Exclusive: Soaring in the polls, Newt Gingrich is confidently predicting his capture of the Republican presidential nomination and now sees the White House within his grasp. But, Robert Parry asks, is this divisive megalomaniac fit to run the most powerful nation on earth?
By Robert Parry
If conservative Republicans are serious about making former House Speaker Newt Gingrich their presidential nominee, one has to conclude that they never meant much of what they professed to believe in – from personal responsibility to humility to integrity.
All their attacks – on President Bill Clinton for his womanizing, on Vice President Al Gore for his boastfulness, and on various Democrats for profiting off their insider status – were not serious critiques at all, just talking points for winning elections.
Mix in Gingrich’s inveterate lying – such as his risible explanation that his $1.6 million consulting deal with mortgage giant Freddie Mac was for his skills as a “historian” – and it’s hard to discern what ethical standards conservative Republicans actually stand for, short of wanting power for “their side.”
So, are conservative Republicans simply hypocrites or is something else involved? Clearly part of the problem is that they can’t stomach voting for an endless shape-shifter like Mitt Romney, and the rest of the presidential field makes them queasy, too.
It’s not like they haven’t speed-dated some of the other contenders, from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pizza magnate Herman Cain – not to mention, flirting with almost-candidates such as real-estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump.
Though there were many reasons why those brief flings flamed out, what many conservative Republicans may have found unacceptable was the level of know-nothing-ism regarding basic information, especially facts about the Revolutionary War and world affairs, two areas where the Right views itself as more sophisticated than the Left.
Yes, it’s true that the GOP Right often revels in denying empirical evidence, from rejecting the science of global warming to embracing failed economic experiments like “supply-side economics” to stubbornly believing that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
But the Tea Partiers also fancy themselves as inheritors of the spirit of the American Revolution, dressing up in period costumes and waving yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Abject ignorance about those facts can be devastating for candidates.
Knowing the Revolution
Bachmann and Perry may have stumbled over the lowest hurdles for measuring competence, but they did themselves in by displaying jaw-dropping ignorance about the Revolutionary War.
Bachmann thought the first shots were fired in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts (apparently confusing Concord, New Hampshire, with Concord, Massachusetts), and Perry put the Revolution in the 16th Century, 200 years before it actually began in the 18th Century. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Rick Perry’s Revolutionary War ‘History’”]
Similarly, Cain – who actually rose in the polls while fending off accusations of sexual harassment – sank his own campaign when he couldn’t respond to a simple question about Libya, as his pre-packaged talking points were “twirling around” in his head.
Granted, the Right is often contemptuous of nuanced opinions about foreign policy, but Cain’s transparent ignorance about a major issue like Libya was embarrassing, not just for Cain but for conservatives who had supported him.
The Tea Partiers also have their own fictionalized view of the Revolutionary War and what the Founders believed. For instance, Tea Partiers don’t seem to know that the coiled-snake “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was aimed at the British Empire and the banner that targeted other Americans was one of a snake cut up into pieces with the warning, “Join, or Die.”
The Founders’ chief concern was to unify the 13 colonies, not promote hostility to an American central government. When Samuel Adams (who helped organize the original Tea Party in 1773) and his cousin John Adams traveled from Boston to Philadelphia in 1775 for the Continental Congress, they were not there to resist a union of the 13 colonies but to demand one.
Contrary to the Tea Party’s view that the Founders were big advocates of states’ rights, most of the Founders – both before and after the Revolution – favored a “robust” national government.
For one, Gen. George Washington despised the notion of “sovereign states” because he knew that the weak Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States during its first decade, translated into failure to pay and arm his troops, as states reneged on promised contributions.
The Founders also recognized that the principle of state sovereignty under the Articles invited European powers to divide and weaken the country and to maintain their economic supremacy. Thus, in 1787, Washington presided over the drafting of the Constitution, which created a strong national government and transferred sovereignty from the 13 states to the American Republic.
In other words, the Tea Partiers have the early history of the United States inside-out. But that ignorance doesn’t mean that they appreciate Bachmann and Perry getting well-known facts about the Revolution – such as where and when it began – wrong.
With former history teacher Gingrich as their standard-bearer, the Tea Partiers are at least not likely to cringe over those details. Gingrich’s forte is to splash around historical factoids – often about arcane topics – as a debating technique to intimidate rivals. He also speaks with such bombastic confidence that opponents shy from challenging him.
Which may explain Gingrich’s current appeal to the Right. Conservatives see him as a vehicle for tearing down President Obama, much as he tore down House Speaker Wright and other long-serving Democrats in Congress.
Gingrich also defines the battle ahead in the sort of grandiloquent terms that Revolutionary War-clad Tea Partiers want. Election 2012 is not just a contest over which politician (Romney or Obama) can better guide the economy and implement foreign policy, it is a clash over whether “civilization” will survive, as Gingrich is fond of saying.
The word “civilization” also recalls the animosity that some on the Christian Right feel toward Muslims, as in the “clash of civilizations.” The concept also resonates with conservatives who view inner-city blacks much as Gingrich does, as shiftless welfare cheats and criminals lacking a work ethic.
