You just can't escape him. He's on Meet the Press, detailing the Democrats' unconscionable perfidy. He's on the op-ed page of The Washington Post, explaining why an anti-Obama backlash is about to sweep across the country. He's on The Daily Show, telling jokes to Jon Stewart. He's profiled in an 8,000-word opus in The New York Times Magazine. The man is positively everywhere.
It's Gingrich time.
Sane Republicans have to be a little nervous when the two most visible representatives of their party are the reviled former vice president and the disgraced former speaker of the House. But while Dick Cheney is likely to slither back to his subterranean lair sometime soon, it seems that we'll be seeing more and more of Newt.
This is Newt's time again not only because there's a leadership vacuum in the GOP but because the Republicans are back in opposition, and nobody opposes quite like Newt. He is a master of the contemptuous sneer, the over-the-top insult, the apocalyptic warning. He knows how to undermine, to discredit, to destroy -- and after all, as a minority party without anything resembling an agenda, Republicans can do little more than throw a monkey wrench into the administration's plans.
Not that Newt ever actually went away, but he's certainly rested and ready for his renewed renown. Point your browser over to Newt.org and you find a man at the center of a swirling multimedia empire. You can get Newt's books, you can read Newt's blogs, you can visit Newt's mini-network of organizations, and you can invite Newt to speak to your school or Elks club. It's all the Newtness you can handle and more, the hub of man ready for yet another close-up. (The site's current slogan is "Real Change Requires Real Change," to which you might respond, "Indeed, Newt, and a turkey sandwich requires a turkey sandwich.")
It's to Newt's credit that he has managed to stay in the public eye -- you don't see reporters hanging on every word from former Speakers Jim Wright or Dennis Hastert. But no one is holding a gun to those reporters' heads making them write stories about Gingrich. The fact is that reporters love Newt -- he's a "character," a dynamic figure who makes good copy. Just as the producers of a reality television contest don't look for the best designer or chef or singer to put on their show but seek contestants who'll make the sparks fly, Washington reporters don't gravitate to Newt because he actually wields influence or has something important to say. No, they love him because he makes their stories sing. If you were a reporter looking for a good quote, whom would you rather call: some congressman who'll tell you that the president's latest policy initiative is unwise, or a guy guaranteed to say that it's the worst betrayal of America since Benedict Arnold? Journalists prize conflict and clear delineations between antagonists; nobody knows better than Newt how to give them what they want.
That's one of Newt's charms, the way he will say with a look of sincerity that whatever he's criticizing is the absolute worst, the most vile, the most dangerous, the most terrifying person/speech/policy/administration he's ever seen. For Newt, hyperbole isn't merely a predilection or a tick, it's his fundamental mode of argumentation. Nancy Pelosi wasn't just wrong when she said the CIA had misled her, for doing so she was guilty of "the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime." The Obama administration isn't just expanding government in ways Newt objects to, it is "the most socialist administration in history." Newt has always been careful to describe Democrats in the most extreme language he can muster. (GOPAC, a group Gingrich led in the 1980s, famously distributed a memo to Republicans advising them to use words like "sick," "decay," "pathetic," "failure," "corrupt," and "traitors" when describing Democrats and their proposals. Although Gingrich was no longer chair of the group at the time, the memo embodied the Gingrich philosophy.)
And the current crop of controversies has Gingrich written all over them -- he may or may not be guiding the GOP's hand, but Republicans are certainly working in the Gingrich style. From the feigned outrage over the fact that Pelosi said some uncomplimentary things about the CIA (this, coming from a party that practically called the agency a bunch of terrorist sympathizers when it declined to provide the Bush White House with "evidence" for the imagined connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda) to the panicked pictures being painted of Guantánamo detainees being released in our neighborhoods (listening to them, you'd think Khalid Sheik Mohammed was going to be teaching gym at your local elementary school), the Republicans are reading right from the Gingrich playbook. Hypocrisy should be embraced, every stumble by your opponents is worse than Watergate, and there must be no compromise with the enemy across the aisle.
One can't help but wonder what will undo Gingrich in his latest quest to be at the center of things. He is in many ways a nearly Shakespearean figure, a man of considerable talents undone by his monumental personal failings. In 1995, he shut down the government, in part because President Bill Clinton didn't come to the back of Air Force One to talk to him on the return flight from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, an act of juvenile petulance that turned a budget battle into a public-relations disaster for the Republicans (the New York Daily News portrayed him as a baby whining with a bottle, under the headline, "Crybaby"). His criticism of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was complicated by the fact that he himself was cheating on his wife with a young staffer during the impeachment crisis, a fact widely known in Washington at the time. (In case you're keeping score, the wife on whom he was cheating was his second; he famously served his first wife with divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery. The staffer, 23 years his junior, is now the third Mrs. Gingrich. Family values, baby.)
Newt Gingrich is often described as a "man of ideas," though one seldom hears what those "ideas" actually consist of. He talks a lot about innovation and new thinking, but once he's done talking you realize he hasn't offered anything that policy could actually be built around (I'll give him this one: responding to a North Korean test launch in April, Gingrich suggested we shoot the missile down with lasers, just to show 'em who's boss. Seriously). But ideas are in such short supply in today's GOP that possessing the image of having them is nearly as good as actually having them. And when it comes to public spokespeople, Gingrich isn't exactly shouldering aside an A-team of charisma and competence (anyone regularly downloading John Boehner's podcast to your IPod, raise your hand).
So it may well be that Newt will become the primary spokesperson for the GOP in coming days. Only one problem: The American people never liked him much. But that makes him no different from anyone else Republicans have.
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