Note: Below is my AJC column for today:
Newt Gingrich has never felt fully appreciated, and in some ways I think he has grounds to feel that way. For example, few people give him the credit that he deserves for being a very funny man, even if much of his humor is unintentional.
Just last week, the former speaker led off a debate in South Carolina by complaining about the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media,” charging that it “makes it harder to govern this country and harder to attract to decent people to run for public office.”
I thought that was funny.
As history can document, the person most responsible for the nasty, vicious tone of current American politics is Gingrich himself. Those who have dared to advocate policies counter to his own have been dismissed as traitors, pathetic, corrupt and a disgrace. There has been no attack so low that he will not stoop to it; no label so vile that he will not use it. And rather than feel ashamed, he has proudly tried to teach other Republicans to “speak like Newt.” (Even Mitt Romney seems to have picked up on it, calling Gingrich a “failed leader” who “had to resign in disgrace” as speaker).
So please, excuse me if I found Newt’s aggrieved victim act preposterous to the point of being funny. What’s next? Kim Kardashian complaining about vapid, amoral celebrities? Donald Trump lecturing on the dangers of mirror-gazing?
Of course, what some people perceive as absurdist humor, others embrace as heroic truth-telling. Rather than guffaws, the Gingrichian debate rant inspired a standing ovation from the crowd in South Carolina, and a few days later Gingrich pummeled Romney by a stunning 12-point margin, creating a lot of momentum for the contest in Florida next week.
Gingrich has a tendency to compare himself to great figures of the past, so let’s indulge him. It’s been said that at various points in history, a man has matched the moment. Winston Churchill, at one point all but banished from British politics, matched the moment in World War II because his strengths were exactly what his country needed at that time. Martin Luther King Jr. matched the moment during the civil rights struggle of the ’50s and ’60s.
Gingrich has likewise matched the moment in the 2012 Republican primary. Sure, he has many shortcomings in that contest; his troubled personal life would seem to disqualify him as the candidate of a party trumpeting family values. Based on his record, he is no more conservative than Romney, whom he derides as a Massachusetts moderate. And he is the ultimate D.C. insider of a type that the Tea Party faction claims to reject.
However, his stock in trade has long been the expression of scorn, disdain and resentment. That’s what he does best; it flows out of him as smoothly and sincerely as love talk from a barroom Romeo. And in the Republican electorate in the Age of Obama, he has found an audience ready to swoon when they hear that rhetoric.
Like a barroom Romeo, however, Gingrich is not the type you want to hitch yourself to permanently. As others will attest, you’ll come to regret it. Nationwide, he’s viewed favorably by just 27 percent of the American people, which means that outside the Republican base, he has almost no support whatsoever. In addition, because he’s been in the national spotlight since the early ’90s, it’s an electorate that knows him well. Its attitude toward him is not likely to change.
If Republicans make him their nominee, the joke’s on them.
– Jay Bookman