By the time it was all over, Newt Gingrich should have been glad to have such a friendly question as "boxers or briefs?"
There wasn't a softball in sight when the Speaker of the House fielded a barrage of questions Thursday on Republican plans to cut student loans, welfare and environmental regulation in a 50-minute appearance on MTV, the cable station that last year got the scoop on President Clinton's underwear preferences.
When six twentysomething men and women shot the breeze with Gingrich in a round-table discussion that MTV billed provocatively as "Newt: Raw," it was a remarkable place to find the ultra-serious--some might say humorless--conservative leader. MTV is, after all, a youth-oriented station better known for "Beavis and Butt-head" and the kind of music that drives Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) crazy.
It was a logical place for a man of seemingly boundless political ambition to go to woo an audience that's been cool to his charms. Gingrich, who has coyly refused to rule out running for the presidency in 1996, gets his lowest approval ratings from the 18-to-34-year-old set, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Still, big parts of the Gingrich persona--his mania for high technology, his futuristic spiel--are not without potential appeal to youth. By taking his message to MTV, Gingrich is following the trail blazed by Clinton, who courted the youth vote with MTV appearances both before and after he was elected President.
"Both parties recognize that young people are an important voice in the country," said Tabitha Soren, the MTV news anchor who moderated the Gingrich and Clinton events.
In Clinton's appearance last year, one young woman stole the show by eliciting the titillating revelation that the President of the United States wore briefs, not boxers. Gingrich, while on camera, escaped that embarrassing question. But when a reporter popped the underwear question off camera, Gingrich--clearly prepared for the query--snapped: "That is a very stupid question."
Like everything else Gingrich does these days, the MTV appearance--which was taped Thursday morning for broadcast Thursday night--was a media circus. Dozens of reporters were herded into a holding room to watch the taping on three television monitors. Similar media hordes followed Gingrich in his recent campaign-style tour of New Hampshire and as he has traveled to promote his new book, "To Renew America"--copies of which were given to each of the MTV panelists before the show. MTV invited Gingrich to appear months ago, making him the first politician to appear in a series of unedited--"raw"--interviews with the likes of John Travolta and Snoop Doggy Dogg.
"This man is affecting the agenda of this nation and what people's lives are going to be like," said Dave Sirulnick, MTV executive producer. "We wanted to give these young people an opportunity to have a dialogue."
Trying to pull together a politically diverse group, MTV recruited a panel that ran the gamut from a conservative activist to a Ross Perot supporter to a welfare mother. But even the most conservative among them jumped all over Gingrich on the subject of student loans, challenging GOP budget-cutting proposals that could raise the cost of borrowing to go to college.
"I definitely agree with a lot of your positions," said Jim Brennan, vice president of the Conservative Union at Dartmouth. "But one thing I can't really agree with are proposed cuts or freezes in educational funding."
Ariel Gore, a single mother who has been on welfare for five years, told Gingrich, "It's frightening to build up, like, huge debts when we don't even know for sure if we are going to be able to get a job with a B.A. in this lousy labor market."
Gingrich argued that young people will benefit more from balancing the budget than they would lose from student loan cuts. A balanced budget would boost the economy, help bring down consumer-loan interest rates and reduce federal interest on the national debt, he said.
"You are the generation that is going to pay the highest share of your income on interest on the national debt," Gingrich said.
It was a tough sell. "Let me try one more time," an exasperated Gingrich said at one point. For those hoping for more liberal education policies, the only good news came when Gingrich said he would consider making student loans tax deductible.
Education was not the only bone of contention.
Rob Levine, a 24-year-old journalist, bluntly challenged Gingrich on his party's efforts to relax environmental regulation. "How is having dirty water going to improve my life?" Gingrich responded that the GOP was only trying to rein in the excesses of government regulation, not to poison the environment. "There are places where the federal bureaucracy has lost all common sense," Gingrich said.
Gore, who has gone to college while receiving welfare, complained that that wouldn't be possible under GOP plans to cut off welfare benefits after two years. "I would only be able to get half a B.A.," she said.
One thing they all seemed to agree on: Politicians can't be trusted. "You can't trust anybody with power," Gingrich said. "If you loan power to somebody, watch him. If they don't do what they say they'll do, take the power back."
When Soren wrapped up the show by asking if Gingrich was going to run for the presidency in 1996, he was as evasive with the younger generation as he's been with everyone else: "Beats me."
Gingrich's appearance probably won't fuel any draft-Newt movements among the young, if the panelists' reaction is any indication. Even Brennan, the self-proclaimed Gingrich sympathizer, said after the show that he shouldn't run for the presidency. "He has a job to do as Speaker of the House," Brennan said. "The last thing this country needs is another person running for President."
"I don't think he's going to sell himself to anyone who wasn't already sold," said Khaskasa Wapenyi, a medical student who was the only black in the group. "I wasn't sold."
* "Newt: Raw" repeats Sunday at 7 p.m. on MTV.