About that Gingrich Marijuana Quote…

Usually if a quote is too good to be true, it is.

Yesterday I noted that Newt Gingrich once argued for the death penalty for marijuana traffickers.  In the story that inspired my post, the following quote was contained (which was brought up in the comment section, and I mentally filed away to double-check):

“See, when I smoked pot it was illegal, but not immoral,” Gingrich reportedly told Wall Street Journal reporter Hilary Stout in 1996. “Now, it is illegal AND immoral. The law didn’t change, only the morality… That’s why you get to go to jail and I don’t.”

Now, without a doubt, this would be a delicious quote if real as it seems to reflect Gingrich’s own narcissism and hypocrisy.  The type of behavior and attitude that would allow him to, for example, lead the charge for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over actions linked to an extra-marital affair while he, himself, was engaging in an extra-marital affair or who sees no problem with the logic of annulling not just one, but two marriages.

But, I must confess, that when I read it the first time it sounded too good to be true.  Politicians rarely say things that are so personally and directly hypocritical (especially something like “That’s why you get to go to jail and I don’t”—I could almost buy “Now, it is illegal AND immoral” as Gingrich strikes me as the type of person who could rationalize in such a manner).  Indeed, we can go to a real quote for an example of such mental gymnastics.  Speaking recently about his infidelity:  “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”  While he goes on to state that, yes “I was doing things that were wrong” the fact that he tries to couch it in his passion for the country (i.e., he was working too hard and started an affair with a staffer) that one can see the rationalization machine working (video at the link).

However, I did not originally blog about the quote above because I wanted to double check it first.  So, I followed the Raw Story link to 2012 Republican Candidates and their page of quotes by Gingrich on the marijuana issue.  The quote above was listed as having come from an August 8, 1996 story in the Wall Street Journal written by Hilary Stout.  So, I went to the Proquest Newspaper database and, indeed, there is a such by Stout about politicians and marijuana use on that date in the WSJ entitled “Youthful drug use by politicians begins to lose its stigma, as more boomers admit they inhaled” and it appeared on page A12.  The totality of the Gingrich-related section of the piece (save for a brief reference at the start of the piece) is as follows:

After Mr. McCurry’s disclosure, House Speaker Gingrich quickly attacked. “They have a presidential press secretary in the White House, on camera, who says, of course he did marijuana in college, as though every student in America ought to say, `Well, I can be like Mike McCurry,'” Mr. Gingrich declared to a breakfast of Republican supporters in Georgia.

The Clinton-Gore campaign responded with a reminder that the speaker himself had confessed to youthful pot smoking. Campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart immediately brandished an article from The Economist quoting Mr. Gingrich’s similarly cavalier admission that he, too, smoked marijuana in his student days. “That was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era,” the speaker told the magazine in 1995.

Mr. Gingrich initially answered the drug question in 1987, saying that 19 years earlier, in 1968, he smoked marijuana at a party and “never went back and revisited it.”

“That’s not true,” says Larry Bowie, a friend during Mr. Gingrich’s days as a West Georgia College professor. “I know for a fact that he sat and smoked with me” in about 1973. “He didn’t like the way it made him feel.”

Mr. Bowie, now 50, says Mr. Gingrich also voiced no opposition to marijuana use by others. Mr. Bowie recalls his friends “used to think it was cool that he’d come to their parties and wouldn’t say anything” about people smoking pot. “He certainly wasn’t opposed to the use of it. He didn’t see it as an evil,” Mr. Bowie says. Mr. Gingrich “just asked us to keep it private.”

Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, Tony Blankley, says the speaker denies Mr. Bowie’s allegation. But the more important point, Mr. Blankley adds, is that Mr. Gingrich “has said publicly many times that he tried marijuana when he was in college. He thinks it’s wrong for people to have done so and wants to make it clear that he thinks it’s a mistake.”

All these questions may fade in the coming years, as the electorate grows tired of queries about common behavior many years past. But just to be sure, Prof. Sabato offers a word of advice to his students each year: “If they have any political ambitions, they shouldn’t use any drugs in college.”

All this illustrates to me (at a minimum, as others can make their own judgments) is that Gingrich, like most politicians on this subject, is a hypocrite who would severely punish people for doing what he and his friends did in their youth.  However, the extremely juicy quote noted above appears to be made up.

However, and unfortunately, the quote is now well entrenched in the Google memory banks as in looking to see if there was any other source* for the quote I have gone through several pages of Google search results, almost all of which seem to have been generated in the last day, due to the Raw Story piece and the sources all appear to be the same.**  When quoted, the reference to the WSJ  is typically given, which provides a veneer of legitimacy.  It is a shame (from the perspective of truth and good information) that no one seems to have bothered to go check the actual WSJ story.  At a minimum, the story in the WSJ does not contain that quote.

*I also tried various search strings in the Proquest Newspaper database as well and Proquest Central and no dice.
**I found a handful of other attributions of the quote to Newt (the oldest was from 2003) but in those cases the quote has no source linked to it and typically it is included in a list of alleged quotes from pot-smoking pols.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    It is a shame (from the perspective of truth and good information) that no one seems to have bothered to go check the actual WSJ story.

