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Newt Gingrich on the Couch

The meteoric rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Newt Gingrich is enough to make you want to take a Dramimine for motion sickness. He represents both the ascent of conservatism to new heights and its dramatic fall out of favor. Now, Newt Gingrich is once again rising, threatening to unseat Romney as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. His newfound support reflects many of the contradictions inherent in the current Republican party as well as the Tea Party: the desire for victory, the distrust and disdain for big government, the reliance on government for a substantial part of our retirement and health care in old age, the desire for fresh-faced uncorrupted politicians, and the desire for a known, vetted candidate willing to pull out all the stops to unseat President Obama in 2012. There is something both appealing and repulsive about Gingrich. He is careful and sloppy. He is calculating and unpredictable. He possesses expert, in-depth knowledge of a seemingly endless array of issues, which leaves one wondering whether he will be able to make the sweeping changes necessary to shepherd the country through the current crisis, or will he be frozen, overwhelmed by too many facts. In the end, the choice whether to choose Gingrich as the Republican presidential nominee, and ultimately president, will say us much about ourselves as it does about him.

Gingrich is a man of many contradictions. He is widely viewed as the leader of a conservative renaissance in the 1990’s. He was instrumental with his Contract With America in helping the Republican party sweep to victory in the House, allowing him to become Speaker. But, the seeds of his fall from grace were sown even as the fruits of victory were first tasted. There is something Nixonesque about Newt. He maintains a tight discipline which is seldom if ever broken. Like Nixon, Gingrich has had his fall. Nixon lost the White House and failed in his campaign for governor of California. Gingrich resigned as Speaker as well as from the House. Afterwards, for both Nixon and Gingrich, it appeared to be the end of the line. Yet, however improbably, Nixon, phoenix-like, rose from the ashes of failure. Newt too, at a point far removed from his halcyon days as Speaker, is rising from the ashes of scandal and disgrace. Like Nixon, Newt’s interpretation of his own history, is significantly different from those who shared the moments with him. Like Nixon, Newt experienced the agony of watching a lifetime of work unravel before his eyes. Like Nixon, there is the plotted comeback and defiance of those who sought to destroy him.


Newt, like Nixon, had humble beginnings and seeks the acceptance of the establishment. Despite his best efforts, he is still not – except for his position as powerbroker – fully accepted. Like Nixon, he often disappoints the true believer conservatives most responsible for his success. Nixon disappointed often – China, the EPA, wage and price controls. Newt has disappointed with climate change, the individual mandate in healthcare, and the EPA. Similar to Nixon, conservatives often forgive his personal, political and ethical transgressions because he is viewed as key to slaying a greater enemy – liberalism and communism for Nixon, socialism and Obama for Newt. With Newt, like Nixon, it isn’t clear whether he has learned the lessons of his past and whether giving him power will be akin to handing an alcoholic a bottle. In an interesting twist of fate, Gingrich faces a Romney, as did Nixon in his 1968 primary run. Romney, as his father before him, is not widely loved by conservatives.

There is something extremely reassuring about Gingrich. He exudes great confidence, even while feigning humility. It is interesting, perhaps ironic, that former president Clinton and Gingrich seem to possess an affinity for each other. Clinton recently praised Gingrich’s debate performance and said this of Gingrich:

“I think he’s doing well just because he’s thinking, and people are hungry for some ideas that make sense. He’s being rewarded for thinking”.


Certainly there are some similarities between Gingrich and Clinton as well. They both hail from humble beginnings, improbably rose to power by pulling their parties to the right, and have a gift for translating wonkish policy in terms that voters can understand.

Ultimately, the question will be whether or not voters feel that Gingrich has been reformed and is ready to exercise power. That is tempered by the overwhelming desire to throw Obama out of office. It will be interesting to see if, in the rush to unseat Obama, whether voters carefully consider the strengths and weaknesses of their candidates – not just in terms of policy, but also temperament and character. There is little doubt that Gingrich possesses the requisite mental acuity and historical perspective to be president. What is not as clear is whether or not he can navigate his own weaknesses, the temptations of power, and the myriad of choices which will immediately confront him should he win the Republican nomination, and ultimately, the White House. Talent, experience, and intellect are necessary, but not sufficient conditions that must be met to be president. Character, decency, and self-control are also required. In the end, Nixon’s lack of those qualities led to his fall from power. For many, to this day, they deny Nixon’s basic flaws and blame his enemies. His flaws reflect our own. Once again, with Gingrich, our national psyche and character are on the couch. Who we are and who we want to be are as much at issue this election as the economy, deficit or the Obama record.

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