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.
Both Gingrich and Clinton benefited from the 1990s adjournment of character as a desideratum for public life. Very cleverly, candidate Clinton in the 1992 campaign managed to banish character as a campaign issue. He portrayed the topic as a Republican dirty trick, and the journalists swallowed it. Eight years later it became clear why Clinton was desperate to render the question of character a topic unfit for public discussion. By then Gingrich too needed this dispensation. Of course, Republicans are more fastidious than Democrats when it comes to personal morals, and so when Gingrich's cutie was discovered even as he was impeaching Clinton for lying about a cutie and obstruction, Republicans gave Gingrich the heave-ho.
Now Gingrich is back, and he expects Republican women to forget his treatment of women. He expects Republicans to forget how he bungled the 1998 off-year elections, claiming at one point that Republicans were actually going to pick up seats when -- truth be known -- they were lucky to preserve their margin. One of the reasons for the Republicans' losses that year was that the Boy Speaker rushed an omnibus spending bill laden with pork through the House, to the dismay of Republican voters. The other was his sophomoric handling of one of the most important constitutional crisis of the 20th century, Clinton's impeachment. One day he would summon Republicans to attack. The next day he would claim to be aghast at their combativeness. Again Clinton bested him.
Now he believes that he is a plausible candidate for the presidency. Given his erratic record, do I need to adduce any more evidence that he is a fantasist? He fashioned the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 with the indispensable assistance of his cogenerationists from the gaseous 1960s, the Clintons. In 1998 he recklessly imperiled his party's dominance and disgraced his name. Since his fall he has, as has his Democratic look-alike, strutted and pontificated tirelessly. Both had their moment in history, and both blew it.