Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about Newt Gingrich, as he leads in polls for the Republican presidential nomination nationally and in Iowa and South Carolina, and may be threatening Mitt Romney’s lead in New Hampshire.
One is that he is an autodidact. A second is that he has incredible perseverance.
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 the 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.
Gingrich started running for Congress as a teacher at West Georgia College, in a traditionally Democratic area where he had no local connections, in 1973. That was when Richard Nixon was president. Nelson Rockefeller was governor of New York, and Ronald Reagan governor of California. Both had supported tax increases and signed bills legalizing abortion. Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal were not yet in kindergarten.
The sophisticates of the time said that Vietnam proved that America was overextended and impotent, Watergate proved that it was morally unworthy and corrupt, and stagflation proved that its days of economic growth were over. Gingrich disagreed on all three counts.
With autodidact intensity, he argued then and has argued ever since, that America is not in decline but at the brink of technological and economic breakthroughs; it is not a waning power in the world, but one that can inspire revolutionary transformation; the wave of the future is not the liberal welfare state but (in a 1983 phrase that never quite caught on) the conservative opportunity society.
Politically he persevered through adversity. He ran a strong race against a longtime Democratic incumbent but lost in the Watergate year of 1974. He set out to run again, but after Jimmy Carter clinched the Democratic nomination he knew he could not win in rural Georgia. It was only when he ran a third time in 1978 that he finally won.
I remember Gingrich predicting that in the 1984 cycle Republicans would win a majority in the House of Representatives. Every political insider thought that was ridiculous, and it illustrates Gingrich’s tendency toward overoptimism. But while he was wrong on the timing, he was right on the reasons why the Republicans could and would end the Democrats’ decades of control. He saw that the South was moving Republican as elderly incumbents retired and that smart young Democrats elected in Vietnam and Watergate years would be replaced by Republicans. That finally happened in 1994, and Gingrich became speaker of the House.
His record there was mixed. As I wrote in the 1998 Almanac of American Politics, “He had more success as an inside-the-House legislative leader than as an outside-the-House shaper of public opinion.” Congress passed welfare reform and held spending level for a year, which led to a balanced budget. Gingrich and Bill Clinton were negotiating Medicare and Social Security reforms until distracted in different ways by impeachment.
But many Republicans felt that Gingrich was continually outnegotiated by Clinton, who as Gingrich told me at the time, “never stops learning.” Other Republican leaders nearly ousted him in an unprecedented coup in 1997, and few colleagues are supporting him for president now.
As for the public, Gingrich became widely unpopular due, as I wrote then, to “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.
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