With just a few weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Newt Gingrich is leading the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.
Given the possibility that President Obama could be facing Gingrich in the campaign next fall, it seemed like a good time to check in with someone who has experience running against the former speaker of the House.
Ben Jones is probably better known as Cooter the mechanic on The Dukes of Hazzard. If you followed the late '70s TV show and its various spinoffs, you know that Cooter eventually ended up in Congress. So did Ben Jones, who represented Georgia's 4th District as a Democrat from 1988 to 1992.
Out of office by 1994, Jones decided to challenge Gingrich for reelection, though a recent redistricting meant his chances were slim to none.
"I never enjoyed anything more than that race against Newt Gingrich," Jones tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Even though, as he adds, Gingrich "beat us like a rented mule."
Gingrich is known for his debating skills, but Jones never managed to get him behind the podium. "He was all over the country building his, you know, revolution. So I couldn't find him," Jones says. "So I got a couple old bloodhounds and went over to Alabama where he was speaking, and we had those bloodhounds out searching for Newt."
Another memorable moment during the campaign came when Gingrich referred to Jones as "scurrilous."
"It sounds awful. It's an awful sounding word ... but what it means is 'profane,'" Jones says. "Now, I gotta admit, I can be profane. I cuss."
When a reporter from a local paper asked Jones how he felt about being called scurrilous, he responded with a phrase we can't repeat, save that it involved Gingrich, "and the horse he rode in on."
Gingrich got wind of Jones' remarks and responded with outrage. "I said, 'Well, I apologize to Newt's horse. And I'll apologize to him when he gets to the debate.' He never got there. And the next time I saw him, he was the speaker of the House."
While he never really faced Gingrich directly, Jones still says the former speaker is a formidable debater — as the current GOP contest has shown. "You gotta hand it to him ... he has won these debates."
"He's a better debater than these other people up there, he knows policy, he knows how it works, he uses the language better."
So, should Gingrich win the nomination, Jones says President Obama shouldn't take him lightly. "Challenge him to debates," he says, "bring your best game with you, put him on the defense, and stay after him."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Newt Gingrich is slipping in the polls a bit in Iowa, but he still holds a lead over the other GOP candidates. He's earned a reputation as a tough debater, and according to one man who once ran against him, a formidable opponent.
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RAZ: In 1994, Ben Jones ran for Congress against Gingrich. Jones played Cooter on the "Dukes of Hazzard."
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RAZ: Ben Jones spent four years as a congressman from Georgia from 1989 to 1993. He retired that year, but in 1994, Jones decided to challenge Newt Gingrich. It was the year of the Republican revolution, and Jones says he knew he didn't have much of a chance.
: Well, I thought I had two chances, actually, slim and none.
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: For some reason, I cannot tell you why. I think it's because I always, when I was a kid, was the kind of kid that would tilt at windmills. Not quixotic. It would be Quixotic, right?
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: That kind of personality, an idealist. And I had been through the '60s and in the civil rights movement and I had seen how a small group of people could get together and make big changes. And I knew, you know, that I might have a chance. I knew also that if nobody opposed him, there was zero chance, if I didn't run. I never enjoyed anything more than that race against Newt
RAZ: Hmm. You never enjoyed...
: And he beat the pure living out of us, beat us like a rented mule.
RAZ: By 30 percent, I think, right?
: Close to it.
RAZ: Yeah. Did he ever say anything bad about you on the campaign trail? Was he a negative campaigner, or did he kind of just ignore you?
: He called me scurrilous. And I thought, scurrilous? It's a weird - it sounds awful. That's an awful-sounding word. But what it means is profane. Now, I got to admit, I can be profane. I cuss. A reporter from the Atlanta paper said, what do you think? He called you scurrilous. And I said, well, F him and the horse he rode in on knowing that this guy wasn't going to print that.
But there was another guy there who was a reporter for the alternative paper, and he wrote it up. And Gingrich said, how dare this man? You know, making remarks like that you can't even use in a family newspaper. I won't debate him. I mean, blah, blah, blah. So I said - I was on TV, and I was asked about that whole little exchange, and I said: well, I apologize to Newt's horse.
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: And I'll apologize to him when he gets to the debate. He never got there. And the next time I saw him, he was the Speaker of the House.
RAZ: He called you scurrilous, and then you replied the way you did. Obviously, you could understand why he might have thought that was a little bit...
: Well, Newt was never one of the boys. Me and my old buddies would say that to each other all the time as a joke. Oh, (unintelligible) and the horse you rode in on. So if it upset him, I'm glad.
RAZ: If Gingrich does win the nomination, what advice would you give to President Obama?
: Well, no. He just got himself elected President of the United States, so there's not much advice I can give the president. But I would say simply things that he already knows. Don't take this man lightly. Challenge him to debates. Bring your best game with you. Put him on the defense and stay after him because it's - defeating Newt Gingrich would be the most important thing that he could do for this republic.
RAZ: That's former congressman Ben Jones who also played Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard." He ran against...
: I still play Cooter. Now, Guy, Cooter is forever, man.
RAZ: Forgive me - who still plays Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard." He ran against Newt Gingrich for Congress in 1994. Ben Jones, thank you so much.
: Guy, it's been fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.