Former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has had a lifelong love affair with zoos. Because of this, TPM wondered how he was handling the closure of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and its popular online “panda cam” due to the government shutdown.
Gingrich spoke by phone Friday while traveling and said he thinks the closure of the zoo is one of the “really, really sad” effects of the government shutdown. The host of CNN’s “Crossfire” also discussed why he thinks the federal government needs to get out of the zoo business and offered to pitch in to reopen the National Zoo’s panda cam.
“I will personally pay the cost of panda cam’s electricity,” Gingrich said.
Additionally, Gingrich shared some of his fondest zoo memories, including carrying a Komodo dragon in a gym bag and bringing a bearcat to Capitol Hill. Gingrich, a key figure in the last government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, also explained why he thinks today’s budget battle is much nastier.
Read the full interview below.
TPM: Hi, Mr. Speaker, how are you?
Newt Gingrich: I’m doing great. how are you?
Not bad, not bad. … I know that the National Zoo is one of your favorite zoos in the country and, of course, that you really, really have a passion for zoos. So I was wondering when was the last time you were there and what do you think about the fact that it’s closed?
Well, I was there a couple months ago. … I love to go early in the morning, you know, before very many people show up, watch the animals when they’re still in the cooler part of the day, very active. The new director, who came from Atlanta, is doing a great job, and certainly, with the new baby panda, they have a great thing going on in terms of attracting attention to the zoo. So, I’m a big fan.
But I was struck, (my wife) Callista and I went out last Friday to Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon has been run, since 1853, by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association because, in 1853, the family ran out of money and neither the Commonwealth of Virginia nor the federal government would take up the cost. So, it has been run now for, you know, this entire period, 160 years with no federal money. … It’s also true of Monticello and it’s also true of Montpelier and it goes back to a thing that (Zoo Atlanta Director Emeritus) Terry Maple and I, at one time, wanted to write about, which is: Why isn’t the National Zoo, and for that matter the Smithsonian, run by an association the way most zoos in the country are? Then you wouldn’t care what the politicians did.
Right, so you think this is really proof that the federal government needs to get out of the zoo business?
Yeah, look, I’ve watched the Atlanta Zoo. Andy Young, when he was (Atlanta’s) mayor, had the courage. The zoo was about to be dis-accredited in 1984. Literally, it was run so badly that the zoo people were coming in and saying, you know, we’re going to take away your accreditation. Andy said the city bureaucracy is really not designed to run zoos. They contracted with the friends of the zoo, who got Terry Maple to leave Georgia Tech, where he was a tenured, full professor, and he turned out to be an entrepreneurial genius. Now, I was out in Omaha recently. That’s one of the best zoos in the country, they get six percent of their money from the city. … Ironically, last year, the Minnesota Zoo, which doesn’t take state funds, was ordered shut by the governor as part of his fight with the legislature just to increase the pain level.
And if you go down and look at Mount Vernon, the (National) Park Service has allocated parking space for visitors to Mount Vernon as part of the George Washington Parkway. So, the Park Service, to maximize pain … It takes zero dollars of federal to keep them open. They literally went in and shut them in order to maximize inconvenience.
So, I would argue, first, that the zoo ought to be run by a friends-of-the-zoo operation with a modest amount of federal money. I would argue second that a great deal of what we’re currently seeing is a deliberate effort to maximize public pain. … I mean the World War II memorial is a good example. And, third, when you look at something like panda cam, you just have to ask yourself, what are they thinking? You know? I mean, I will personally pay the cost of panda cam’s electricity.
Had you been watching the panda cam prior to the shutdown?
No, I hadn’t. I will point out, by the way, the San Diego Zoo’s panda cam is still up.
When you talk about these friends-of-the-zoos groups, it sounds like you would be quite willing to participate in that and sort of help run the (National) Zoo.
Listen, I don’t have the skill to help run it and the current director is a fine person. I mean, he’s really knowledgeable and he ran a zoo that was run by the friends of the Atlanta Zoo. But what I would say is that I would be very willing to be involved. In Atlanta, I used to take a good bit of my speech money — I gave the zoo money to buy two rhinoceroses.
