In this spring of conservative discontent concerning the leading GOP presidential prospects, the potential candidacy of Newt Gingrich offers the most intense quandary yet. From a Christian conservative perspective, he says all the right things. He's very smart. But is he presidential?
Eight years ago it didn't seem that this question would ever again arise. In 1999, as Gingrich's second nasty divorce became media fodder, the world learned that he had been secretly committing adultery with a young woman at the same time he was publicly taking Bill Clinton to task for his adultery with another young woman. That's worth mentioning, because when Gingrich last month told James Dobson on Focus on the Family's radio show that he had had an extramarital affair, hundreds of journalists reported this as if it were new information. How short our memories are. The Lexis-Nexis database for August 1999 lists 160 articles containing the names "Gingrich" and "Callista Bisek," the young Agriculture Committee staffer he eventually married. By the end of the year there were 550, many of them snarky and gloating.
The shocking aspect of it was not infidelity, which is not news these days, but the recklessness of Gingrich's behavior. The news broke only after he had lost the confidence of his GOP colleagues and was no longer Speaker, but if it had come out in 1995 the few accomplishments of the Republican Revolution would have been even fewer. Gingrich's lack of self-control was different from Clinton's in that Gingrich did not lie under oath, but both threatened years of hard work by tens of thousands of people.
The self-indulgence is what struck "Newtoids" from the mid-90s who are now skittish about him. (Citing past loyalties and also concerns about future retribution from a powerful leader, they would typically talk with me only if I promised not to identify them.) They praised his ideas and his capacity to grasp complexities, but wondered about his character.
One former close adviser stipulated that he was "not focused on marital infidelity" except as one indication that Gingrich "was not able to put aside his ego out of a sense of higher purpose or principle." He said, "It breaks my heart to say this, because Newt has a view of the world closest to mine, (but) is this the person I want across the table from Putin?" The only former ally who would speak on the record is Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman from 1981 to 1993. Weber, now the managing partner of a Washington lobbying office, said that Gingrich "thinks more deeply of the changes taking place than anybody I know in politics. (He) operates at several levels of depth greater than most politicians."
But Weber also observed that Gingrich's "negative image is not undeserved. He has a tendency to vilify his opposition. Words roll off his tongue -- 'corrupt,' 'sick' -- and stand in the way of his ever becoming a unifying leader."
If Gingrich becomes a candidate, his infidelity will come up probably not in its own right but as an indicator of character. Gingrich himself once differentiated between relatively recent actions and those of "35 years ago" -- and Gingrich's are relatively recent. Many evangelical voters especially will wonder about the trustworthiness of a national leader who at full maturity indulged his passions in such risky ways.
So how can Gingrich make his greatest contribution to the nation? By remaining an intellectual gadfly. President John F. Kennedy once hosted a dinner for Nobel Prize winners and said the evening displayed "probably the greatest concentration of talent and genius (in the White House) except for perhaps those times when Thomas Jefferson ate alone."
Today, publicists could say that the Heritage Foundation generates more ideas per hour than anyone else -- except when Gingrich is giving a speech. I hope he stays an intellectual entrepreneur and gives many more.