Burning Down the House

Intent on making history, Newt Gingrich may become its victim

Published January 13, 1996 1:07PM (EST)

As Washington digs out from the great blizzard of '96, there is one battle that Newt Gingrich, that noted student of military history, would probably not like to be reminded of: Stalingrad. As his tanks sink into the budgetary mud, his elite troops turn on him, his ethical supply lines stretch to the breaking point and his own behavior grows increasingly erratic, those glorious days when the Republican blitzkrieg carried all before it must seem like a distant memory.

Whether the metaphor will hold -- whether Gingrich's audacious decision to strike at the very heart of America's social contract will prove, like Hitler's daring invasion of Russia, to be an act of monstrous and self-destructive hubris -- remains to be seen.
If the American people decide that the values and goals of the Republican Revolution cannot be separated from those of its leader, 1994 may be remembered not as the annus mirabilis of conservatism but as the year of the failed coup.

One thing is clear: Most Americans do not like Newt Gingrich. A Time/CNN poll taken in December 1995 found that only 24% had a favorable impression of the Speaker of the House (compared with 61% for President Clinton) and just 9% would like to see him become president. A remarkable 49% found him "scary." To be fair, the poll was taken at Gingrich's lowest moment -- during the government shutdown, after he had delivered a petulant outburst about being disrespected on Air Force One and a typically wild, Limbaugh-esque roundhouse in which he blamed a horrific murder on Democratic policies. Still, the conclusion is inescapable: most people, including many Republicans, think there's something fishy about this guy -- even if they can't put their finger on it.

A new Frontline special, "The Long March of Newt Gingrich," which aired January 16 on PBS and will be reshown at various times, seizes that quavering digit and sticks it where the sun don't shine -- in Newt's character. The Gingrich that emerges from this documentary, produced by Stephen Talbot with correspondent Peter Boyer, is a Machiavel, a ruthless chameleon who shed his moderate image and reinvented himself as a fire-and-brimstone conservative to win his first election. He is a hypocrite who preaches moral regeneration -- and proposes draconian measures to ensure it -- while his own past, personal and political, is littered with sins of singular unpleasantness. A second-rate intellectual, he is a superb tactician with a hotline into populist resentments who uses negative messages brilliantly. And he plays the media like a violin.

In short, he is the modern politician par excellence -- a master of seeming whose own center is impossible to locate, and may not exist. Since his career has been built on exploiting Americans' hatred of the very class -- professional politicians -- of which he is the most illustrious member, this is somewhat strange.

Most of the stones in Gingrich's life have been overturned by now, and much of the material here can be found in Connie Bruck's New Yorker profile (Oct. 9, 1995), Gail Sheehy's Vanity Fair piece (September 1995) or David Osborne's illuminating early Mother Jones article (November 1984).

What "The Long March" does is pull the salient facts of Gingrich's private life and public career into a coherent and damning narrative. More to the point, it puts that narrative on TV, the medium Gingrich used to ascend to power. (It was his McCarthyesque speech to an empty House, captured on C-Span, that launched his decisive confrontation with Speaker Tip O'Neill and made Gingrich a major player.) It makes effective use of interviews with Gingrich's family, political allies and some former, disenchanted friends to present a polemical, but convincing, portrait of the second most powerful man in the country.

The key to understanding Gingrich, by this account, is to grasp the peculiar way that he sees himself. Ever since his lonely and unhappy childhood, Gingrich has regarded himself as a historical figure. Guided by the heroic, Reaganesque imagery of films like "The Magnificent Seven" and "Sands of Iwo Jima" (American politics continues its farcical devolution: Reagan may have been a buffoon, but at least he acted&nbspin those B movies), Gingrich began to consciously construct himself as that figure -- one that bore an interesting resemblance to the chubby, clumsy youth's distant military-man stepfather, whom he could never please. Gingrich is now the avatar of conservatism, but the specific political philosophy he subscribes to matters less than this deeply aggrandizing, self-projecting impulse.

