MACON, Ga. — Two days after announcing his campaign for president, Newt Gingrich paused Friday afternoon at Fincher's Barbecue on Macon's Houston Avenue, on his way to the Georgia Republican Convention across town.
Now 67, he represented Atlanta's northern suburbs in Congress for 20 years and served as Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1998, resigning his seat after big midterm election losses.
Friday, he greeted several dozen staffers, convention delegates and supporters at the barbecue restaurant's original location, posing for pictures outside and talking to counter workers before sitting down for an interview.
Gingrich's presidential campaign announcement included talk of giving federal powers back to the states. While saying segregation was "horrible" and had to be ended, that's now "40 or 50 years behind us ... and I think that these states can take care of themselves," he said.
"In the modern era since desegregation and the federal voting rights act, the citizens of each state are empowered by going to vote to protect themselves," Gingrich said.
Gingrich is on his third marriage, this one to a former House staffer he had an affair with during his second; and in 1997 the House took the unprecedented move of reprimanding him, a sitting Speaker, in an ethics case. He avoided a full hearing with a negotiated settlement but agreed to pay a $300,000 penalty. That's now all behind him, he said.
"There's no question I've said to people that I made mistakes in my life, that I had to go to God for forgiveness and that I had to seek reconciliation," Gingrich said. "People have to decide whether at this stage in my life I have learned enough and matured enough, and I'm somebody they can trust.
"There's no question I bring some scars with my life, but most people who get to be my age have some scars at something."
Several of Gingrich's high-profile associates, including pastors Jim Garlow and Lou Engle and historical revisionist David Barton, espouse "Seven Mountains" theology (—) a belief that government, business, media, education and other "spheres of influence" are dominated by Satan's minions, and that Christians are obligated to seize control of all areas to herald the second coming of Jesus.
Gingrich says he doesn't have any knowledge of the idea.
"I have no idea what you're talking about it, and I can't comment on it because I've never heard of it before," he said. "Neither Garlow nor Barton nor anybody else has ever mentioned it to me."
On the federal government's current financial woes, the sluggish economic recovery and controversial health care legislation, Gingrich takes a harsher line even than current Republican officeholders.
Congressional Republicans are currently calling for cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, but Gingrich wants it cut even further. He said the United States has the world's highest corporate tax rate, though a recent Pricewaterhouse Coopers study said the U.S. corporate tax rate is the sixth-highest in the world.
Referring to the recent announcement that General Electric managed to pay no corporate income tax last year despite posting multibillion-dollar profits, Gingrich said cutting taxes further would bring in more because companies will then "fire the lawyers and pay the government."
"(President Barack) Obama believes 'I can make life so painful for you that I'll make you stay here and suffer,' " he said. "I believe that we ought to make life so pleasant for you that you voluntarily want to be here. So you're going to have a 'party of pain' led by Obama, and a 'party of happiness and pleasure' led by Gingrich, and I think you can lure more companies with lower taxes."
Regarding his take on the federal government's looming need to raise its legal debt limit, he said, "I would only raise the debt ceiling if I got a dollar of spending cut for every dollar of debt ceiling increase. So if the president wants $2 trillion in increase, he needs to cut $2 trillion out of the debt."
Cutting more than half of the $3.8 trillion federal budget would eliminate all discretionary spending, including defense, and still leave more than $400 billion to be taken from mandatory spending such as Social Security and Medicare.
And on medical matters, Gingrich said, much of the problem of health care costs is due to freeloaders.
"A very substantial number of people who are uninsured earn over $75,000 a year, and they're making a calculated gamble that they'd rather buy a second home or buy a better car or go on a nicer vacation, and then if they really get in trouble, you're going to take care of them," he said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, four-fifths of the 46.3 million Americans who didn't have health insurance in 2008 came from households with less than $75,000 annual income.
Nonpayment for service is unacceptable at restaurants and car dealers, so patients should be held to the same standard, perhaps through posting a bond or pledging property for medical care, Gingrich said.
Regarding global warming, Gingrich acknowledged the reality of it, but said he didn't know if it's being driven by human greenhouse gas emission.
"The planet used to be dramatically warmer when we had dinosaurs and no people. To the best of my knowledge the dinosaurs weren't driving cars," he said.
Scientists' contention is not that Earth is now warmer than ever, but that the current rate of temperature increase is unique.
But Gingrich dismissed the vast majority of scientific opinion, on the grounds that so many scientists support it.
"I distinguish 'science' from 'political science.' and when I see 6,000 scientists sign something, that's called political science. That's not science," he said.
Gingrich referred to a petition from the Union of Concerned Scientists which actually urged the Bush administration to keep politics out of science policy.
Regardless, he said, "it is inconceivable that any threat from global warming is big enough to justify destroying the American economy."