Every dog has its day. With Rick Perry and now Herman Cain felled by brain freezes, and Mitt Romney unable to close the deal, snarling Newt Gingrich has surged into a statistical dead heat in recent polls.
He has little money and less charm. He’s set new indoor records in hypocrisy. He’s now connected to Freddie Mac, long seen by Republicans as Freddy Krueger. But in this field, don’t count him out.
Romney and Gingrich are emerging as the front-runners because they’re brighter than their rivals and they prove it repeatedly in the only arena that counts — the televised debates. We can look forward to at least 14 more episodes of the hit show “Real Candidates” scheduled between now and March, which means that the characters, who love the exposure, have no incentive to drop out.
On stage, Newt, a former professor, is the testy brainiac brandishing a butcher’s knife. He always opens by slashing the moderators, who are stand-ins for the hated “liberal media,” even if they work for Fox News. Then he speaks in apocalyptic, high-flown terms meant to conjure Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. Just when it gets too wonky, he shanks the other professor in the race, the one in the White House.
Freddie Mac’s Cash
The Nov. 9 debate will be remembered as either a bump in the road for Gingrich or the beginning of another Newtonian fall to earth. He was asked that night what he did to earn a $300,000 payment from Freddie Mac. He answered preposterously that he was hired as a “historian,” not a lobbyist. Then some digging by Bloomberg News revealed he had actually made between $1.6 million and $1.8 million for doing virtually nothing.
When Gingrich said that Representative Barney Frank should be in jail for being “close to” lobbyists at Freddie Mac in a debate on Oct. 12, he somehow forget to mention that he had been paid handsomely by the same organization. He loudly claims that he warned his paymasters of the “insane” loans they were approving. But so far he’s offered no evidence of such warnings or that he did anything more than sing the praises of minority home ownership and pretend he wasn’t lobbying.
Of course this is hardly the first time Gingrich has medaled in shamelessness — and it hasn’t stopped him yet.
Years of Shamelessness
In 1988, as a young representative, he helped drive House Speaker Jim Wright from office for allegedly violating House rules to profit from a book; at the same time Gingrich himself was skirting House rules to promote his own book. A decade later, in a separate matter involving a college course he taught, the Republican-controlled House made Gingrich the first speaker ever to be fined for violating House rules.
In 1989, he viciously attacked Democratic corruption at the House bank and post office. It turned out he was among those members overdrafting from the same House bank.
In 1994, he implied that liberals were at fault in the Susan Smith case, in which a mother infamously drowned her children. He later said the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech stemmed from the same “situation ethics” of liberals.
In 1998, he led the fight to impeach President Bill Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky affair while he was already five years into an extramarital affair of his own — with a congressional staffer (soon to be his third wife) who was 23 years his junior.
In 2009, he called Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a “racist” not long before he said the secret to understanding President Barack Obama was his embrace of the radical “Kenyan anti-colonial” mentality of his late father.
In 2011, he blasted the president for seeking the help of the United Nations instead of just bombing Libya unilaterally. After military action began, he said without blinking, “I would not have intervened.”
Attack, Attack, Attack
Newt’s M.O. has been the same for three decades: I’m always right, you’re always wrong. Throw in some futuristic talk about nanotechnology and then attack, attack, attack. If Gingrich’s act didn’t bear so much responsibility for our smash-mouth politics, it would almost be amusing.
Now that he’s doing well, the other candidates will work overtime opening Gingrich’s old baggage. They’ll remind voters that he was critical of Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plan and believes in climate change, among other conservative heresies. They’ll say he’s a creature of Washington and caved to Clinton when he was president.
But like his rivals, Newt can always count on good old American amnesia kicking in. His game plan is to place in Iowa and New Hampshire, then win South Carolina, which neighbors his home state of Georgia and contains a lot of veterans, who respond well to his bombast despite his failure to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
Newt is like the “New Nixon” in 1968 — unattractive in a general election, unsuited temperamentally for high office and yet undaunted. Richard Nixon won that year despite his skeletons, and Gingrich genuinely believes he will, too, after all those Churchillian years in the wilderness. He will fight them on the beaches! In the woods! In the lobbies!
(Jonathan Alter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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