The Walter Mitty origins of Gingrich's habitual self-regard are less important than its consequences. If you see yourself as a character in a grand historical tableau, ordinary rules don't apply. Hence Gingrich's Achilles heel, his arrogance -- arrogance that led him to accuse Jim Wright of an unethical book deal and then cut an even bigger one, to think he could shut down the government without political consequence, to bring in lobbyists for big business to draft legislation.

In a larger sense, it is Gingrich's cold intellectual arrogance that suffuses the radical right's social agenda. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan points out in a devastating speech in the Congressional Record (reprinted in the January 11 New York Review of Books), no one knows whether slashing welfare to the bone will actually produce the salutary changes in behavior that Gingrich and his glassy-eyed freshmen acolytes assert it will. The nation may be sick, but those who would heal it should follow the first ethical imperative of the physician: primum non nocere -- first of all, do no harm. There is a cavalier, experimental quality to the Republican Revolution that recalls another exuberant 20th century social experiment -- the one that took place in Russia.

Producer Stephen Talbot's earlier Frontline special on Rush Limbaugh was criticized in some left-wing quarters for going too easy on Limbaugh. There is little likelihood that this program will face that criticism. (In the interests of full disclosure, it should be acknowledged that Talbot is the brother of SALON editor David Talbot, and that I know him. ) "The Long March of Newt Gingrich" is an unabashedly opinionated profile that makes little pretense of formal "objectivity" -- while Gingrich loyalists, and right-wingers like Paul Weyrich, are interviewed, they are not asked to comment on the negative conclusions drawn about Gingrich.

But the program's slant -- emphasizing Gingrich's opportunism, caustically dismissing his philosophy as "a gauzy romantic memory of a lost America to which he has attached a lifetime of eclectic ideas that have stuck to his fly-paper mind," characterizing his Air Force One blunder as the appearance of "that impetuous child with the impossibly large sense of himself" -- is not journalistically troubling. These are fair shots, well grounded in supporting evidence -- even if that evidence is not always presented in this short program.

In fact, the one time "The Long March" falters is when it tries, towards the end, to conceal its own tendentiousness. After showing the woes that have befallen Gingrich since he took power, the narration suddenly takes the high road -- too high. "The unwelcome truth that Newt Gingrich is beginning to confront is one that every revolutionary and every warrior must ultimately face," intones the narrator, while Yul Brynner in his "Magnificent Seven" role strides across the battlefield and an old Mexican man says to him "Yes, the fighting is over, your work is done."

This quasi-mythical, now-Newt-must-ride-off-into-the-sunset rhetoric is a smoke screen that obscures the program's legitimate, if polemical, double aim: to paint a devastating portrait of the leader of the conservative revolution, and to link him to that revolution. You take out Newt, you take out the revolution. As the narrator says in the closing moments of the film, "What can be said for certain is that at this moment Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution are inseparably fused together. He has been its strength and he is now its frailty. Inevitably, America's judgment of the revolution will be decided by its judgment of him."

Wishful thinking, guys. As an opponent of the revolution, I hope that is the case, but just saying&nbspit is won't make it so. The question, at bottom, is whether people will decide that the Republican Revolution is intellectually coherent and well-meaning, or whether it is a muddled pitch to the base instincts of resentment, fear and that great engine from which all things bright and beautiful flow, greed.

As their sudden loss of enthusiasm for the Contract With America shows, Americans are uncertain about the answer themselves -- which means they don't know quite why they voted Republican in '94. A small percentage of the electorate are probably beyond all guilt (to invoke a favorite Republican "values" word) and don't need even a free-market fig leaf to cover their righteous desire to stick it to the poor and pocket the savings. But most Americans, even if they're understandably sick of being guilt-tripped by sanctimonious Democrats, are not willing to completely sign off on the painful Republican agenda unless they think the person telling them to do it is trustworthy. In the absence of such trust, they will be forced to search their own consciences for guidance.

Looked at from that perspective, Newt Gingrich is a terrible liability for the Revolution -- not so much because of who he is, but because of what he makes Americans feartheymay be. It would be a supreme irony if Gingrich, who in his own life has so clearly failed to demonstrate a moral compass, was the instrument by which America discovered its own. It might even make him into a historic figure.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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