Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our magazine archives. This week, we turn to a September 1995 item on former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, whose campaign staged a comeback with a victory in South Carolina’s GOP primary race on Saturday.
By Ann Reilly Dowd with Madeline Jaynes
When Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries seized control of Congress last fall, delight in many corner offices that Washington might finally move to cut federal spending and roll back noxious regulations was dampened by doubts about whether the new Speaker was up to his responsibilities. Indeed, for most of Gingrich’s career, his relations with the men who run America’s largest corporations have generally ranged from distant to frosty. To him, the big-business crowd, while sympathetic to his aims, have been too stodgy, too timid, too compromise-prone, and–worst of all–too willing to donate PAC money to the powerful Democratic barons on Capitol Hill. To them, Gingrich has been an intriguing but unnerving upstart: too radical, too quick to shoot from the lip, too self-consciously intellectual–in short, just too weird.
So where do things stand now? Fortune’s latest exclusive poll of the heads of America’s largest corporations provides the answer: Nine months into the new regime, big business finds itself living happily–though still warily–with Newt. In an August survey of Fortune 1,000 CEOs conducted by the opinion research firm of Clark Martire & Bartolomeo, 93% of 201 respondents voiced approval of Gingrich’s performance as Speaker. Most striking, 49% of top executives rose up on their wingtips and said they “approved strongly.” By contrast, just 31% of voters–and only 53% of Republicans–in a recent CNN/USA Today Gallup poll held a “favorable” opinion of Gingrich. Insists Kenneth Duberstein, who served as chief of staff in the Reagan White House and now advises a number of major companies: “Corporate America has gone ga-ga over Newt.”
Some surely have. Listen to John Snow, chairman of CSX Corp. (CSX) and current head of the Business Roundtable, who exults: “Newt Gingrich offers America a historic opportunity to change the direction of government, to move on a truly pro-growth path. He’s a visionary, a strategist, a tactician, a revolutionary–and may go down in history as the most important person in modern times.”
But other findings in Fortune’s poll suggest reasons why relations between big business and Gingrich could yet turn sour. Example: While CEOs like the way Newt is running Capitol Hill, they don’t at all like the notion of his running for the White House. Only 13% believe he should enter the presidential race, vs. 29% who think General Colin Powell ought to join the fray. (And this, mind you, is among a crowd whose political affiliation breaks down as follows–72% Republican, 19% independent, and just 7% Democrat.)
Instead, America’s top executives would much prefer to see as President the man once famously dismissed by Gingrich as “the tax collector for the welfare state,” Senator Bob Dole of Kansas. Among all current and possible contenders, Dole was picked by 38% of CEOs, followed by Powell with 12% and California governor Pete Wilson with 10%. Where’s Newt? Way back in the pack at 5%, barely ahead of Texas Senator Phil Gramm, and tied with those who favor giving Bill Clinton a second chance or taking a flier on former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander.
In part, Newt’s presidential stature gap reflects the habitual preference of the small-c conservatives who run America’s major corporations for statesmen who are, well, statesmanlike. “Gingrich shoots his mouth off too much,” grouses National Life Insurance CEO Frederic Bertrand in a typical complaint. Unease with Gingrich’s impulsive, in-your-face, maverick style may also explain why, despite their strong support for his efforts to reengineer Washington, 54% of CEOs in our poll said they would not hire Newt to reengineer a multimillion-dollar business like those they run.
Corporate leaders also continue to fret about the rising power of the so-called social conservatives within the new GOP–a shift that Gingrich, as much as anyone, has helped bring about. Fully 65% say the National Rifle Association has too much influence in the party, and nearly half feel the same way about the Christian Coalition. Warns Home Depot (HD) CEO Bernie Marcus: “If the right insists on shifting the focus to social issues, Republicans will lose.”
So given all these lingering doubts, you may be asking, Why the glowing job performance reviews for Newt? Simple: Since last November he has proved he can not only talk the conservative talk but also move legislation that may finally deliver on business’s dream of a smaller, less costly, less intrusive federal government. “These are goals we’ve been pushing for 25 years,” says Bell Atlantic CEO Ray Smith. “Now we’ve got a guy with energy, intellectual depth, and an astonishing ability to get things done. We’d be crazy not to get behind him.”
