Return of the Newt

Paul Greenberg

12/12/2011 3:39:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

It's not his character flaws that make it hard to take Newt Gingrich seriously as a presidential candidate. The American electorate is notoriously, perhaps even admirably, forgiving of personal failings in a politician. The ability to forgive, even forget, is as mysterious as it is virtuous. I wish I were blessed with more of it. That's something else I'll need to work on.

Some cultures are blessed/cursed with a great national memory. The best thing Newt Gingrich has going for him in this presidential campaign is our great national forgettery. Who remembers now that at one point (the Clinton Years) he supported making every American buy health insurance?

Yes, that's the same individual mandate he now opposes (vociferously, as always). Whatever the merits of the idea, and it's got some, he's been both fir and agin it. That's Newt. He's consistently inconsistent.

He was once all for Nancy Pelosi's cap-and-trade-ism, too, though now he has no idea why. But there's a simple explanation for it: He loves to grandstand, to do the unexpected, to surprise us. He's a performer, and the show must go on.

Newt the Great loves the razzle-dazzle, the punch line, the showmanship of politics. Mitt Romney might be doing better by now if he did. Instead, he's Mr. Cautious, approaching every utterance as if it were a tightrope and he dares not put a foot wrong. And he seldom does. But he doesn't pirouette and somersault and mesmerize, either. Not his style. Which is no style.

Newt Gingrich isn't exactly a man for all seasons; he's a man for any season. He's the deciduous candidate, regularly shedding old positions for new but always with the same fervor. Call him an equal-opportunity enthusiast. He tends to debate rather than reason -- as if thinking things through would be unmanly. His changeability indicates a man given to impulse, just as his marital record does. Do we really want a president that impulsive, always flitting from idea to idea, policy to policy, mood to mood?

No wonder the Newt is attracted to sci-fi themes. He's got more imagination and less gravity than any American political figure this side of Dennis Kucinich, the congressman from Cleveland who believes UFOs are aliens spaceships -- and can sound as if he just stepped off one.

Ron Paul may be a little strange, too, but his is a familiar, predictable strangeness in the American gallery of eccentrics -- money crank, isolationist, conspiratorialist. He's all of a piece. It would not surprise if he believed Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, either. It all fits together in a familiar pattern. He's a type.

Newt Gingrich just wanders. There's no telling what nostrum will attract him next. Whatever it is, he'll be very forceful about it.

It's not that he lacks thoughts; he's got a surplus of them, usually wild. He throws them out there in all directions, Which may be a fine way to entertain or even instruct college freshmen -- he used to teach history -- but it's no way to lead the country. As both historian and politician, he's a great popularizer, not so great a thinker.

When it comes to ideas, Newt the Magnificent has got a million of 'em. Abolish the Congressional Budget Office! Defund the National Labor Relations Board! Hire child janitors in the schools so the poor will learn how to work! He loves to provoke. Rather than lead. Nobody takes him seriously when he throws out such proposals, knowing they'll never get beyond the rhetorical stage. It's all in good fun.

He's also a heck of a name-caller. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, is "corrupt" (as if one can't be wrong without being crooked), and Paul Ryan's proposal to reform Medicare, his party's one serious attempt to save it, is nothing but "right-wing social engineering." (A comment he wisely retracted in time for the Republican primaries.)

By now it's scarcely necessary to rehearse the Newt's verbal excesses. Give him time and he'll commit so many, or such a blatant one, that he'll destroy his chances for the nomination without any help from his critics.

The newer the New Gingrich gets, the older he starts to seem. Much like that master of reinventing himself, the late not-so-great Richard Nixon, who was always pulling another New Nixon out of his hat. The most durable of American politicians seem to have that quality. Durable for a while, anyway. But a long while. Isn't Bill Clinton still around somewhere? In New York or Davos or wherever the next great international talkfest is to take place. The ideas broached there all seem so capital-I Important at the time, but who can remember them six weeks later? Or even six days later.

The first few times these perennial headliners rise and fall, then rise and fall again, they seem to have a protean quality, always able to shift the shape of their views to fit the needs and wants of the changing moment. There's a reason they tend to be called Comeback Kids. They have a genius for keeping up with the popular mood, even anticipating it. And for appearing to lead the crowd even as they follow it.

But after a time, though it may be a long time, people catch on. Or just grow bored. Then these stars of their own show no longer seem brilliant, flexible, full of ideas and all that, but only...nixonesque. Or clintonesque. How long before the adjective gingrichian enters the political vocabulary?

No wonder Bill Clinton had a good word for the Newt the other day. They're two of a kind, these Comeback Twins. Or as the former president said of the former speaker: "He thinks about this stuff all the time. He's articulate, and he tries to think of a conservative version of an idea that will solve a legitimate problem." Or at least sway voters.

The Clintons/Gingriches of the political world always seem in the market for the Next Big Idea, the one that'll give their audiences that much sought-after Aha! moment when realization dawns, or seems to, and eyes light up with interest. And admiration for the speaker. Then the moment passes, the idea is forgotten, the spotlight shifts, the dust settles, and people can't quite remember just what it was they once got so all-fired excited about.

But now is Newt's moment. Again. You might even call him the momentary candidate.