Is Gingrich Literally Crazy?

The search for a grand unified theory of Newt Gingrich's behavior has lately been confounded by new data.

Not so long ago it was possible to think of Gingrich as a vengeful egomaniac. Though he had no real chance of getting the nomination, he was staying in the race both to bask in the limelight and for the joy of retribution: by attacking Mitt Romney he could avenge the Romney Super Pac attack ads that had destroyed his pre-Iowa momentum.

But now Gingrich is staying in the race even though, according to conventional wisdom, his best shot at sabotaging Romney is to get out of the race and quit draining support from Rick Santorum. What happened to vengeful Newt?

One theory is that sometimes in life a person has to choose between egomania and vengeance, and Newt has made his choice. He is regretfully setting bloodlust aside in order to keep basking in the limelight.

This is the theory I was leaning toward until I read Byron York's account of Newt's current thinking in The Washington Examiner. Gingrich contends he can have it both ways--thwart Romney and become the nominee himself. After all, remember Leonard Wood? Well, no--and that's exactly the point! Wood was the Romney of his day. He went into the Republican convention leading, but eventually the nomination went to Warren G. Harding--who had gone into the convention in sixth place.

This was in 1920. Good rule of thumb: When a politician clings to hope even though he can't find a hopeful precedent within the last 90 years, he may be approaching the point of delusion. Which leads to my current favorite theory of Newt: Not just egomania but hypomania.

According to John Gartner, a hypomania expert at Johns Hopkins, "Hypomanics are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas. They think, talk, move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions 'just doesn't get it.' " A hypomanic, for example, might latch onto some triple-bank-shot scenario whereby he becomes president, find a precedent for it back in primordial times, and dismiss as clueless anyone who doesn't see the compelling logic.

That Gartner quote comes from a piece by Jacob Weisberg that appeared in Slate in December, called "Is Newt Nuts?" It was a pretty persuasive piece then, and it is, if anything, more persuasive now. The sign of a good theory is that it not only accounts for pre-existing data, but gracefully accommodates new data as it arises. So far the hypomania hypothesis is holding up well.

[Postscript: Weisberg notes that mental illness is no laughing matter. And that's of course true, though I have to say that if Gingrich's hypothesized hypomania is predominantly unipolar--i.e., if he doesn't spend much time in a depressive state--it's not clear to me that it inflicts a lot of suffering on him. Weisberg considers the unipolar-bipolar question and does come up with one anecdote suggesting that Gingrich has a depressive side.]

[Update, 3/17: In a subsequent post, I've responded to some issues raised by commenters, notably whether it's fair to use the term 'crazy' in the headline of this post.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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