The thought startles.
Is Newt Gingrich America's Winston Churchill?
The former Speaker has repeatedly dazzled in the ongoing series of GOP presidential debates. He is "the adult in the room," the man Republicans keep saying they would like to see on the debate stage with Barack Obama.
The latest polls (Wall Street Journal, CBS, and Marist) have him vaulting into a tie with Mitt Romney behind Herman Cain or leapfrogging Cain to barely trail Romney. This video of a Frank Luntz focus group that appeared on Sean Hannity's TV show following a recent GOP debate is typical of the changing reaction to the Georgian. Gingrich is a long way from the low single digits he registered at the beginning of the campaign.
But Churchill? America's Churchill?
There are all manner of people -- including some conservatives -- who would faint dead away at the comparison.
First, Mr. Churchill.
One of the ironies of history that is that those figures who have morphed from flesh-and-blood reality to marbleized icons always seem to lose their humanity. This is true, in fact, of most people. Great-Aunt Sally whose habits or manner or outrageous behavior here and there proved so infuriating in life becomes the iconic family elder after passing into eternity, her descendants fondly telling Great-Aunt Sally stories and holding her up to the youngest generation as a family role model.
So it is with public figures, and so it was with Winston Churchill.
In his childhood his father thought him a major disappointment, the father himself a star -- an infuriating star -- to his colleagues in British politics. When Lord Randolph Churchill died -- allegedly of syphilis -- his once brilliant political career was cut short, leaving behind the mystery of whether he would have ever been prime minister as so many had thought was certain.
Son Winston, idolizing his father, picked up the torch with the support of his famously beautiful yet distant American mother, Jenny Jerome Churchill. Selecting the military and journalism as starting points, the young Winston traveled to outposts of the British Empire on the strength of his mother's connections and his late father's name. While doing so he read voraciously, soaking up everything from Gibbon to Aristotle, Plato, Shakespeare and more as he raced from one adventure to another in Cuba, India, Egypt and the Sudan. Brashly, he ran for Parliament and lost. Immediately getting an assignment to cover the Boer War, he shipped out to South Africa -- where an attack on a British troop train and his subsequent capture and dramatic escape from a POW camp made him famous and a hero. By 1900, at the ripe age of 26, Winston Churchill was elected to Parliament.
Over the course of his political life -- some 55 years from that 1900 election -- Churchill was at the center or near the center of repeated and divisive political controversies. From the Irish question to the Dardanelles and Gallipoli to India, the abdication of King Edward VIII and Munich, his contemporaries were all too frequently not admirers, to say the least, with harshly negative assessments over time attaching themselves to Churchill's reputation as barnacles encrust a ship. He made enemies and worse, alienated friends. Among the descriptives of the day, biographer William Manchester records that he was seen as "impatient, arrogant and unfeeling… difficult," an "opportunist" whose "transitory convictions" always "inspired suspicion," a man who was "jaywalking through life." Politically he was thought incapable of party loyalty, stubborn and incapable of judging men, "easily taken in by quacks and charlatans."
Talented? Absolutely. Brilliant. Certainly. A prolific writer over his lifetime he turned out 56 books, including fiction but mostly history and biography. He was, with considerable practice, a superb speech giver. Yet somehow all this combined to have one newspaper editorial describe him as a "genius without judgment," with one rival, fellow Conservative Stanley Baldwin, sniping that Churchill had a "hundred-horsepower brain" without the ability to harness it. Said another: "Mr. Churchill carries great guns, but his navigation is uncertain. His effect on men is one of interest and curiosity, not of admiration and loyalty. His power is the power of gifts, not character. Men watch him, but do not follow him. He beguiles their reason, but never warms their emotions." The best one friend could do was sum up Churchill by saying: "Winston was often right, but when he was wrong, well, my God."
By the time he reached his sixties he was thought to be politically finished. He had already served as "minister for the colonies and for trade, home affairs, finance, and all three of the armed services." A book emerged called The Tragedy of Winston Churchill in which the facts of his many controversies, particularly his controversial strategy on the Dardanelles in World War I, were deliberately misrepresented, the findings of fact that exonerated Churchill in the incident willfully ignored in order to pronounce him a "brilliant failure, of whom it has been repeatedly said that he secretly despises those who pass him on the road to office and power." His Parliament peers "detested him and everything he represented." Precisely because in the course of all those jobs he had attracted so much controversy he was seen as "an erratic genius…utterly unreliable"; someone to whom the British public had wised up, a figure from the past.
And yet. And yet.
In the words of Bernard Shaw: "The moment we got a good fright, and had to find a man who could and would do something, we were on our knees to Winston Churchill."
