The Strange Allure of Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich photo by Gage Skidmore (via Creative Commons).

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a column I wrote trying to explain the popularity of Newt Gingrich among GOP voters. Despite its obvious newsworthiness, the column hasn’t been posted online. So I decided to offer a slightly expanded version of the article for Sans Everything readers:

Bewitched by the Eye of Newt by Jeet Heer

For Republican voters, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is like an ex-spouse who provokes a complex mix of longing and remorse. Even after the bitterest divorce, people often hook up with their exes, in ill-advised attempts to relive fonder days.

For many Republicans, as his last-minute surge in South Carolina shows, Mr. Gingrich is an old flame who still has that bad-boy charm. Voters remember all his faults, with the intimate knowledge of a former lover, but he has a way of melting their hearts: No other candidate is so adept at caressing GOP hot spots, such as fears of Mitt Romney being a “Massachusetts moderate” or of Barack Obama’s “socialist-secular machine.”

All this explains why Mr. Gingrich’s campaign remains hot, despite his well-known liabilities. He is either leading or a hair’s breadth behind the establishment-supported Mr. Romney in polls for the primaries being held today in the Palmetto State. Mind you, Mr. Gingrich’s numbers have been a roller-coaster ride: He soared in the spring but quickly fell back to Earth after reports about his lavish personal spending, including an account at Tiffany’s. There was another spurt of popularity in Iowa in early December that was beaten back by a barrage of negative ads. South Carolina, then, represents primary voters’ third fling with Mr. Gingrich in this long campaign season.

And frankly it is hard not to want Mr. Gingrich to stay in the race, no matter how you feel about his politics. Compared to the staid centrists and uptight puritans around him, Mr. Gingrich at least has character and colour (generally beet-red from shouting). If the Republican primaries are like a reality show, can anyone deny that Mr. Gingrich is Kim Kardashian – hyperactive, morally dubious and with an inexplicable power to hold attention?

Barack Obama ran an emotionally charged race in 2008, but he’s governed as a pragmatic technocrat, more than living up to his nickname, “No Drama Obama.” Mr. Romney looks and acts like a father from a 1950s sit-com, with a personality as square as his chin and hair. By contrast, Mr. Gingrich is a prankster and trouble-maker, an irrepressible life-force.

In classic Freudian terms, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are self-controlled super-egos, Mr. Gingrich is pure id, a creature of appetite and unchecked anti-social impulses who accepts and even embraces the darker side of human life.

He first came to national prominence in 1994, leading Congressional Republicans to victory and making his mark with remarkably intemperate rhetoric. When a woman named Susan Smith killed her two sons in 1994, he quickly linked the crime to liberalism, saying there was “a direct nexus between the general acceptance of violence” and “the pattern that the counterculture and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society began in the late ’60s.” In a 1990 memo, he urged his fellow Republicans to link the Democratic Party to these words: betray, bizarre, decay, anti-flag, anti-family, pathetic, lie, cheat, radical, sick, traitors.

The outlandish language wasn’t incidental to Mr. Gingrich’s politics. He was the first Fox News Republican, less interested in policy and governance than in scoring points loudly on TV.

That was the honeymoon period, but Mr. Gingrich’s political career unravelled in the late 1990s, due to a Congressional corruption investigation and revelations about his baroque personal life: He divorced his first wife, Jackie, in 1980 while she was battling cancer and he was carrying on an affair with Marianne Ginther, whom he married the following year. In the 1990s, even as he inveighed against Bill Clinton’s marital infidelity, Mr. Gingrich carried on another affair, with Congressional staffer Callista Bisek; meanwhile, Marianne Gingrich was grappling with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

In an interview this week on ABC News, Marianne claimed that in the late 1990s her husband suggested that they have an “open marriage” in which she’d allow him to continue to enjoy the favours of his mistress. She refused, she says, and so Callista became the third Mrs. Gingrich in 2000. (Mr. Gingrich denies the story.)
Mr. Romney comes from a church founded by the notoriously many-wived Joseph Smith, but Mormons have long since adopted the monogamous norm and the former Massachusetts governor seems to have a blissful nuclear family. If there’s a polygamist in this race, given his serial overlapping relationships, it’s Mr. Gingrich.

You’d think this might be a problem for conservatives who preach family values, but apparently not: Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin encouraged South Carolina voters to give their support to Mr. Gingrich and said this week that he is “now going to soar even more” because he’s being targeted by the mainstream media. Right-wing radio stalwart Rush Limbaugh quipped, “Everybody’s had an angry ex-spouse.” (Mr. Limbaugh has been married four times.)

Mr. Obama admires the novels of Philip Roth, but it’s Mr. Gingrich who lives his life like a Roth novel, as given to free-floating rants and illicit sexuality as a full-grown, pastier Alexander Portnoy. Roth’s famous anti-hero had a special fondness for receiving fellationes, a practice that Mr. Gingrich also allegedly enjoys (in part because it allows the wily politician room to deny he was having sex).

Much of the appeal of Rothian mischief-makers  like Alexander Portnoy and Mickey Sabbath is that they act on impulses which are widely shared but commonly repressed. They say and do things that most of us are too polite and repressed to do. Mr. Gingrich is the Republican Portnoy, not just in his sexual extravagance but in his tirades and rants against Obama as a Kenyan socialist, the mainstream media as the enemy of conservatism, and African-Americans as a people who need to be lectured on the importance of hard work.

Will Mr. Gingrich make a Saturday-night conquest, and might voters regret it Sunday morning? Ultimately, with him and the GOP, it’s a love-hate affair. In 1995, David Frum described him as “a man of ideas and a subversively high level of culture”; last year, the former George Bush adviser offered a harsher view: Mr. Gingrich’s problem, he said, “is not the infidelity. It’s the arrogance, hypocrisy, and – most horrifying to women voters – the cruelty. Anyone can dump one sick wife. Gingrich dumped two.”

But that’s the thing about Newt: Whatever he is, he’s not just anybody.

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