Gingrich showing off the Komodo dragons at Zoo Atlanta in 1994. / AP
A Komodo dragon too right?
Well, I helped bring them down from the National Zoo, which was one of the most fun things I ever did. These were young, about 18 inches long, and I showed up at the Atlanta airport. UPS had loaned its corporate plane, and the zookeeper walks up with this funny smile on his face, hands me a gym bag, and he says, ‘Hold it carefully. You’re now carrying a Komodo dragon.’
Oh my god.
Oh yeah, I know, and even as young ones, they’re very aggressive.
They have like a poisonous claw right?
No, no, what they really have is they have striated teeth, which accumulate bacteria. So, it becomes like food poisoning if they bite you. Very serious, dangerous bites.
I mean there I am as a congressman who loves animals, but let’s get serious, we’re sitting there and he has one Komodo dragon under his feet and I have another one under mine. And when we get down to Atlanta, he puts on very thick gloves and takes them one by one through the press conference. And they are very aggressive, very, very athletic, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow.’ So, I mean, that’s one of my great experiences with animals was delivering the Komodos. And every time I take my grandchildren to the Atlanta Zoo, we have to visit the Komodos.
So, they still have the same ones that you brought down there?
Yes, they live a long time.
I know a couple of times in the course of your visits to zoos and handling the animals you have been bitten a couple times right?
Occasionally. I was once, I think, bitten on the nose by a lion cub. Actually, in the speaker’s office we had a great picture in the London Times, I think page one, of a … binturong sitting on my head. (Pictured below.)
Binturongs are sort of bearcats. They’re fairly large, very inquisitive. And so they visited the speaker’s office and Jack Hanna from Columbus Zoo. And so, I let the binturong walk, you know, crawl around my shoulders and … on top of my head, which of course you can imagine, for photographers was opportunity beyond belief. So, the American — you think the current government has a problem? There I was on the front page of the London Times as speaker of the House with an animal on top of my head. I liked it, but it was not what my staff thought was appropriately dignified.
Gingrich and his binturong in the speaker’s office in April 1995. / AP
Actually, I have that picture. I’ll make sure to send it … if you want to have a look at it today. I also wanted to ask you, I know that space is another one of your major interests. NASA has largely shut down, and its Twitter accounts are shut down. How do you feel about that?
It’s a lot like when they closed the White House tours to the public. Their goal is to maximize pain, and I think it’s really, really sad. You have a president who not only can’t negotiate, but who thinks that somehow he’s clever if he makes the maximum number of Americans uncomfortable with the World War II memorial, the National Zoo, or the various accounts at NASA. I think it’s really bad.
Have you personally felt that pain with the NASA pictures cut off and the zoo closed down?
Well, beyond that, also I went down to Mount Vernon and looked at what they’re doing there. My wife was down filming. She has a new children’s book ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ coming out about the American Revolution. And she was down filming some YouTube video for her new book and people were walking up to her talking about how unpleasant the federal police were in telling them they couldn’t park in what was an empty parking lot. So, I mean, she’s seen it firsthand at a place that we love, which is open because it is all privately funded. They’ve never taken one penny of federal or state money, but the government’s gone out of its way to make it difficult to go visit.
In the 1996 shutdown, did Bill Clinton shut the national zoo?
I don’t think he did. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure he did not and he certainly did not go around and shut the open air monuments on the mall.
So, you think Clinton sort of handled it better and was almost classier about it than Obama?
No. I think the way I’ve told people is, I feel like Bill and I were in a fight. I think Obama’s waging war. Very different. … Go back and look. You’re not going to see the kind of vicious language describing Republicans as terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests, which one of the White House staff said. He said, ‘We don’t negotiate with terrorists with bombs strapped to their chests.’ Now, Clinton would have fired anybody who said that. So, there’s a huge difference psychologically between this fight and 1995.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Note: It turns out the zoo, the Lincoln Memorial and other Washington landmarks were closed in 1995.