That fright, of course, was Adolf Hitler and the vividly distinct probability in the minds of Englishmen that their island nation was, as Churchill had repeatedly insisted for almost a decade to no avail, facing not simply disaster but extermination. Churchill, it suddenly came clear to his fellow countrymen, was exactly the man of the hour precisely because he was a "man of deep insight, not stability." Unlike his resentful peers, what he had displayed in the 1930s, beginning with his 1931 prediction that something as seemingly innocuous as the announcement that Germany and Austria were forming a "Customs Union" signaled the eventual approach of war, was "political genius [that] lies in seeing over the horizon, anticipating a future invisible to others." (He once wrote an article predicting that Britain would someday have a woman prime minister. It was rejected for publication as "too fantastic.")
Churchill's uncanny vision was the result of a lifetime studying and writing history and strategy -- but there was a central difference between his understanding of history and what his colleagues understood. Writes Manchester of Churchill's opponents in the 1930s: "They viewed Adolph Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces" while Churchill, a considerable historian, "saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil" believing fiercely that "individuals are responsible for their behavior and that the German dictator was therefore wicked." To calls that England negotiate with Germany, that Britain be "reasonable" -- Churchill had a very different view, which he characteristically did not hesitate to make known. Said the man everyone in Britain was suddenly listening to: "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground." His principles, said Manchester, "were a rock."
On July 24th of 1939, a sign suddenly appeared on the Strand in London reading simply:
What Price Churchill?
On September 1, less than two months later, Hitler invaded Poland. By the end of the day Winston Churchill was once again First Lord of the Admiralty. By May 10, 1940, just over nine months later, France collapsed, millions of English men and women believing, terrified, that all was lost. And Churchill, at the age of 65, became Prime Minister at last. A full quarter of a century later, all the world watched the televised grandeur of his state funeral in London, the funeral of a man who, once despised, had won immortality by saving his country -- and changing the world.
Say again: Newt? Newt Gingrich? An American Churchill?
The tittering of scornful laughter arises.
Even his critics might impatiently grant Mr. Gingrich some portion of the Churchill descriptives. A look back at but one chapter in Gingrich's first book, 1984's Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future and the Churchillian ability to employ a thorough understanding of history as a sure guide to seeing over the horizon is plainly at work. Of note in the chapter entitled The Information Explosion and the Great Transformation, especially considering all the well-deserved accolades and tributes that recently poured forth for Apple's Steve Jobs at his death, there is Gingrich when Jobs was but a glimmer in the public consciousness hinting that one day Jobs would be viewed as the Thomas Edison of our time. And relating Jobs' work at Apple to the critical nature of freedom and liberty in America as opposed to the suffocating lack thereof in European nations where there was always a heavy dose of socialism. Wrote the young Congressman Gingrich:
Yet it is by sweeping dreams that societies change themselves. The great difference between the American and the European approach to the great revolutions in electricity, internal-combustion engines, and chemistry in the late 19th century was the fact that Americans, who had a vision of how these technologies would transform society, developed technology for the popular market.
The Left in America, Gingrich wrote 27 years ago, "has been anti-technology since the 1880s" -- which in his own way was precisely what Steve Jobs was saying to President Obama when, as it is now revealed in the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, the Apple founder said this to Obama:
"You're headed for a one-term presidency," he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where "regulations and unnecessary costs" make it difficult for them.
In other words, almost thirty years ago Newt Gingrich was saying that Steve Job's work with Apple was on a par with Edison's work with electricity -- a view that only recently has gushed forth in every Jobs obituary to be found. And Gingrich's view that the key to creating more Steve Jobs in America was defeating the left's historically long-held "anti-technology" obsession? In the wake of Jobs' death we find that Jobs himself lectured Barack Obama in just such a fashion.
One could go on and on with Gingrich's Churchillian-style vision in all kinds of areas in American life from health care to education to foreign policy. A vision, that looking back over the years of his voluminous writings, now seems startlingly prescient.
One can almost hear the chorus of Gingrich critics shouting as one: Brilliant, OK fine. A fountain of ideas… sure, sure, sure. But….
Without missing a beat surely they would immediately go, doubtless unknowingly, for many of the Churchill negatives. Gingrich, they would say, -- perhaps citing Gingrich's early campaign misstep over Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan's Medicare plans which, alas, even in this space was seen as a campaign crippling misstep -- is unable to harness that high powered brain. He would be labeled with the "genius without judgment" assessment, as a man who is "impatient, arrogant, unfeeling" and so on. In fact the English description of Churchill as "unfeeling" was once thoroughly Americanized in application to Newt, with a play on the Dr. Seuss character -- making of Newt shortly after the earthshaking 1994 GOP congressional victory of which he was the architect "The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas."
