May 22, 2010
Newt 2012?By J. Robert Smith
He was a brilliant but flawed man. He spent most of his political career as a bomb-thrower in the lower House. He was despised by his party's establishment. After a debacle, he fell into disfavor with the public. He was discounted as a politician and stayed so for many years. Then came a crisis, which he had warned was coming and which the nation's leadership bungled grossly. He became his nation's leader not because he was loved, but because he was right and had the pluck to carry the fight.
He was Winston Churchill.
Churchill's time came. Could Newt Gingrich's time be coming?
The parallels between Churchill and Newt Gingrich aren't exact, of course. Churchill faced greater adversity than Gingrich has. And unlike Churchill's Britain, there's no external threat, no Hitler bent on world conquest, menacing the United States (though the ongoing terrorist threat against America shouldn't be discounted).
But as conservatives know, and as a growing number of Americans are learning, there's a potent internal threat to liberty. That threat is occurring in the context of a gathering economic catastrophe. The nation may be facing a decade of tumult, a decade in which the forces of liberty struggle against the left for what sort of nation America will be.
This week, Gingrich launched his new book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine. In interviews, the former House speaker acknowledges that he's weighing a presidential bid in 2012. Churchill was sixty-five when he became prime minister in 1940. If Gingrich becomes the nation's forty-fifth president in 2013, he will be sixty-nine when it happens.
Of all major Republican politicians, Newt Gingrich has been the strongest ideas man and strategic thinker in the past thirty years. By the former House Speaker's own admission, though, he wasn't quick to grasp the Obama threat. Yet he certainly has since, judging from the focus of his new book. Gingrich has generally been adept at course corrections.
Gingrich's House career began in the late 1970s. He won his seat in 1978. His west Georgia district was heavily Democratic. Showing grit, it took Gingrich three attempts to finally capture his congressional seat. His pursuit involved both financial and career sacrifices (Gingrich was then a history professor at West Georgia College, now the University of West Georgia).
From the outset of his congressional career, Gingrich's aim was to break the lock that Democrats had enjoyed on the House since the late 1950s. He did so by railing against Democratic corruption and cronyism and publicizing the failures of what he termed the "Liberal Welfare State." He spoke persuasively of a "Conservative Opportunity Society" as an antidote to liberal welfare statism.
Outspoken and aggressive, Gingrich earned few, if any, points among Republican leaders. The young congressman was the bane of House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a Illinoisan whose clubby approach to the majority Democrats Gingrich and other back-benchers argued only helped perpetuate Democratic control of the House.
In the early 1980s, C-SPAN was a new phenomenon. Gingrich and like-minded Republican back-benchers readily grasped C-SPAN's value as a platform to communicate directly with voters, hammering at Tip O'Neil's leadership and flailing "tax-and-spend" Democrats.
The West Georgia congressman's approach won enough support among the GOP House rank and file to bump him up the leadership ladder. He led the fight to bring down House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989. Wright had ethics problems. The publication of a book in an apparent sweetheart deal was fodder for Gingrich's broadsides against the speaker.
With Bob Michel's retirement, Gingrich won the Minority Leader post. Along with Dick Armey and other key conservatives, Gingrich devised the now-famous "Contract with America." The contract is rightly credited as vital in coalescing voter support for Republican congressional candidates in 1994. President Clinton's missteps on health care and taxes fueled voter backlash. But Gingrich and GOP House leaders deserve kudos for positioning the party to successfully exploit Clinton's fumbles.
After securing the speakership following the 1994 elections, Gingrich was immediately caricatured and vilified by the left and the mainstream media. Time magazine issued its "Uncle Scrooge" cover. The tarring and feathering damaged Gingrich's public standing throughout his speakership.
During the 1990s, Gingrich sparred often with the cagey Bill Clinton, sometimes winning, sometimes not. But despite after-the-fact Democratic and mainstream media spin, Gingrich and his lieutenants forced the president to accept balanced budgets -- the first in years -- and landmark welfare reform.
Bill Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater scandal proved to be a political dud for Republicans. Clinton's impeachment likewise fell flat with voters. Despite Gingrich's predictions of Republican gains in the 1998 midterm elections, the GOP lost seats. Shortly thereafter, facing a certain challenge to his leadership, Gingrich resigned his speakership and his House seat.
Gingrich's personal life has been turbulent. He's been married three times, and his divorces are rumored to have been messy. In 2009, the former speaker converted to Catholicism. Gingrich works with his third wife, Callista, in his film production company. Their work has touched on the importance of faith in history, especially in Nine Days that Changed the World.
Always the ideas man, Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future has been a conservative ideas engine.
The former speaker has a reputation for occasionally straying from the reservation. When Gingrich teamed up with Nancy Pelosi in a commercial about the dangers of climate change, he earned sneers and brickbats from conservatives. The ad was sponsored by former Vice President Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection. Gingrich has since backed off his collaboration and made explanations.
A critical question Gingrich has to answer if he declares his candidacy is this: Does he have the temperament and executive experience to be an able president? How well does an old bomb-thrower and ideas man translate into the nation's chief executive?
The speakership offered Gingrich some executive experience, but nothing close to what Mitt Romney has from his work in the private sector and in his stint as Massachusetts governor. Nor does Gingrich match Haley Barbour's or Mitch Daniels' experiences as the governors of Mississippi and Indiana. Barbour and Daniels are possible GOP presidential contenders.
Then again, the better part of Churchill's career was spent writing and as a polemicist and gadfly. His most conspicuous executive role prior to being prime minister was as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I. The Gallipoli disaster sent Churchill's career into a nosedive.
A Gingrich presidential candidacy would likely be met with stony silence by the left and the mainstream media. Both would want to give Gingrich a chance to secure the Republican nomination. If the former speaker did win the nomination, then liberals and the fossil media would unleash an attack not seen against a presidential nominee since the days of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln.
For plenty of conservatives, and more Americans, it may seem unthinkable that Gingrich could be president. But who in 1930s Britain thought Churchill would be prime minister? Had Neville Chamberlin not been so out of his depth and flummoxed by Hitler, and had Hitler not been so impetuous -- had he exhibited some patience in achieving his strategic aims -- Churchill the prime minister might never have come to pass.
This begs the old question: Do men make history, or does history make men? Some of both, it's fair to say, with the emphasis changing from event to event. Two plus years is more than a lifetime in politics; it's many lifetimes. Coming events, great and small, may conspire to make the unthinkable thinkable about Newt Gingrich.