I had a friend once who amused herself thinking up bumper stickers for states. The one she made up for California was brilliant. “California: It’s All True.” It is so vast and sprawling a place, so rich and various, that whatever you’ve heard about its wildness, weirdness and wonders, it’s true.
That’s the problem with Newt Gingrich: It’s all true. It’s part of the reason so many of those who know him are anxious about the thought of his becoming president. It’s also why people are looking at him, thinking about him, considering him as president.
Ethically dubious? True. Intelligent and accomplished? True. Has he known breathtaking success and contributed to real reforms in government? Yes. Presided over disasters? Absolutely. Can he lead? Yes. Is he erratic and unreliable as a leader? Yes. Egomaniacal? True. Original and focused, harebrained and impulsive—all true.
Do you want evidence he’s a Burkean conservative? Start with welfare reform in 1996. A sober, standard Republican? Go to the balanced budgets of the Clinton era. Is he a Tea Partier? Sure, he speaks the slashing lingo with relish. Is he moderate? Yes, that can be proved. Michele Bachmann this week called him a “frugal socialist,” and there’s plenty of evidence of that, too.
One way to view this is that he is so rich and varied as a character, as geniuses often are, that he contains worlds, multitudes. One senses that would be his way of looking at it. Another way to look at it: In a long career, one will shift views, adapt to circumstances, tack this way and that. Another way: He’s philosophically unanchored, an unstable element. There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He’s a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.
What is striking is the extraordinary divide in opinion between those who know Gingrich and those who don’t. Those who do are mostly not for him, and they were burning up the phone lines this week in Washington.
Those who’ve known and worked with Mitt Romney mostly seem to support him, but when they don’t they don’t say the reason is that his character and emotional soundness are off. Those who know Ron Paul and oppose him do so on the basis of his stands, they don’t say his temperament forecloses the possibility of his presidency. But that’s pretty much what a lot of those who’ve worked with Newt say.
Former New Hampshire governor and George H.W. Bush chief of staff John Sununu told The Wall Street Journal this week: “Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he’s inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled.” In a conference call Thursday, Jim Talent, who served with Mr. Gingrich in the House from 1993 through 1999, said, “He’s not reliable as a leader.” Sen. Tom Coburn, a member of the House class of 1994, called the former speaker’s leadership “lacking,” and according to a local press report, he told Oklahoma constituents last year that Mr. Gingrich was “the last person I’d vote for for president of the United States.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham told a reporter that Mr. Gingrich could be a historic president if he has “matured as a person and is, for lack of a better word, calmed down.” That is as close as most of those who’ve worked with him get to a compliment.
Yet the reservations and criticisms of the politico-journalistic establishment are having zero effect on Gingrich’s support. In a Quinnipiac poll this week he moved into a double-digit lead over Mr. Romney in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The antipathy of the establishment not only is not hurting him at this early date, it may be helping him. It may be part of the secret of his rise. Because establishments, especially the Washington establishment, famously count for little with the Republican base: “You’re the ones who got us into this mess.”
Republicans on the ground who view Mr. Gingrich from afar, who neither know nor have worked with him, are more likely to see him this way: “Who was the last person to actually cut government? Who was the last person who actually led a movement that balanced the federal budget? . . . The last time there was true welfare reform, the last time government was cut, Gingrich did it.” That is Rush Limbaugh, who has also criticized Mr. Gingrich.
And that is exactly what I’ve been hearing from Newt supporters who do not listen to talk radio. They are older voters, they are not all Republicans, and when government last made progress he was part of it. They have a very practical sense of politics now. The heroic era of the presidency is dead. They are not looking to like their president or admire him, they just want someone to fix the crisis. The last time helpful things happened in Washington, he was a big part of it. So they may hire him again. Are they put off by his scandals? No. They think all politicians are scandalous.
The biggest fear of those who’ve known Mr. Gingrich? He has gone through his political life making huge strides, rising in influence and achievement, and then been destabilized by success, or just after it. Maybe he’s made dizzy by the thin air at the top, maybe he has an inner urge to be tragic, to always be unrealized and misunderstood. But he goes too far, his rhetoric becomes too slashing, the musings he shares—when he rose to the speakership, in 1995, it was that women shouldn’t serve in combat because they’re prone to infections—are too strange. And he starts to write in his notes what Kirsten Powers, in the Daily Beast, remembered: he described himself as “definer of civilization . . . leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.”
Those who know him fear—or hope—that he will be true to form in one respect: He will continue to lose to his No. 1 longtime foe, Newt Gingrich. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, “Watch this!”
What they fear is that he will show just enough discipline over the next few months, just enough focus, to win the nomination. And then, in the fall of 2012, once party leaders have come around and the GOP is fully behind him, he will begin baying at the moon. He will start saying wild things and promising that he may bomb Iran but he may send a special SEAL team in at night to secretly dig Iran up, and fly it to Detroit, where we can keep it under guard, and Detroiters can all get jobs as guards, “solving two problems at once.” They’re afraid he’ll start saying, “John Paul was great, but most of that happened after I explained the Gospels to him,” and “Sure, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize, but only after I explained how people can think fast, slow and at warp speed. He owes me everything.”
There are many good things to say about Newt Gingrich. He is compelling and unique, and, as Margaret Thatcher once said, he has “tons of guts.”
But this is a walk on the wild side.