The amazing disappearing Newt

After the Republicans have picked over the carnage of the former speaker's career, Newt will vanish into historical thin air.

Published November 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Twenty years from now, Newt Gingrich will be a mere blip on the radar screen
of history. That he is presently seen as a major historical figure, "the
most important speaker in a generation," as the Los Angeles Times put
it when he announced his departure from Congress and the speakership Friday, speaks to the way our sense of history has been warped by more than just
technology's acceleration of time. It's been warped by a self-interested
pundit culture for whom someone or something is important simply because the
pundit culture bore witness to it.

Mesmerized as pundits and commentators are
by electronic grandstanding, the media has been seduced into making Gingrich important because that in turn makes the media important. I was
there when Newt was speaker, the pundits imagine intoning to their
journalistic grandchildren, like Edward R. Murrow's reporting from the London
ruins of World War II.

It's not to say, of course, that Gingrich has been entirely irrelevant or
utterly insignificant. But he's been important to the history of American
politics in the same way Boy George is important to the history of rock 'n'
roll -- not for anything of substance he's done, but for the way he's embodied
changes that were always beyond his control and would have happened if
he had never existed. Any reasonable consideration of the 1994 election in
which Republicans took control of Congress -- for which Gingrich is routinely
credited as architect, mastermind, Moses -- that takes into account for a
single moment how people outside Washington see things must conclude that
Gingrich had almost nothing to do with it. To the extent Gingrich had an
impact on the 1994 election at all, it was as a tactician. But tactics are
only the math of history, not the meaning.

In terms of meaning, the 1994 election was about two things. The first was
a dismay -- ranging from indifferent disappointment to indignant rage -- with the president the country had just elected two years earlier. The second was a political movement out in the hinterlands reaching the apex of its power,
self-described as "Christian" but more accurately characterized by an ever-darkening suspicion that democracy is by nature morally degenerate and a
betrayal of God, who at the very least deserves an American theocracy, if not
something purer and more blood-stirring. In this sense, religious right pooh-bah
Gary Bauer is more important to American politics in the '90s than Gingrich
ever was.

At best, Gingrich's rise was the last absurd spasm of conservatism's
exhaustion. Whether one likes it or not, when conservatives argue they have
won the war of political ideas over the last two decades, they're right:
Their basic premise, that the less the government is involved in people's lives
the better, has become accepted in principle by everyone from the majority of
the public to the moderate-liberal in the White House who balanced the budget
and "reformed" welfare. Gingrich had almost nothing to do with winning this
war. It was won in small part by Ronald Reagan, who sold the argument more by
force of personality than force of intellect and thereby was able to finesse
the things about conservatism that were harsh and unpalatable, and in larger
part by the assorted failures of liberalism, some perceived and some real.

Gingrich's impact on America came not so much from his rise to the speakership but in his fall, when he quickly became the most loathed political figure of our time and in the process provided conservatism's limits and meanest impulses with a name and face. The one thing the pundit culture has gotten right in the last few days is just how much President Clinton owes him.

The only people who have tacitly acknowledged how incidental Gingrich has
really been all along are the congressional Republicans. Like vultures
picking over some ripe dead heap in the Mojave, they squawked among themselves
about how perfectly delicious he was -- what is it they kept calling him? A
"visionary"? But now, having had their fill, they've wasted no time taking
flight before his carcass bloats with the gas of death. After all of the
eulogies advanced on this past Sunday's talkfests by all the prospective
speakers and majority leaders and whips and conference chairmen, after the
pontifications of Gingrich's Monday night speech to GOPAC, before the current
Time and Newsweek covers have barely hit the garbage, you'll be scratching
your head trying to remember who the hell he was, and recalling only that he
was something unpleasant enough to stick to the ceiling of your brain for a while. Gingrich isn't just out-of-sight-out-of-mind, he's out-of-sight-out-of-memory;
and because the true consequences of his political life amount more to a
confluence of ego and opportunity than to a historical moment that really
changed anything, soon he'll be out-of-memory-out-of-history. With all due
respect to the Los Angeles Times, he was not the most important speaker in a
generation. In the way he constrained the rough passions of the Reagan
presidency 10 years ago, Tip O'Neill was more important, cartoon political
hack though the media portrayed him as and though he may have truly been.

Ensconced in Washington and New York, the political media is so famously
incapable of seeing the forest for the trees that its myopia has become a
part of its self-identity. The TV commentators in particular seem to take a certain pride in being completely clueless, in being completely
untouched by any experience outside politics -- the movies people are seeing,
the books they're reading, the music they're listening to -- or by anything
resembling American life beyond Washington. Ironically, it's the same pundits
who sold us the nonsense that the 1994 election was a national ratification of
Gingrich's Contract With America who also insisted all over the airwaves last
Tuesday night that the 1998 election was in no way a referendum on
impeachment. It's breathtaking that an entire stratum of opinionmakers can
get it so backwards and be so sweepingly wrong.

In a strange and complicated way, the media's collusion in the invention of
Newt Gingrich, Historical Figure, is not unlike its relationship with Clinton. It's a relationship of seduction and self-loathing: Ever since his
election as president, the pundit culture has hated itself for the way it once
loved Clinton long, long ago, and therefore, still traumatized by 30 years
of charges of liberal bias, it elevated Gingrich as the Anti-Clinton to punish
itself for this seduction. It might have even fallen in love with Gingrich
too, if Gingrich hadn't been so beyond all lovability. Because they don't get
outside Washington, what the pundits never understood was how Gingrich failed
to become a truly national figure, in contrast to Clinton, who may or may not
be a good president but has learned, sometimes inelegantly, to be a national
figure if nothing else, whether as consoler-in-chief weeping at the caskets of
embassy workers that come rolling off the planes from Africa or defiler-in-chief debauching all our promising American nubiles with a cigar.

Gingrich's speech Monday night was carried live by CNN, all 45
minutes of it. It was followed by 45 minutes of "analysis" on "Larry
King Live"; this was a speech not to Congress, mind you, but to a political
action committee, in which not a single remarkable thing was said. Rather,
waving his little laminated Contract With America that brought the crowd to
its feet as though it was the original Bill of Rights, the most important
speaker of the last four years quoted de Tocqueville as though de Tocqueville
stole everything from Gingrich rather than the other way around. To anyone
with the ears to hear it, it was both one last desperate stature-grab and the
first campaign speech of the presidential election of 2000. He'll run just to
make us unforget him.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

MORE FROM Steve Erickson

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Newt Gingrich