Newt Gingrich, Myth and Mouth

Republican voters’ esteem for Newt Gingrich has been rising fast. At this rate it might someday equal, though not surpass, his regard for himself. Gingrich is not a person with an ego. He’s an ego with a person.

Just listen to his explanation of why it took him a while to catch on with voters: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I’m trying to do.”

Other GOP candidates sound like they are merely campaigning for office. Gingrich, however, hurls verbal thunderbolts like Zeus, as the lights flicker and the earth shakes. Hopelessly in love with the sound of his own voice, he exhibits a stern, overbearing self-assurance that gives his pronouncements weight even when he is uttering nonsense.

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In a debate last week, the former House speaker was asked a simple question: What measures would he adopt after repealing President Barack Obama’s health care plan? After ridiculing the question and trying repeatedly to evade it, he gave his answer:

“One, you go back to a doctor-patient relationship and you involve the family in those periods where the patient by themselves can’t make key decisions. But you re-localize it. Two, as several people said, including Gov. Perry, you put Medicaid back at the state level…

“Three, you focus very intensely on a brand-new program on brain science, because the fact is the largest single out-year set of costs we are faced with are Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, mental health, and things which come directly from the brain. And I am for fixing our health rather than fixing our health bureaucracy, because the iron lung is the perfect model of saving people so you don’t need to pay for federal program of iron lung centers because the polio vaccine eliminated the problem.”

Huh? There is only one intelligible proposal — the standard Republican formula on Medicaid. The rest is a riot of cliches, non sequiturs and mystifying tangents.

If you imagine those words coming from Rick Perry, Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, they sound confused and desperate. But when delivered with the majestic grandiosity that Gingrich personifies, they can pass for deep thinking.

Still, it’s hard to believe his campaign will survive extended scrutiny. One reason is his know-it-all personality. George W. Bush was the guy you’d like to have a beer with. Gingrich is the guy you wouldn’t want to be stuck next to on a long flight.

Aside from style, there is the problem of substance. Some Republicans are turning to him out of aversion to Romney’s notorious flip-flopping, forgetting Gingrich’s own amazing flexibility.

He says he is not convinced that global warming is taking place. But he once urged action to combat it — in a TV spot with Nancy Pelosi. He rejects the individual mandate in Obama’s health care plan, even though he previously endorsed the idea. He denounces overspending after supporting Medicare prescription drug coverage, a huge new entitlement.

Most stunning was his reversal on Libya. In March, he faulted Obama for not intervening against Moammar Gadhafi. A couple of weeks later, after Obama did just that, Gingrich announced, “I would not have intervened.”

If he has not done enough to antagonize conservatives, he has done plenty to scare off everyone else, with a stream of inflammatory statements that suggest demagoguery or lunacy.

He called Obama, who disappoints liberals on a daily basis, “the most radical president in American history.” He accused him of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”

It’s not just this administration that causes him to shoot blood out of his eyes. He said Muslims should not be allowed to build a mosque near Ground Zero “so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” He said that “our elites are trying to create amnesia so that we literally have generations who have no idea what it means to be an American.” Newt loves to conjure up terrifying monsters that only he can vanquish.

At moments like these it’s hard to know whether he suffers intermittent derangement or simply will stop at nothing to demonize political opponents. Either way, he bears no resemblance to anyone Americans have ever entrusted with the presidency. Gingrich is, as he says, unique. That’s just the problem.



  • Steve Chapman

    Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

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