    Indeed. Welcome to the internet!

    All you can really do to combat it is exactly what you have done. Go to the primary source, report that no such quote exists, and hopefully people will link to you when confronted by it.

  2. mattb says:

    (1) This demonstrates a problem with firewalling archival content in the free-for-all environment of the web. The fact that one needs to jump through hoops to get access to the original article creates the sort of media vacuum where quotes like these can be created and made into “truth” through linking.

    (2) As you point out, the fact that everyone initially nodded their heads and agreed that this sounds like something Newt would say points out, as you note, his general problem as a candidate over the long haul.

  3. legion says:

    Nicely done, sir. _That’s_ what journalism ought to look like.

  4. rwb says:

    That’s nothing, wait until the meme about Gingrich’s birth certificate being false and he was born in Yugoslavia hits the web. He will never shake that one.

  5. de stijl says:

    Steven,

    Congrats on avoiding confirmation bias. Let’s hope it catches on.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    The other problem (aside from the quote not being true) is that the quote sounds like it could be from Gingrich–hence the wild proliferation of the meme. And I bet a lot of people who having linked to the original (false comment), will simply shrug their shoulders and say “well, if he didn’t say it then I’m sure he said it at some point.”

    This is the new reality in the US now–it’s not whether something is true or not; it’s whether it sounds “truthy” enough to back up your interpretation of the world. Our pundits and commentators reek of it–and few people care enough to double-check.

    Well done, Steven.

  7. Pete says:

    Steven, I value your opinion, so I have a question. Your reference to Newt leading an impeachment attempt of Clinton for “…engaging in an extra-marital affair…,” still baffles me somewhat. Politics is a sleazy carnival, to me, and it seems someone is always trying to compromise someone else. So I’m not surprised that Clinton was a target in case he did something to embarrass himself. The fact he was a serial “horndog” doesn’t bother me and likely doesn’t bother most except the Christian Right, and this indifference to his serial behavior seems to form the basis for all the indignation over his impeachment. My question relates to how you blithely referred to his behavior as the link to the impeachment; but I have always assumed the impeachment was a direct result of him lying under oath and committing perjury. Am I wrong? Or where did I miss the connection? Thanks in advance for your explanation.

  8. @Pete:

    My question relates to how you blithely referred to his behavior as the link to the impeachment; but I have always assumed the impeachment was a direct result of him lying under oath and committing perjury. Am I wrong? Or where did I miss the connection? Thanks in advance for your explanation.

    Well, the thing over which he lied was in connection to an extra-marital affair. This is why I deliberately used the phrase “linked to” in the sentence quoted.

    I said ” lead the charge for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over actions linked to an extra-marital affair” which is, in fairness, different than what you wrote above:

    Your reference to Newt leading an impeachment attempt of Clinton for “…engaging in an extra-marital affair…,” still baffles me somewhat.

    It is a legit issue for you to raise, however, as some do characterize the impeachment process as being solely over infidelity, which it wasn’t.

    The perjury charge, for example, was about whether or not Clinton had had sexual relations with Lewinsky and he thought receiving oral sex did not qualify (he famously tried to parse his way out of a lot of stuff). As such, the root cause of the legal issues that led to impeachment were sexual in nature and hence why I used the phrase “linked to.”

    I will confess that, at the time, I supported the impeachment. I have, since, however, changed my mind on the subject: I think that the entire Ken Starr investigation was a political witch hunt and that, at the end of the day, the only thing they could get Clinton was evasion over affairs. I think back to that whole business as a reflection of the era: a time of peace and prosperity when we could afford a political sideshow of that fashion. The 2000s were a rather different decade than were the 1990s.

  9. @mattb:

    This demonstrates a problem with firewalling archival content in the free-for-all environment of the web. The fact that one needs to jump through hoops to get access to the original article creates the sort of media vacuum where quotes like these can be created and made into “truth” through linking.

    A corollary to this (and one I have considered before) is that any quote or story that predates the late 1990s is much harder to factcheck with Google (not always, but often).

  10. @mantis:

    All you can really do to combat it is exactly what you have done. Go to the primary source, report that no such quote exists, and hopefully people will link to you when confronted by it.

    One can hope. That was part of my motivation in writing it. I also sent a copy to Raw Story and the original site. We will see if they make corrections or not.

    @legion, @de stijl, @grumpy realist: Thanks.

  11. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Actually, I’ve been pleasantly surprised as to how many back newspapers are available on Google. In trying to verify Eric’s claim that George Will had unkind things to say about Regan, I was genuinely surprised as to how many of his columns I could find from the 79-80 period.

    That said, it still took some doing, and this was mainly based on the fact that those papers had made their back content accessible.

    From my perspective, I’m far more concerned about access to current Twitter records after things have been removed from the Twitter search engine (typically after they are 3 months old).

  12. Rob in CT says:

    Good work, Steven. It really was an amazing quote. I admit, I was willing to believe it (though I figured it was delivered with a wink of sorts), since I think that little of Newt.