At a rally in Iowa, Gingrich made his point, without explicitly defining the skin color though he could be sure that his audience would add the shading in their minds. As part of his plan to get rid of “truly stupid” child-labor laws and put elementary school kids to work as janitors, he declared:
“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday [for school]. They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash’ unless it is illegal.”
This racially tinged message has been part of Gingrich’s world view since his academic days in 1971 when he devoted his PhD thesis to the arcane topic of “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960,” which adopted what was then a favorite conservative theme of criticizing the ungrateful anti-colonialism of Africans (although he did acknowledge the exploitative nature of Belgian policies).
Gingrich called on Africans to understand “the good as well as the bad aspects of colonialism” and warned against “Black xenophobia,” although as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted, “what’s xenophobic about Africans wanting their oppressors to go away? It’s like saying abused wives who want their husbands to leave are anti-men.”
Over the decades, Gingrich has retained this paternalistic attitude toward white imperialism in Africa. It surfaced just last year when right-wing author Dinesh D’Souza constructed an absurd argument that Obama was channeling his dead Kenyan father, whom D’Souza described as “this philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions.”
Gingrich praised D’Souza’s insight, adding that Obama’s “fundamentally out of touch” attitude toward Americans could only be explained “if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.”
A True Believer
The Tea Partiers also may understand that Gingrich isn’t just making these radical pronouncements because he is in “campaign mode,” as former President George H.W. Bush might say. Though Gingrich flits from grand idea to grand idea, he could be counted on to push many of his concepts through a Republican Congress if he wins the White House.
That prospect of a war to kill what’s left of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – and even the child labor laws which date back a century to the Progressive Era – is appealing to the Tea Partiers in its dramatic sweep, while Romney offers mostly technocratic tinkering.
Yet, there is good reason for conservatives as well as all Americans to fear the prospect of a Gingrich presidency. One would have to go back to Richard Nixon to find an American president who had as strange a mix of personality flaws as Gingrich.
Gingrich exceeds even Nixon in his megalomania, once explaining why he dodged military service in Vietnam (though a supporter of the war) by suggesting that he was too historically important to sacrifice himself as a mere soldier. “Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made,” Gingrich told the Wall Street Journal in 1985. Instead, Gingrich saved himself so he could “save civilization.”
Do conservative Republicans really want to put a person who bathes himself in such flattering light in charge of the most powerful nation on earth?
Maureen Dowd wrote in a Dec. 4 column, “Out of Africa and Into Iowa,” that “Newt Gingrich’s mind is in love with itself. It has persuaded itself that it is brilliant when it is merely promiscuous. This is not a serious mind. Gingrich is not, to put it mildly, a systematic thinker.
“His mind is a jumble, an amateurish mess lacking impulse control. He plays air guitar with ideas, producing air ideas. He ejaculates concepts, notions and theories that are as inconsistent as his behavior.”
I first met Gingrich in 1979 when he was starting his career as a bomb-thrower from the congressional back-benches and I was an Associated Press correspondent covering the budget and economic issues on Capitol Hill.
I recall him at the time because he was already prone to making extreme pronouncements in the most provocative or insulting manner. It wasn’t enough to disagree with a political opponent; the opponent had to be skewered as corrupt, contemptible and a threat to “civilization.”
Over the years, Gingrich pursued this approach with the goal of burning down a functioning Congress so the Republicans could own the embers that remained. From a post-World War II tradition of pragmatism toward national problems, the House of Representatives became a place to chase down heretics with torches.
The fear then was that the growing hyper-partisanship of the House would spread to the Senate where the availability of filibusters could create an even more dangerous gridlock. The hope then was that the Gingrich-fueled extremism could be confined to the House.
Winning at All Costs
By 1994, with Republicans roasting Democrats over their vote to raise taxes mostly on the rich, Gingrich succeeded in reclaiming the House for the Republicans. (Ironically, today’s Washington press corps credits Gingrich with balancing the federal budget, though it was the Democratic-approved tax hike that made a balanced budget possible, the same vote that Gingrich exploited to gain power.)
Gingrich’s devotion to the politics of destruction spread into endless investigations of President Clinton and to his impeachment by the House during a lame-duck session in 1998. The Republicans failed to remove Clinton in a Senate trial in 1999, but ugly partisanship was now the new normal in Congress.
Though Gingrich was forced to resign as House Speaker in 1999 as a result of an ethics scandal and because rank-and-file Republican rebelled against his imperious style, his political legacy lived on with the vicious Republican campaigns against Al Gore in 2000 and against John Kerry in 2004.
By Obama’s election in 2008, Gingrich-style partisanship had spread to the Senate where Republican filibustered virtually every Obama proposal and created unprecedented gridlock even in the midst of a devastating recession.
Now, if polls are correct, the Republican Party appears poised to choose Newt Gingrich as its presidential standard-bearer. And with Republicans blocking Obama’s various jobs bills, a desperate American electorate might well be persuaded by Gingrich’s self-assuredness to elect him.
[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.