As expected, the veteran right-wing US politician and former Speaker of the House finally announced that he doesn't want to miss the party either. But the many political mistakes he made and his morally questionable past will be difficult to forget. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Gingrich sent out this announcement via Twitter and Facebook, and then he gave an interview to the Fox News Network. In doing this, he is going mano-y-mano against Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, that pizza guy, the weird hairdo man who keeps going on about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and school grades – and maybe Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin as well.
Don’t know who all those people are? By this time next year some of them will be as familiar as one’s next-door neighbours for many Americans who will have seen them in church halls, diners, coffee-and-cake meetings in private homes, not to mention hours of television news coverage and political campaign ads.
Huckabee is the Baptist preacher and former governor of Arkansas, Santorum is a former senator from Pennsylvania, Daniels is the current governor of Indiana, Pawlenty is a former governor of Minnesota, and Huntsman was the Obama’s ambassador to China and also a former governor of Utah. Bachmann is a mostly-delirious congresswoman from Minnesota and Palin, besides being an infamous moose and wolf hunter, is a former Alaska governor and was her party’s vice presidential candidate in 2008.
What is Newt thinking in making this leap back into the political fray? For starters, Newt Gingrich was one of the most divisive politicians to hit Washington for at least a generation. After a bumpy, contentious rise through the ranks of his party in the house of representatives where he had an assortment of ethics charges (such as book deal that channelled funds to his political party and cheque kiting at the Congressional cheque cashing facility) appended to his resumé along the way, he ultimately, after ’94 mid-term elections, became Speaker of the House and a genuinely important figure in US politics.
Gingrich and a clutch of Republican candidates had ridden a growing wave of voter dissatisfaction with Democratic Party politics-as-usual in proposing his “Contract with America”. It may have been a political gimmick, but it was a popular one at first – a short, soundbite-ish list of promises of things Republicans would pass in Congress and demand the president sign into law. The contract included such ideas and issues as welfare reform, term limits, tougher crime laws and a balanced budget law as well as restrictions on American military participation in UN missions.
But, alas for his political fortunes, Gingrich pushed too hard in confronting then-president Bill Clinton – an even better populist politician – over the responsibility for two government shutdowns in the battle over the federal budget and taxes. Newt blinked first, the voters reacted against the Republicans, and then, in an instant, Newt became yesterday’s man.
It clearly didn’t help that along the way, Gingrich had been exposed as a man with, shall we say, a complex personal life. He attacked Bill Clinton for his sexual transgressions, even as Gingrich himself was in the midst of an affair with an aide. Gingrich left Congress and, then slowly, with the emotional bolstering that came from his new, third wife, Gingrich rebranded, relabelled and then relaunched himself as a writer, lecturer, media commentator and intellectual gadfly from the rightward side of the political spectrum.
Gingrich’s own personal odyssey may give some understanding about how Gingrich-the-retread-politician is positioning himself for what most likely will be an idiosyncratic, quirky, even vanity, run for the Republican nomination. The son of a career military family, Gingrich seems to have been the perpetually pudgy new kid in a succession of new schools, each time his father was transferred to another base. Gingrich wasn’t good at sports – the usual path to easy popularity in military base schools – and so he found solace in lots of reading about history and most especially the histories of great men. This seems to have given him his initial career as a historian and university history lecturer as well as a way of understanding politics as the results of men of ideas who turn themselves into men of action and of state on the basis of those ideas.
Gingrich has written that his interest in public life first blossomed when he lived in Orleans, France, as a teenager after visiting the Verdun battlefield and reading about the kind of leadership required of the French to stave off defeat. He earned his Ph.D. in history at Tulane University in New Orleans with a dissertation entitled “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945 – 1960”.
After teaching history for almost a decade, he decided to make some as well. He positioned himself as one of the new Republicans from the increasingly Republican southern state of Georgia and, after several failed attempts, was elected congressman in 1978 from the suburban and peri-urban areas circling the city of Atlanta. He then won re-election 10 more times before resigning as Speaker of the House and as a member of Congress in January 1999. Along the way, Gingrich has churned out an impressive list of policy wonk-style books, some serious history studies and even a clutch of alternate history pot-boilers about the American Civil War and a German victory in World War II.
