At press time, the leading non-Romney in the Republican presidential race was Newt Gingrich. It's not easy keeping up with who holds that distinction, it changes so rapidly. Is it Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry or Herman Cain today? Ring around the rosie, they all tend to fall down once they're closely examined. For the moment it's Newt. (It's hard to resist calling so familiar a figure on the American celebrity/scandal scene by his first name.)
The former speaker and just about everything else is a master of the snappy comeback. Also the political kind. Call him this year's Comeback Kid. You just can't keep some pols down; they're like one of those roly-poly dolls with a weighted base you can't knock over; they spring right back up. Sort of like Johnson grass in the summer.
All this talk about The New Gingrich, coupled with his rise in the ever-fickle polls, brings to mind the recurrent New Nixon who was always appearing in the 1950s and '60s. Despite the regular makeovers, he remained the Old Nixon, as the nation discovered in the 1970s. He would resign as president in 1974 -- just in time to avoid being impeached. Even now he reappears from time to time; his lawyer-answers before the grand jury investigating Watergate can be read in the transcript just released as part of the historical record. You have to imagine the gravelly voice. It's all enough to bring back an era nobody should want brought back.
It'll be interesting to see if Newt will come back after the latest revelation about his collecting a million or two from Freddie Mac, one of the twin government-backed housing agencies that began the chain of events that led to the Great Financial Panic of '08-'09 and the great recession that inevitably followed -- and is still hanging on, like a bad cold.
On the campaign trail, Newt has been his usual eloquent self, denouncing both these twin terrors as examples of the federal government's wayward, wasteful -- and fiscally catastrophic -- ways.
In his current book/manifesto, he points out that both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "are so thoroughly politicized and preside over such irresponsible lending policies that they need to be replaced with smaller, private companies operating without government guarantees, whose leaders focus on making a profit, not manipulating politicians."
Hear, hear. Newt has always talked a great game. But no one should be surprised by now to find out that he's been on the payroll of one of these subsidized disasters to the tune of a couple of million as a lobbyist/adviser/parasite. Whatever term you prefer.
By now Mr. Gingrich, never short of explanations, has produced several to cover his tracks. For example, he was no lobbyist, he just offered "strategic advice over a long period of time." What's more, it was very good advice. We have his word for it, even if those who received that advice, and paid a couple of million for services rendered, may dispute that contention.
Whatever the $1.6-million truth, Newt Gingrich is now campaigning against the interlocking Washington culture of lobbyists, politicians and sharp operators in general. This is the man who's going to clean up that culture? Heck, he is that culture.
It's one thing to be the Prodigal Son who comes home after his wastrel years to find a warm welcome and a fatted calf waiting. But as the scandals in this one's record are examined again, the suspicion grows that Newt is aiming to be a perpetual prodigal. No problem: He's always prepared to explain away any old moral or fiscal failures. He's very good at it, and why shouldn't he be? He's had so much experience at it.
Wasn't there a time when character was the meme of Republican presidential nominees? They may have been dull, their politics may not have appealed, they may have lacked that clintonesque adroitness when it came to dodging tough questions, but candidates like Bob Dole and John McCain had character. Their military records were a testament to it. Is this the party that is now going to nominate a Washington fixture like New Gingrich for president because he gives stirring speeches about clean, lean government?
If only Newt's fine words were borne out by his record. They aren't. To call that record checkered would be an understatement. It's scandalous. But we're told he's a sharp debater, an uncontested distinction that won't be completely satisfying until some way can be found to have the man debate himself. That would be a show. But only a sideshow. Unlike electing a president of the United States, which ought to be a serious business for serious candidates.
Like every other non-Romney who's led the GOP field -- for a while -- Newt Gingrich's principal function in his party's presidential race has been to make Mitt Romney look like not just the inevitable Republican choice for president but the soundest one the GOP could make.