The Gingrich Dichotomy: Those Who Know Him Best Like Him Least

"He appears unable to even govern himself"


At the height of Newt Gingrich's political power as House Speaker, Republican congressmen began reporting back that their constituents were passing along a simple message: "Tell Newt to shut up!"

The same advice is being given now, though this time the message is coming from a distinctly elite group of apparent ideological confreres and former associates. But there seems -- until recently, at least -- to have been a significant disconnect between their views and those of likely voters in charge of the Republican nominating process, who have turned Gingrich into a top-tier candidate in early states. Said Robert Dallek, a prominent presidential historian, "There is a certain unprecedented quality to this which should give people pause."

Back in 1995, after the Republicans' stunning, Clinton-era takeover of Congress, Gingrich was a pivotal figure who would be named Time's "Man of the Year." One is reminded of his strengths, weaknesses and grandiosity in "Tell Newt To Shut Up!", a fly-on-the-wall account of that tumultuous first year of leadership, including his critical budget negotiations with President Clinton and the federal government shutdown which boomeranged politically on Gingrich. "He spoke in sweeping sentences bursting with adjectives and adverbs that rendered his world oversized and absolute. Enormous. Classic. Grotesque. Tremendous. Totally. Frankly. Unequivocally. Extraordinarily. Explicitly. He wore these words as epaulets of power," wrote the authors, then Washington Post reporters David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf.

Their Gingrich was in key ways a failure -- most notably, he made gross strategic miscalculations about his chief adversary, Bill Clinton -- but in no way one dimensional. Indeed, the Post reporters' detailing of his first critical year as Speaker is also the tale of a sometimes astute manager and compromise-seeking bargainer. He was very much an adherent of respected books on management and leadership and did his best to thoughtfully heed their lessons.

That penchant for pragmatism helps explain his assembling a high-powered team, including the likes of current Speaker John Boehner. It also explains why ideology didn't rule his actions and why then, as now, there are suspicions among true-blue conservatives as to his loyalty to their cause.

Fast forward to his unlikely presidential candidacy. One finds clear and growing chagrin from longtime Gingrich watchers. Peggy Noonan correctly wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "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."

Tom Coburn, the conservative U.S. Senator from Oklahoma, was a member of the Gingrich-run House and is adamantly against him. He's one of many from that era. They and elite conservative media are rolling their eyes, with National Review editorializing last week against the Gingrich candidacy.

His character flaws, including impulsiveness and half-baked concepts, made him a poor Speaker, the magazine wrote. "Again and again he combined incendiary rhetoric with irresolute action, bringing Republicans all the political costs of a hardline position without actually taking one. Again and again he put his own interests above those of the causes he championed in public."

"Gingrich has always said he wants to transform the country," it concluded. "He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself. He should be an adviser to the Republican party but not again its head."

Steve Gillon isn't surprised by this turn of events. A resident historian at the History Channel and author of "The Pact: Bill Clinton, New Gingrich, and the Rivalry that Defined a Generation," he says that "when I was doing interviews for my book, the harshest criticism of Gingrich came not from Democratic leaders but from fellow conservative Republicans who accused the speaker of having abandoned their cause and undermined their credibility. The very people who Gingrich helped bring to power are the ones who feel most betrayed by him."

Several historians trace Gingrich's at least temporary ascendancy in the Republican primary to the breakdown in party discipline, notably the end of an era in which party insiders most often chose the presidential nominee. It's really just been since the coming of the modern primary system, which essentially dates to the 1970s, that voters have gained control, creating the possibility of a disjoint between the views of the insiders and the rank-and-file voters that the outsiders win.

Most of those who have successfully campaigned for the office in the modern era have been able to position themselves as Washington outsiders, most notably governors such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. George H.W. Bush, the man with the most Washington experience, won just one term, and Barack Obama himself ran as an outsider intent on changing Washington.

The Republican elite seems to want to rally around Mitt Romney, who is fending off a candidate in Gingrich who seems like the quintessential D.C. insider, but is running as an outsider. "What makes this possible is the political power of the Tea Party in the Republican primary process," said Gillon. If there's any election that bears some resemblance to this one so far, he suggests, it might be 1972 when the Democrats nominated Senator George McGovern: "Most of the Democratic establishment, especially organized labor, opposed McGovern and his 'new politics.' But he used the new primary rules to bypass traditional power brokers and win the nomination."

Rick Shenkman, founder and editor of George Mason University's History News Network, says that back when we had boss politics, "one of the virtues was that the people who chose the nominees for president usually knew them intimately, so they were unlikely to go for an untried Jimmy Carter or a novelty item like Barack Obama." He added that "the first criterion was whether you knew them well enough that you knew they'd be loyal to the party. The second was whether he could get elected. But the first was, 'Can I trust him?'" Shenkman's favorite parallel is Woodrow Wilson, who won the 1912 presidential election despite the distrust of party bosses back in New Jersey, where he'd been governor, and even trustees at Princeton University, which he'd led, who found him a disruptive reformer. "You had a nascent primary system back then, which went away again by the 1920s, and that helped him," he said. "He had a situation where people who had worked with him in his only elected office, as governor, disliked him, but the masses loved him. There are some odd parallels, though a bit crude, between Professor Wilson and Professor Gingrich, with both given to megalomaniac tendencies."

More recently, there are Gingrich-like similarities in the 2008 nomination of Senator John McCain, which came amid many doubts from Senate colleagues, mostly about temperament, and establishment Republicans who doubted his ideological reliability.

Dallek does find Gingrich a "classic grandiose narcissist, full of himself but typical of narcissists' ability to get under your skin and create a measure of rapport or connection," and posits that "it's not the substance of what he's talking about--Medicare, debt, deficits, foreign policy--it really is something terribly superficial that is part of the whole television culture. His ability to have good zingers and a presence before the camera and to create a sense of connection to people is working for him."

But even if a TV-loving and increasingly newspaper-averse public doesn't quite get the insider aversion to Gingrich, would their publicly-voiced doubts persist if, say, he were to win and thus face President Obama in the fall? Would partisan pragmatism trump the seeming moral convictions being voiced by so many who know him so well? "McCain was seen as a hot-headed crazy guy but, once he got the nomination, the Republicans were less inclined to trumpet that," said Dallek.

It may be that the "extraordinary" tension between Gingrich's rank-and-file support and elite-Republican disdain is starting to break down. But it remains entirely possible that he'll hold on win the GOP primary, in which case the aim of upending President Obama might force even longtime Republican naysayers to swallow hard, shut up and get in line for Gingrich 2012.

Image credit: Reuters