As Mat Bai in The New York Times wrote in his recent scene-setter for Gingrich’s newest political adventure:
“The thing you have to understand about Newt is that he is, by training and temperament, an avid historian, and he is as true a believer as you will ever find in the concept of destiny.
“An Army brat growing up, flat-footed and near-sighted, Gingrich was the perpetual new kid in school who wasn’t going to star on the football team. But he found an outlet for his passion in the histories he read, especially those concerning great heroes. He imagined himself — and, reasonably or not, still does — as a lead protagonist in the history of his own time, a consequential character in the grand American narrative.
“In particular, Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of ‘departure and return’ — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes. One of Newt’s heroes, the French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle, embodies just this kind of romantic narrative, having spent 12 years out of power before returning to lead his country. So does Ronald Reagan, who travelled the country after losing his bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, then came roaring back to win it all four years later.
Like De Gaulle, Gingrich has been out of power for about 12 years. And if elected president, Gingrich, like Reagan, would be 69 when taking the oath of office. (De Gaulle was 68.) Coincidence? It might seem that way, but I’m guessing he sees something more portentous in the parallels.”
However, Gingrich must also manage to surmount the sense that he is rooted back in the battles of the 1990s, rather than standing in the present and looking to the future. Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, explains that the key question for Gingrich is whether or not he can escape being seen as a symbol of the past. A sketch in a recent “Saturday Night Live” broadcast put the spotlight on this challenge when a Gingrich impersonator shouted out just one damning sentence: “I love the ’90s!”
Rather than a political young Turk, this time Gingrich will be one of the oldest candidates – Ron Paul takes that honour – in a now-coalescing gaggle of politicians, all of whose experience is much more recent than his. This field may well include such visually attractive candidates as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin who would be competing for the same wing of the party Gingrich hopes to rope in as his supporters.
Age isn’t Gingrich’s only problem. For those who can recall his political career, he’s remembered as much for his stormy fall after the political disaster of the government shutdowns and a series of ethics complaints, as for his leadership in bringing Republicans into control in the House for the first time in decades.
And then there is the big question mark of his temperament. Along with other things, there was the well-publicised incident of what was effectively a public tantrum after being barred from riding in the front of Air Force One with Clinton on a return from Israel. And then there was his latest outburst when he compared a mosque and Islamic cultural centre planned for a site near the Ground Zero location of the 9/11 attacks to the Nazis being allowed to put up signs next to the Holocaust Museum. Or his howler attributing Barack Obama’s politics to those anti-colonial attitudes he picked up during his non-existent Kenyan childhood.
As a result, friends are telling him to, somehow, try presenting himself as the adult in the room with big, battle-tested ideas, rather than some sort of conservative Torquemada with a hair-trigger temper and a scourge. Or as Republican political strategist turned think-tanker Dan Schnur has been telling the media, “If he can just get that Charlie Sheen self-discipline thing under control, Newt’s the type of candidate who has the potential to really fire up the room and fire up the base.”
In tactical terms, however, political observers note that Gingrich is not stuck in the 1990s. His tax-exempt conservative group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, has found a rich vein of contributions online and friends say Gingrich writes his own tweets, rather than rely on someone else.
And in political terms, his embrace of new technology extends to some of his policy positions, including the need to rein in medical costs by the use of online medical records and his advocacy of new energy policies. His long-time policy advisor, Joe Gaylord, says Gingrich has always embraced the new rather than be trapped in the past.
But the key will be whether or not this newest Gingrich will connect with voters. Pollsters say Republicans are still searching for someone who will ignite enthusiasm and excitement on the part of the party base that makes the difference in the primaries and caucuses early in the campaign. This is particularly true with those pesky Tea Party groups. As one Tea Party organiser says, “I like Newt, I do. But the issues we are facing are not 1990s vintage. As we saw with Barack Obama, there’s a desire for something fresh, for something new and dynamic.”
If the Republican Party primary race transforms into one about ideas, then maybe Gingrich will be in his element. But if it goes down to leadership as something that is best expressed in personal terms – who do you trust, whose history are you personally comfortable with – then, as Gingrich himself said, “If the primary concern of the American people is my past, my candidacy would be irrelevant”. In the days, weeks and months that follow his Wednesday announcement, he will start to find out. DM
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Photo: Former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Spring Event at Point of Grace Church in Waukee, Iowa March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Brian C. Frank
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