Newt in Flames

by Jonathan Wallace

It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Newt Gingrich's party finally recognized that the man was a living embodiment of the Peter Principle, promoted far beyond his level of competence. Unfortunately for the Republicans, they acknowledged it only after he had sunk them twice. Newt rode a long time on the horse of his first victory in 1994.

Newt Gingrich combined arrogance with a complete absence of compassion. To complete the man, add impulsiveness and a striking lack of judgment. There's nothing more repellent than an arrogant man with nothing to back it up. Of course, the truly talented frequently find it in themselves to be somewhat humble. When I hear a man trumpeting how great he is, I usually assume there's nothing behind it.

In a November 8, 1998 first page article analyzing Gingrich's fall, The New York Times quoted a statement Gingrich made after his last debacle in the 1996 elections: "I set out to do a very unusual job, which was part revolutionary, part national political figure, part Speaker, part intellectual."

What do Newt Gingrich and the Holy Roman Empire have in common? Hint: the latter wasn't holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Gingrich, in his arrogant comment of 1996, was right on only one out of four counts: he was Speaker.

Newt wasn't a revolutionary, despite the common perception (which I shared) at the time of the 1994 elections. The agenda of the Contract with America was radical enough in itself. For Newt, unlike some of his more fiery colleagues, the Contract was a means, not an end. He steered Congress to implement very few of its measures, and backed off it by 1996, when the country was signaling increasing signs of moderation. By the end, he had no agenda whatever, except to attack the President.

Newt may have gotten a substantial amount of ink from the press, but once out of office he will be forgotten as thoroughly as the other Congressional and governmental clowns each decade throws out (Wilbur Mills? Earl Butz? Helen Chenoweth?) He was never a "national political figure" in the real sense of the word: a statesman. He was an attack dog who never could figure out how to change his ways, manage an agenda, create consensus, or build a permanent power base.

Newt certainly wasn't an intellectual. His book was an anecdotal pastiche of twice digested arguments, without an original thought to be found anywhere. His other contribution to literary history: an alternate world, what-if-we-lost WWII novel co-authored with a third rate science fiction writer.

An intellectual by definition has a world view. Newt never had one; he was exclusively reactive and impulsive, and you never knew what he really stood for from one day to the next. A Monday morning on which one could say no children were shot over the weekend? A laptop for every child in America? Rather than opine, he seemed to blurt stuff out (like the time when he blamed welfare for a black on black crime in which only the victim was on welfare).

Most people who know they aren't very smart don't aspire to be intellectuals; Newt's particular tragedy was that he lived in an aura of congratulation in which he could believe he was much more intelligent than he really was.

I'm glad he's gone from the scene. Its just one more proof that there's a rough justice in human affairs: a windbag without talent couldn't fool people for more than four years.