The left is having a field day saying that Newt Gingrich's South Carolina debate answer (blasting a question by Juan Williams, who actually is a prince of a guy) about Barack Obama being a "food stamp president" was somehow a "dog whistle" to racists, and that his success in South Carolina was partly due to his tacit racial appeals to the SC voters' supposedly latent racist sentiments. We've heard it all week; heck, Ed Schultz has been saying it since last May. Last night on Schultz's show, Chris Matthews was at it again:
[O]ne thing that bothered me personally as an American, and you talked about it, I believe, and so is Al Sharpton, this idea of talking about food stamps, which we all know is code. And to use that the night he won here, Saturday night, coming in to the panhandle of Florida, playing with the Southern people for the Southern tradition, white people, trying to play them like a banjo, I think that`s what he`s up to.
Schultz himself continued to push this line relentlessly, and encouraged Martin Bashir to say this:
We traced back an editorial from the "New York Times" in 1994 where they accused him of using coded language in exactly the same way. He`s doing exactly the same thing. It`s almost 20 years. He`s the expert at this. He barely conceals a nasty, virulent racism, and then he points it repeatedly at both the president and also at those who are picking up Food Stamps who need them.
And so on it went, at sickening length.
When people who have worked with Newt Gingrich describe his "Jekyll and Hyde personality" (a comment I've seen numerous times), they may actually be underplaying the truth. Gingrich doesn't just have two personas; he has probably a half dozen or more. (He is vast! He contains multitudes!) For every Mr. Hyde there is also a Mr. Sieke; for every Dr. Jekyll there is also a Dr. Heckle. Trying to figure out which Newt was which was so impossible that it drove his colleagues to distraction while he was Speaker, which is one reason things fell apart so badly.
Nevertheless,in all of those Newtonian personalities, never have I seen even the slimmest hint either of racism or of tacit approval of the racism of others. Indeed, just the opposite: For all of his other flaws, Gingrich, from my observations, has been one of the Republican leaders most open to and insistent on outreach to minorities. I can't cite a specfic example from memory, but during his Speakership the overall tenor was clear: Gingrich detested racism. The "good Newt" is a compassionate man and a man dedicated toward equality before the law. The good Newt also was the one who has never gotten his due credit for insisting that the GOP make it a priority to improve the city of Washington DC -- to end the municipal corruption, to improve its governance, to prove that a majority-black city doesn't need to be a city that people give up on. In fact, to the extent that the urban renaissance of DC was due to federal policy (which was indeed a significant extent, although of course the locals had much to do with it, obviously), that renaissance was driven by two men: Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I remember Gingrich once saying -- it might have been as recently as last year, or it could have been years ago -- that one main reason he was a "Rockefeller Republican" in the 1960s was because he thought the Northeastern Republicans of the time were more "progressive" (in the good sense of the term) on racial issues. Well, while evidence shows that was far from the only reason he was with Rocky (Gingrich was, at the time, a liberal Republican on many issues), it absolutely rings true when he cites his concern for civil rights as one of the issues that motivated him.
Yesterday, I cited at great length an absolutely scathing column that Mickey Edwards, former congressman and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, wrote about -- meaning against -- Gingrich last month. Yet even in that column, Edwards noted, as a compliment, that one reason he came to know Gingrich particularly well was that he, Edwards, included Gingrich in a group dedicated to reaching out to minorities:
During his first term, I established a small gathering of members I considered to be intelligent, thoughtful, and committed to an optimistic and big-tent conservatism. Newt was one of the members I invited to participate, along with friends like Jack Kemp, Bob Livingston, and Ed Bethune, each of whom had reached beyond the stereotypical conservative constituency and had worked assiduously to reach out to minorities and people with new approaches to problem-solving (Kemp was probably the archetype).
Some character traits don't change. I happen to think that trait, the one that detested racism, is one of Gingrich's constants.
Real racism is awful, and it should be denounced at every opportunity. There are plenty of conservatives who do so, and rightly so.
But fair is fair. It is utterly unfair to equate references to Food Stamps to a racist dog whistle, and it is unfair to put Gingrich in the camp of those who deliberately play on racial stereotypes.
There are plenty of other reasons to worry about nominating Gingrich for president. But as for racism, that dog won't hunt.
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