We’ve covered Newt Gingrich for 30 years, and there has always been two sides to the man. The Good Newt and the Bad Newt. Towering talent and awesome arrogance. Boundless energy and porous ethical boundaries. A firm belief in his own destiny, and a cynical conviction that distortion and deception are justified in the pursuit of that destiny.
Now Republicans in Florida and elsewhere have to decide: Is he worth the gamble? Does the good outweigh the bad? Can they afford the risk?
Gingrich is a brilliant political strategist. He engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 after 40 years in the minority. Long before Twitter and Facebook, he understood how to use new technologies to bypass the mainstream media and speak directly to conservative cadres across the country.
He made cassette tapes containing the gospel according to Newt and urged young activists (like Rick Santorum) to play them in the car. He used satellite uplinks to address gatherings of the faithful in hotel ballrooms. He organized like-minded lawmakers to speak regularly on the House floor, and while the chamber might have been empty, the C-SPAN cameras were on – and watched by potential recruits in the hinterlands. Above all, he understood the power of talk radio and its ability to reach the “dittoheads” (as Rush Limbaugh’s followers dubbed themselves) who could provide the shock troops for his revolution.
It wasn’t just how Gingrich communicated that was so shrewd; it was the language he used. Then as now, he understood the resentment many Americans felt toward the “elites” – pundits, bankers, intellectuals, secularists – who looked down on their values and lifestyles. Like Ronald Reagan, he realized that the future of the Republican Party depended on members of the Elks Club, not the country club; on mall shoppers, not Wall Streeters; on churchgoers, not playgoers.
Yet Gingrich has never been a rigid ideologue. On immigration, for example, he’s far more reasonable than Mitt Romney, acknowledging that undocumented workers who have been here for a generation, building lives and families, will not – and should not – be deported. He worked with Bill Clinton on welfare reform and had such trouble with the hardliners in his own party that he contemptuously referred to them as the “perfectionist caucus.”
But – and there’s always a “but” with Newt – his speakership was largely a disaster. He was a great guerrilla fighter, but he couldn’t run the palace after he moved in. Santorum is correct when he says, “It was an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together.”
Gingrich has always cut corners with money, and no matter what he says now, the record is clear: He was reprimanded by the House (the only speaker in history to suffer such a penalty) for using tax-exempt funds to advance his political aims. Romney is accurate when he says of Gingrich, “At the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace.”
Perhaps the most damaging charge against Gingrich is his cynicism. His second wife, Marianne, recalls him making a ringing speech about family values just days after saying he wanted to keep both his mistress and his marriage. Newt, she told Esquire, “believes that what he says in public and how he lives don’t have to be connected.”
That impulse to deviousness – and hypocrisy – taints his political life as well. He’s running as a foe of the Washington establishment when he’s spent the last generation as a card-carrying, full-blooded member of the very tribe he’s trying to demonize. As former rival Tim Pawlenty puts it, “To suggest that he’s the outsider simply defies the facts.”
More seriously, this master of language knows exactly what he’s doing when he derides Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” and accuses the president of following the ideas of street organizer Saul Alinsky. Gingrich is not a racist, but he is clearly indulging in vile innuendo. His followers know that “food stamp president” is code for pandering to blacks, and “Alinsky” calls up fears of foreign (and vaguely Jewish) influences.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a black Democrat, had it right when he told C-SPAN that “these are things that are reminiscent of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and the ‘welfare queen’ created by Ronald Reagan. He understands all of that. He played into it very well.”
You can’t have the Good Newt without the Bad Newt. They come together. Is that what the Republicans really want? For their party and their country?
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.