It seems to me that I have a duty to write about Newt Gingrich, as I am one who did not think his rise in the polls as a Republican presidential contender would be as durable as it already has been. As interesting as Newt himself is the dumbfounded reaction to his return to the grand tier of political life after a sleep almost as long as Rip Van Winkle’s, and after he had flat-lined for months as a candidate, and had been abandoned by his entire staff. In a year that should be a big Republican sweep, all the more probable and popular Republicans — and the hopeful sprouts of enthusiasm for a sequence of non–Mitt Romneys (Bachmann, Perry, Christie, and Cain) — fizzled, were snuffed out in a pandemic of foot-in-mouth disease, or were pulverized by the wall of fire from the liberal assassination squads. Then Newt levitated like a Frankenstein monster, with Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins shrieking in horror and in excitement: “It’s alive!”
I do not believe that the proverbial Republican base is so perverse or shell-shocked that Newt really is, in these terms, alive. And I write as someone who actually knows Newt Gingrich and his good qualities a little, and, to the extent my acquaintance enables me to comment, likes him; respects his eclectic but effervescent intelligence; and renders him great credit for inaugurating an era of Republican preeminence in Congress.
There is nothing left to be said about the vagaries of his public personality. Old stand-bys like “stormy petrel,” “loose cannon,” and “unguided missile” are not nearly adequate. The delightful Peggy Noonan comes closest, with “He’s a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying ‘Watch this!’” Where speaking about himself, philosophizing, or discussing almost anything except the performance of the incumbent administration, he is likely to say anything. Dipping lightly into the Newt sampler — from complaining about his seat on Air Force One, to praising Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, to pronouncing himself the “definer of civilization” — we see that anything can happen. He is an interesting character with a hyperactive personality who made a difference. He proved not to be a good parliamentarian, and he conforms to Richard Nixon’s summary, on returning from abroad in 1964, of sophisticated European thinking about Barry Goldwater: “A nut, a kook, a jerk.”
Since Newt Gingrich is a completely unfeasible president, the question pops up, like a cobra’s head, of why he is now the leading contender for the Republican nomination. In the desperation created by this glazed pall of implausibility that has anesthetized the Republicans, I offer an alternative explanation. We are witnessing the Hegelian dialectic in action, a rare and unfashionable occurrence, yet appropriate to such an epochal farce as this. (If Newt can be Lazarus for a month, the roots of Marxism can be briefly verdant again.) Fighting an administration whose three cardinal projects were Obamacare, an $800 billion economic-stimulus plan, and cap-and-trade — i.e. two disasters and a scheme so harebrained not even a Pelosified Congress could take it — the Republicans are swimming downstream on pelagic trillions of budgetary deficits, and still haven’t been able to get their best candidates to take the plunge. The office is not seeking, and the nation is not turning its lonely eyes toward, Willard M. Romney, widely perceived as a plastic policy weather vane and incorrect health-care champion who was mean to the family dog.
After the rise and decapitation of each non-Mitt, the frustrations of the average reasonable Republican or independent who loves America and is horrified by the most incompetent administration since that of James Buchanan (who at least had the decency not to seek reelection) seem to have become explosive and irrational. But this is misleading. Inconceivable though Newt is as president, he is an articulate and forceful critic of the administration and not just an O’Reilly-Hannity impersonator. Newt sees it plain, calls it straight, and gets the sleep-deprived Republicans halfway home by tearing the incumbents limb from limb. But there’s more: He is such a cyclonic change of pace, he is a non-Mitt who can actually stay the course and stop Mittification from happening. Never mind that he won’t fly himself, he can keep the nomination open for someone who can, who couldn’t face having to campaign for a year and spend $100 million to be nominated.