all, they should get back to realizing that Congress, at its best, is a collection of committees, and that each of those committees can be doing serious work. I mean, you could have, in the House and Senate, people looking seriously at the Chinese and what happened with the virus, where did it come from and what does that mean. You could have people looking at the whole process of these phony estimates that we get. Everything has been wrong about the estimates about the virus. Look at everything that is wrong with, for example, all the projections on global warming, because it’s the same pattern. You get from the computer what you put into the computer, so you can rig the game.

These people had an enormous, devastating impact when the Imperial College analysis came out and said 500,000 Britains and 2.2 million Americans could die. Well, that set the stage for a very radical position. So, Congress ought to be looking into that. Congress should also be looking into, how do we bring all of the health care production back to the U.S.? That would be an example of something very important.

BM: Great, great insight. I appreciate that. And there is much that those committees can be doing — real work, as you say, that can really move the country forward.

NG: It shouldn’t all be based on McConnell and Schumer and McCarthy and Pelosi. There are 535 members of the House and Senate. They all have work to do.

BM: I think we often forget that. I think there’s an abdication problem there, where the leaders of both parties end up driving the ship, most of the time.

Well, as we as we come down the homestretch here, I want to go back to where we began: ideas, thoughts, principles, history. The program is, “Therefore, What?” and so we always end the program with the “therefore, what” question. So, as you look at the the country and as you look at the world, from your unique experience, what’s the “therefore, what” for you? What do you hope people think different? What do you hope people do different as a result of listening today?

NG: I hope they realize that this is going to pass; that we’re Americans, we can create an amazingly good future; and that the challenge, to us, is to go out and do it.

Find and subscribe to this and other podcasts from the Deseret News at Deseret.com/Podcasts, or find us on iTunes, Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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