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.
The Obama administration doesn’t know whether to scream for joy at the thought of facing the human grenade, or to cling to its assurance that Romney is the candidate. The character-assassination squads, though their ranks are now so deep they are the largest such work party since the scores of people who crowded into the firing squad to execute the Ceausescus, couldn’t believe their good fortune. But despite a replication of the 25-battleship sustained bombardment of Okinawa, they haven’t brought Newt down. There is a sci-fi quality to him and there always was, and it is little wonder that thoughts of Frankenstein come to mind.
Newt could not have arisen earlier, because the Republicans were not desperate enough, and has endured despite the $1.6 million for history lessons from Freddie Mac, his incoherent fumbling on health care, and a retrospective national soap opera on his marital infidelities. The Republicans are clinging to the last device of deliverance from a Mitt-Obama vortex, and such a prayerful hope will not be vaporized by the mere crackle of sniper fire or choreographed triumphs over amnesia by aggrieved women that sent Herman Cain to the showers or the innovative blundering that will dispatch Rick Perry back to the Texas morning-jog/coyote shootouts.
If Mitt couldn’t set anything on fire to this point, the tinder isn’t there, and efforts, even by first-class commentators such as Holman Jenkins, to perceive Newt’s destiny as warming Mitt up for the main event don’t make it. At this point — 235 years on from the Declaration of Independence, with much of the U.S. economy, public education, health care, and justice system in shambles — history will not be mocked by a Mitt-Newt death struggle for the honor of helping to affront nature and reason by reelecting a failed administration. Hegel has come to the rescue of James Madison. Newt is not the nominee; he’s the negation of Mitt, and the nomination will be deferred to the timely decision of the none-of-the-above majority.
Either Newt, too weighed down by darts, buckshot, and self-detonated combustion, will start to fade before the caucuses and primaries are too advanced, and one more declared non-Mitt, possibly Jon Huntsman, will arise; or the absence of a contender with a commanding lead will prevail until it is so close to the convention, or even at the convention, that there will be a draft of one of the non-runners, probably Jeb Bush. There will not be endless balloting until the deadlock is broken by selection of a dark horse, as with Warren Harding in 1920, or John W. Davis by the Democrats in 1924. But the process that has produced a nominee easily for both parties at every convention since 1952 now looks likely not to work this year; there is no bandwagon, and there could be the first real draft since the Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson in 1952, and, on the Republican side, since Wendell Willkie in 1940.
The genius of the American system produces a serious leader when the country has to have one, and substitutes an improvised selection process when the normal procedures don’t work. If the country were happy with the administration, the Republicans could nominate an ill-favored candidate like Davis or Goldwater, or Alfred Landon (1936), George McGovern (1972), or Walter Mondale (1984). A large enough number of Americans is uneasy with four more years of Obama that the system has magically, intuitively, dragooned the amiably preposterous ex-speaker to produce a deadlock. Out of this astonishing showdown of able non-presidents, either a mid-primary inspiration or a convention-eve groundswell will identify the right candidate. The office is seeking the man, or woman, but so far without success; so the search will continue.
Hegel should be generally known for something more substantial than the truism (often mistakenly attributed to Goethe) that “no man is a hero to his valet,” especially as the generally unremembered next line was: “not because the man is not a hero, but because the valet is only a valet.” I’m sure there is an application of this to the current Republican race, but can’t immediately think of it.