The story of Newt Gingrich is an amazing, inspiring, audacious, infuriating, heroic, tragic, cynical all-American tale.
For those among us who live and die by the daily tracking polls, it’s most recently a tale of a sudden, heroic/mysterious rebirth as a serious presidential candidate who became — briefly — the darling of the anybody-but-Romney Republicans, and, even more recently, became the latest non-Romney to command the field before flaming out (assuming that that’s what he’s doing right now, with that assumption subject to revision in case he figures out how to turn it around yet). That tale is not amazing or inspiring. It’s just politics.
At some point, probably as Gingrich was surging to the top of the polls, the New York Times assigned reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg to go deep on the story of Gingrich’s early political history for the occasional series that the Times calls “The Long Run.” Her great piece, under the boring headline “For Gingrich in Power, Pragmatism, Not Purity,” ran yesterday but I just read it and, perhaps because of the mood I’m in, it struck me as, well, amazing, inspiring and all those other over-the-top adjective choices two paragraphs up.
If you’re a righty on the ideological purity witch hunt, Stolberg’s “pragmatism” angle might be a death sentence against Gingrich. (Bad timing, right?, Stolberg’s piece would’ve attracted more attention when Newt was still the frontrunner).
Yes, it portrays Gingrich as an egomaniacal shape-shifter. No, it doesn’t even bother running through Gingrich’s many marriages and many religious conversions.
It’s just a smart, deeply-researched overview of how Gingrich made himself from a nobody on track to a mediocre academic career in history and geography into speaker of the House, leader of a brief but incredibly successful (electorally) Republican revolution and then into a disliked refugee from political life, and into what would become a staggeringly successful (monetarily) career as a don’t-call-me-a-lobbyist.
But Stolberg doesn’t even go into those recent Newt-gets-rich years. She picks up the story as young Gingrich, already viewing himself as a world-changing future leader, decided to enter politics as a Georgia Republican, back when Georgia didn’t elect Republicans, by positioning himself as a raging moderate who could run against a classic righty southern Democrat. He started by joining the 1968 anybody-but-Nixon 1968 campaign of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, one of the last of the great liberal Republicans.
In case you don’t click through and read the whole pieces, here are a few of the best paragraphs, according to me:
“He made little secret of his ambitions when, as a 25-year-old graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans, he signed on with the 1968 Rockefeller campaign. One night, the man who would go on to describe himself as a ‘transformative figure’ and ‘definer of civilization’ stunned fellow volunteers by telling them he thought he could one day be president. ‘He was very into himself,’ said Kit Wisdom, a leader of the Rockefeller Louisiana campaign, ‘and in charge of everything.’”
“Mr. Gingrich went on: ‘I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the campfire, but are lousy in politics.”
“In his first year in office, Mr. Gingrich was among a handful of freshman Republicans to vote to create the federal Department of Education, a vote that many conservatives, who want to abolish the department, still hold against him. (Today Mr. Gingrich says he wants to “dramatically shrink” the agency.)”
“Ever the history professor, he gave long, meandering speeches on the House floor, calling himself a ‘Teddy Roosevelt Republican’ and extolling the virtues of ‘activist government.’ When President Jimmy Carter proposed an Alaskan wildlife reserve, Mr. Gingrich voted in favor, breaking with his party.”
“The essence of Newt,” Mr. Gregorsky (a former Gingrich chief of staff) said, “is that he’s a marketing genius. He’s not a philosopher or an ideologue.”
“’I have an enormous personal ambition,’ he told The Washington Post in 1985. ‘I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.’”
“Beyond complaints about style, there were issues of substance. Within Mr. Gingrich’s fractious Republican caucus, deficit hawks repeatedly accused him of abandoning their top priority, cutting federal spending. His decision to end the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 proved a particular sore point; conservatives said Mr. Gingrich had caved in to a White House that outmaneuvered him.
“He was like a whipped dog who barked, yet still cowered, in Mr. Clinton’s presence,” Mr. Coburn wrote[that’s now-Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, recalling Gingrich in a book.”
“In 1997, Mr. Gingrich proposed backing away from a promise he had made in the Contract With America to cut spending on Congressional committees by one third. He said the money was necessary for Congressional oversight of the White House. The rebellious lawmakers balked. Some, including Mr. Graham and Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC host, demanded that Mr. Gingrich stick to the contract — or step down. ‘Newt’s never been a conservative,’ Mr. Scarborough said. ‘He is an opportunist.’”
“In his headier moments, Mr. Gingrich had boldly proclaimed himself ‘the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times.’ Now, in his final days on Capitol Hill, he sounded bitter. On the day he announced his resignation from Congress, Mr. Gingrich convened a conference call with fellow Republicans. In it, the leader of the 1994 conservative rebellion blamed the conservatives he had brought to power for his political fall.
‘Cannibals,’ Mr. Gingrich called them.”