Indeed, the proof is in our poll: when asked what legislation would have the greatest impact on job creation and growth, the CEOs put the Republicans’ liability law reforms and moves to impose cost-benefit standards on new regulations at the top of their list, with 71% naming these as “very important.” Next in line was cutting the capital gains tax (62%), followed by getting control over the budget through containing Medicare spending (46%). Interestingly, though the executives far and away prefer the flat tax to other pro-savings tax reforms–66% backed taking this route–they rated radical tax reform behind these other measures as a spur to the economy.
By holding out the promise of sweeping change, Gingrich has managed to minimize what seemed a potentially large problem last fall–stiff business resistance to cuts in federal subsidies for agriculture, high tech, and other favored enterprises. “If you ask me, ‘Would I rather preserve technology funding or cut capital gains?’ ” says Texas Instruments (txn) CEO Jerry Junkins, “there is no question the latter would have a more profound impact on my company and the economy.” So while Junkins would like to save tech funding, losing that debate won’t be a deal breaker for him. “If we miss this opportunity,” he explains, “there may not be another.” Agrees AlliedSignal CEO Larry Bossidy, who’s heading up a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote budgetary balance: “For the first time in 20 years, the stars are in the right place, and we have a real chance.”
Still, the toughest tests for this budding relationship lie ahead, starting this fall, when Gingrich must steer his party’s regulatory reforms and tax and budget cuts–including major changes in Medicare–past threatened presidential vetoes. Beyond that is the huge challenge of keeping the GOP’s economic and social conservatives marching together through an election year. And then there’s the little matter of whether Newt joins the race. His wife, Marianne, is against the idea, and Gingrich himself puts the odds of his running at no better than 19 to 1. Even so, Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s longtime press secretary, is one of many seasoned pols who’d take that bet. Says Fitzwater: “When looking for presidential candidates, follow the ego. Newt hates Dole. He thinks he can beat Clinton. He will run.”
If he does, that would inevitably put a rea
l strain on a partnership where old tensions have merely been suppressed, not eliminated. Gingrich recently spoke about those differences in a wide-ranging interview with Fortune. “Big businesses are essentially risk-averse,” he said. “An awful lot of them have been stodgy bureaucracies seeking shelter in the arms of a nurturing government. Or they have found a way to make money by routine behavior. So rocking the boat is not something they do very easily. They are cautious and thoughtful, where we are entrepreneurial and risk-taking.” Or as a longtime Gingrich ally less delicately puts it, “Newt knows most big-business executives are whores–but he believes in redemption.”
Redemption, or at least improved communication, is also a prime rationale behind an intriguing series of small, private dinners the Speaker has been holding with America’s corporate elite. Participants have included CSX’s John Snow, IBM’s (ibm) Lou Gerstner, General Electric’s (ge) Jack Welch, General Motors’ (gm) Jack Smith, and AlliedSignal’s Bossidy. For Gingrich these sessions offer a chance to share ideas, lecture–and even bond a bit. “I told them what’s shocked me about being the CEO–which I, in effect, am–is that even with the most ruthless delegation, probably, in political history, it is an all-day, total-immersion experience,” says Gingrich. “They all said: ‘You get it! Now you understand why we’re a club, because we all know what it’s like to be the final deciding
point, to be in the middle of a fire hose and to be immersed.’ It’s the scale of it.”
The message these aggressive downsizers have been giving him, in turn, he says, is to continue to be bold: “They’ve said, ‘You can go further and faster than you think. Set very tough goals. Delegate dramatically. And ignore the experts. They will always be wrong. They will always be too timid.’ ” James A. “Micky” Blackwell, president of the aeronautics sector of Lockheed Martin (lmt), which through mergers and downsizing has shed more than 100,000 jobs since 1986, expresses it this way: “If you’re going to cut off a dog’s tail, don’t do it in pieces. Whack it off.”
For his part, Gingrich pointedly observes that while he appreciates these private words of encouragement, what he’d really like to see from his new corporate fans and allies is a lot more public boldness than they have hitherto displayed in the policy arena. His message to business: If you really want this relationship to work, be more like me.
“A number of businessmen have said to me, ‘I hope you have the courage to change things, but don’t ask me to take any risks. Don’t ask me to get my customers mad. Don’t ask me to get my employees mad. Don’t ask me to get my stockholders mad. Don’t ask me to get into any controversial debate.’ I say, ‘Have the courage you wish politicians had. If you don’t have the courage to lead, why should you expect anyone else to do so?’ ”