The Wrath of Newt

Concord, New Hampshire—As the wrath of Achilles was kindled by the slaying of his best friend Patroclus, so the wrath of Newt Gingrich has been set ablaze by the slaying of his own best friend—his ego. Finishing a distant fourth not just to Mitt Romney but also to Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, after Romney’s Super PAC had run a brutal ad campaign against him, Gingrich was fairly blazing in his concession speech last night in Iowa. He not only declined to congratulate Romney but attacked him and his ads, making clear that he’d hang in the race if only to bring Romney down.

It was a more subdued and tired-looking Newt who came before a group of college students and then answered questions from reporters this morning in Concord. What was striking about his first appearance was his lack of interest in creating any rapport between himself and the students. What Newt delivered was a lecture, not a speech, on the duties of citizenship as he saw them, which consist chiefly of the duty to oppose academic, bureaucratic, and judicial elites. His fatigue may have infected his listeners, or they may have come by it all by themselves; in either case, he spoke for 40 minutes uninterrupted by applause. During the question period, the students—either misled or feigning being misled by Gingrich’s attacks on intrusive government—asked him three different ways about drug legalization. Gingrich found three different ways to say he was dead-set against it.  Asked about the unsustainable levels of debt that students routinely incur to attend college, Newt was no more comforting, urging students to work their way through school in as quick a time as possible.

In the press conference that followed, Gingrich let Romney have it, but it was a dish served cold. Last night’s seething rage had been distilled into a cavalcade of contrasts he offered between “a Massachusetts moderate and a Reagan conservative.” He provided a telegraphic tour of his right-wing bona fides, going all the way back to his service as a worker bee for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Romney, by contrast, had actually once voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas, ran “to the left” of Ted Kennedy, and did nothing to transform the political culture of Boston when he was governor. 

One of the three functions of education, Gingrich had told the students earlier, was to learn “self-mastery.” Today, at least, Gingrich seemed to heed his own advice, but as he demonstrated the night before, self-mastery is a sometime thing for the former speaker. Viewing the world in absolutes, hurling accusations that have no basis in recognizable fact (Obama, he said, harbors a “very, very authoritarian vision”), criminalizing political differences (at various points, Newt has called for jailing Barney Frank for authoring the financial-reform law, and for hauling the liberal judges of the Ninth Circuit before a congressional impeachment process), Gingrich seems possessed of passions, of angers, he can barely manage. Romney, beware: Your sworn enemy cannot and will not master himself.