People who have been around Newt Gingrich a lot have surely seen the scene: There’s Gingrich, retinue of followers in tow, just before a big speech, bragging about how he’s going to bowl over the crowd, really “wow” them, reveling in his own splendor. He gives off an air of a self-infatuated actor about to take the stage, playing a wholly fictional character rather than being himself. It’s all a show. It’s all about how to make the audience applaud. It was that same attitude that was on display at last Thursday’s debate when he ripped apart John King for asking the question about Marianne Gingrich’s allegations, calling King “despicable,” only to bound over to King when the debate was over and congratulate him, all smiles, for conducting such a great debate. Gingrich’s attack on King was all feigned. It was all for show.
Well, in a lengthy but highly enlightening article last month that I somehow missed until Friday afternoon, Mickey Edwards, former congressman and former chairman of the American Conservative Union, talks about just that same experience of Gingrich playing a role for applause whether he believes what he’s saying or not.
I’ve always thought that if he had not entered politics, Newt should have gone to Hollywood; he has become unusually adept at adopting personas for public consumption. In that sense he is every bit as good as a Robert DeNiro or a Robert Duvall. He is, above all, an actor. This is why he is so appealing to those who know only what they see on a stage…We all try to shape how people see us, we all want to appear smarter than we may think ourselves to be, pats on the back are always welcome. Newt’s self-aggrandizing antics were theater; weird, perhaps, but not anything to be concerned about. So why have so many people who know him now begun to warn about the possibility that he could become president — and how has that come to pass, anyway? First, as to how this prospect has arisen. Gingrich was a back-bencher in the House, noisy more than productive, but luck intervened to help him realize his ambitions….But to Gingrich, parties — confrontational parties — are essential tools to be used to gain, and hold, power. It is power, not wise governance, that exerts the magnetic pull…. But it is now time to turn away from the spectacle of American Gladiator and consider not who we most like to watch — the entertainer — and begin to think seriously about the future of the United States. It is not a future we want to enter with a Newt Gingrich in the Oval Office.
These are just the parts about Newt the stage actor; Edwards is scathing throughout. (“On the one hand, there are those who fear for the country if he were ever to become president. That assessment seems a little extreme to others: they express no fear for the country because they believe [wrongly, I think] that he has no chance of becoming president. What they fear instead is the destruction of the Republican Party.” And: “I am not associated with any campaign but of the choices available to us, the worst — and that is saying something — is Newt Gingrich.” And: “To describe Gingrich as ‘volatile’ is like describing Picasso as somebody who liked to draw. Political chatterers point to this volatility as something to be concerned about in terms of a possible Gingrich eruption in the debates; I worry about it in terms of America’s relationships with other nations.”)
The point is, though, that the same Gingrich who plays such a tough, fearless, larger-than-life figure on stage is also the Gingrich quoted multiple times, by multiple people, saying that every time he got around Bill Clinton he (Gingrich) would just “melt.” He’s also the guy who loudly proclaims one thing in public but dos just the opposite in private — perhaps a common fault in some politician’s personal lives, but the problem here is that he did this on policy questions too, all the time, leaving allies and colleagues hanging while he shifted to some new idea or, worse, just a new pose.
In truth, as enough conservative GOPers found out from his speakership that they deposed him after just four years, the great and powerful Gingrich, like the “great and powerful Oz,” was full of humbug. If Toto finds a way effectively to pull back the curtain so that all the voters can see, what will become apparent is that, as Marianne Gingrich told Esquire Magazine about Newt’s behind-the-scenes behavior on political matters and his public pronouncements, “[H]e doesn’t connect things like normal people. There’s a vacancy – kind of scary, isn’t it?”