Not to be forgotten is what Fox News commentator Juan Williams, recently sitting next to Gingrich on the set of Special Report with Bret Baier, delicately referred to as the former Speaker's personal "baggage." By which Williams means the Speaker's three marriages, the extra-marital business and all the rest. The famous myth of the first Gingrich divorce is discussed here by Gingrich's daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman, who was present at the time. Surprise, surprise -- fact, says Ms. Cushman, is different than left-wing fiction. The first Mrs. Gingrich, a private person, is very much still alive, present and accounted for and not deceased as is the tale. The story runs roughly that the dastardly Newt took divorce papers to his dying wife's bedside when she had no idea a divorce was in the offing, shocking her as she lay dying. In fact Mrs. Gingrich, says her daughter, had herself requested the divorce long before Gingrich entered her hospital room. The story, says Cushman, is fiction from start to finish. Gingrich's political mistake was not understanding that such a personal moment would be distorted and used by liberal opponents. Out of such a moment perhaps comes the Newtonian understanding of the need for a political rapid response team whose sole purpose is to flag political untruths on the spot. Be that as it may, this tale shows the endurance of a political Bigfoot tale, the political equivalent of the fictional monster repeatedly spotted but mysteriously never actually captured because, of course, in fact it doesn't exist.
The interesting irony of what is shaping up as political reality in the 2012 Republican campaign is that those who may well be troubled by Gingrich's personal life are more troubled by Romney's flip-flopping political life and apparent dedication to management over principle.
Undiplomatically put, if front-runner Romney is a man without personal blemish and all manner of political warts, conservatives may prefer the man with the consistent political life and the long-known once thoroughly inconsistent personal life. A personal life that now in fact seems what it is, that of a securely married 68-year old grandfather. Indeed, this story from the Washington Times says this Romney/Gingrich personal versus political phenomenon is already in play in Iowa, with evangelicals tilting to Gingrich for just this reason.
But if all this is true, and Gingrich's personal life is fading as an issue superseded by his political life, there is one distinctly Churchillian question that would revolve around a slight refashioning of Bernard Shaw's statement about Churchill. To wit:
"The moment we got a good fright, and had to find a man who could and would do something, we were on our knees to Newt Gingrich."
If Republican voters are in fact in the process of turning to Gingrich in the same fashion the British once turned to Churchill -- what exactly is it that is giving them what Shaw termed "a good fright"?
Why the rise of Newt?
And that question is easily answered.
To make no mistake, no one is making some dopey comparison of Obama to Hitler. Please.
While it was indeed Hitler who gave the British a "good fright" -- in fact a "good fright" is not an uncommon occurrence in history. All manner of events in American history from 9/11 to the economic turmoil and Iranian hostage crisis of the 1970s on back through the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Great Depression to the prospect of Civil War have given Americans a "good fright" -- sending them running to political figures they once doubted or rejected such as George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The turn to Newt Gingrich is not hard to understand.
Americans have now seen the Obama Left in action. Hell-bent on imposing on our country a European-style socialism on their country, a nation that culturally and politically is built on a tradition of opportunity, liberty, freedom, hard work, and entrepreneurship -- the direct opposite of socialist principles. On top of which it sees an American government seemingly paralyzed as the virulently anti-Semitic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad patiently goes about the building of an Iranian nuclear bomb that could easily launch a nuclear war in the Middle East. All of which is leaving millions of Americans with Shaw's "good fright" -- and damn mad on top of that.
In this atmosphere the Republican candidates in these televised debates are being carefully vetted.
And repeatedly -- in every single debate -- it is the now-68-year-old battle-scarred Newt Gingrich who emerges precisely as the battle-scarred Winston Churchill suddenly emerged in 1939 and 1940. Suddenly Republicans -- like frightened and angry British Conservatives before them so many decades ago -- find themselves looking at a man who has been scorned as was Churchill. The "brilliant failure" derided as a "genius without judgment" turns out to be the man of hard earned wisdom with rock hard principles and the best judgment after all. The man once seen as "erratic" is suddenly recognized as the man whose bone-deep understanding of history, strategy and human nature gives him the steely ability to see over the horizon while all around him are essentially blind. And displays the supreme virtue of being unafraid to act.
What do all these polls showing Newt Gingrich on the rise actually mean? What is it that a growing number of Republican voters are asking after each of these debates?
They appear to be asking the American 2011 version of what the British people abruptly found themselves asking in that long ago summer of 1939.
What price Gingrich?