Newt Gingrich hadn’t been in the Republican presidential race a week before embroiling himself in his first damaging, inadvertent controversy.
On Meet the Press, the former House speaker excoriated the Medicare provisions of the Paul Ryan budget as “radical” and “right-wing social engineering.” As a presidential hopeful who will have to appeal to elderly and near-elderly voters, Gingrich’s hesitation about the Ryan plan is understandable and shared by other potential GOP candidates. Only Gingrich, though, felt compelled to take a rhetorical flamethrower to the document endorsed by almost every House Republican.
That’s Newt being Newt. When he went to Iowa and predictably plugged ethanol subsidies, he inveighed against “folks in big cities” who “decide what should happen to people in rural America.” Every candidate in Iowa endorses ethanol. Only Gingrich makes it a grand sociological clash between different regions of the country.
He can’t help himself. Gingrich prefers extravagant lambasting when a mere distancing would do, and the over-arching theoretical construct to a mundane pander. He is drawn irresistibly to operatic overstatement — sometimes brilliant, always interesting, and occasionally downright absurd.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is reputed to have said FDR had a first-class temperament but a second-class intellect. Gingrich flips the Holmes formulation around: He has a first-class intellect but his temperament belongs in steerage. He’s like one of those many places where they say, “If you don’t like the weather around here, just wait five minutes.”
Gingrich made the most compelling and damning statement about Pres. Barack Obama’s inaction in Libya, right before he made the most compelling and damning statement about Obama’s action in Libya. He tried to square them after the fact in an unpersuasive explanation that lacked the eloquence and conviction of his mutually exclusive denunciations.
The former college history professor wants forever to be the lecturer, finding connections and putting them together in a startling and memorable theory. When Dinesh D’Souza wrote a book alleging that Obama shares the anti-colonial views of his Kenyan father, Gingrich instinctively embraced the idea. It was just implausible enough to be exciting, with just enough of a historical patina to seem sophisticated.
At least Gingrich is familiar with D’Souza’s work. Watching the average congressman try to rub two synapses together is like reading about the protagonist’s struggle with his matches in the Jack London story To Build a Fire. Gingrich is a roman candle, and — despite everything — touched by a kind of political genius.
There’s a reason so many Republican candidates in the early 1990s listened to his cassette tapes about how to present conservative ideas. He framed the debate that won Republicans the House in 1994. When most people in his stage of life would have settled into a Washington lobbying job and been content to spout conventional wisdom on TV public-affairs shows, the 67-year-old Gingrich retains his vitality.
The Left has been after him for calling Obama “the most successful food-stamp president in American history.” The imagined racial offense aside, it’s a simple way to capture the lamentable state of the recovery when more than 40 million Americans are on food stamps. Gingrich says our choice is between a country that creates dependency or creates paychecks. Other Republicans could do worse than adopt Gingrich’s formulation as their own.
It’s Newt’s misfortune to want a high-pressure executive job with monarchical trappings where steadfastness and dignity matter. When he was Speaker of the House, he alienated his colleagues (some of whom roll their eyes at the mere mention of his name) and dragged himself, his family, and his party through a psychodrama. If he were to replicate that performance in the White House, it’d be a formula for a LBJ- or Nixon-style meltdown.
“One of my great weaknesses is that part of me is a teacher analyst,” Gingrich said on Meet the Press. “And part of me is a political leader.” That shows a self-awareness his campaign for president otherwise lacks.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.