But who knows what the future holds in store?
Reading op-eds about the principle choices to which we seem to have been reduced in the G.O.P. primaries reminds me of the misgivings I’ve long had about Newt Gingrich. Consider this from the estimable Charles Krauthammer:
Gingrich has his own vulnerabilities. The first is often overlooked because it is characterological rather than ideological: his own unreliability. Gingrich has a self-regard so immense that it rivals Obama’s — but, unlike Obama’s, is untamed by self-discipline.
Or this from George F. Will:
Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything….
His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today….
Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies and Genesis deplores: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.”
And if that isn’t enough, there’s always Michael Barone:
“Autodidact” is a fancy word for someone who is self-taught. Gingrich calls himself a historian and says his worldview was shaped at age 15 by viewing the bones at the ossuary at Verdun, site of a World War I battle. And he did earn a Ph.D. in history in 1971, with a dissertation on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960.”
But he hasn’t pursued that or any other subject with scholarly rigor. Instead, in his voluminous writings and unusually lengthy speeches, you will find references to the futurist Alvin Tofler, to Olympic beach volleyball, to zoos and space exploration. You’ll find management-book lingo, salesmanship tips, offbeat and sometimes revealing facts and anecdotes….
As for the public, Gingrich became widely unpopular because of, as I wrote then, “a cocksureness, a professorial abstractness about policy, a more than occasional petulance and high self regard.”
He also showed a tin ear for proprieties, divorcing two wives to marry other women and signing a seven-figure book contract as speaker (later dropped), just as he signed up for seven figures from Freddie Mac after leaving office.
Asked a year ago whether he was running, Gingrich said, “Why wouldn’t I?” When his campaign staff resigned en masse, he persevered. Now we’ll see if voters entrust this autodidact with a position for which few of his colleagues think he is fitted.
When I moved to Georgia in 1985, Gingrich was a rising star in the state Republican Party—not exactly a major claim to fame at the time. His love affair then (and since) with intellectual fads and buzzwords left me cold. And he was always a polarizing figure. People you don’t know—like a former colleague from West Georgia, now a living history reenactor—can’t help telling you what they think of him (and not in a good way).
Perhaps he has changed. We can change, can’t we? (Charles Krauthammer cut his political teeth in the Carter Administration; Will was once less given to libertarianism and more to “statecraft as soulcraft” than he now seems to be, and Barone allegedly supported George McGovern in 1972.) But Gingrich’s recent intemperate attack on Paul Ryan and his assertion that those who are responsible for and profited from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (other than himself, of course) should be thrown in jail are hardly matters of ancient history.
I appreciate, and to some degree share, the discomfort with Mitt Romney. But I’m even less comfortable with Newt Gingrich. That could change. And I will have to make a choice eventually.
Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.