WASHINGTON -- The Hon. Newt Gingrich's recent oracular rumble to a luncheon audience at the Brookings Institution, during which he threatened to seek the Republican presidential nomination if a "vacuum" remains in the Republican field, reminded me of an inescapable insight I suffered sometime in 1998. Gingrich is the Republicans' Bill Clinton. Being a Republican, Gingrich is not as hollow as the Arkansas huckster, nor as amusing. In fact, he can be boring.
Springing from the same late 1960s jugendkultur as the Boy President, Gingrich is the career pol, the hustling, self-promoting narcissist, the sempiternal fantasist. When he was Speaker of the House I should have called him the Boy Speaker. He made his exit from politics like a troubled adolescent: whining, blustering, and guilty as charged.
Had Gingrich measured himself scrupulously against those Republicans now mentioned as presidential contenders, he never could have spoken of a "vacuum." George Allen, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney are all sturdier candidates than the Boy Speaker whose House colleagues politely put a banana peel under his well-worn wingtips in 1998. Doubtless there are many other Republicans who would be preferable to Gingrich. How about Tom Tancredo? What is it that makes Gingrich think he is a fit candidate to lead the nation? He prides himself on being an intellectual, by which he means being a policy wonk. This is another of his fantasies; he confuses wonkiness with learnedness and wisdom. This is a fantasy he shares with Clinton.
I once heard an English gentleman, fresh from bathing in Clinton's radiance, confide to the great British historian Paul Johnson that Clinton is "so intelligent." "Not intelligent," Johnson responded, "cunning." The word encapsulates Gingrich's thought process perfectly. Yet again, Gingrich is a Republican. He is not quite as cunning as Clinton. In fact, whenever he found himself up against Clinton, he was bested by the Boy President.
When all the brag and bounce of Gingrich's intellectual pretense is anesthetized and the corpus of his intellectual work is subjected to scholarly analysis, what do we see? An eternal graduate student at a mediocre state university has been playing with bits and pieces of the large ideas of Milton Friedman and like-minded political scientists, for instance, Edward Banfield. Down the hall is Clinton. The bits and pieces that he plays with are those of Ira Magaziner or Robert B. Reich. Gingrich is a more adventuresome graduate student.