Newt Gingrich has come up in two awesome new books, and his story is insightful. It’s probably time to accept politics as a medium for entertainment no different than summer movies or TV or subversive comedic literature. That sucks if you’re unemployed, or a teacher, or really just any American pulling a paycheck. But it is what it is.
Chuck Klosterman’s book I Wear the Black Hat is about villains, real and made-up. He writes this in an early chapter:
During the race for the Republican nomination, it initially appeared that Texas governor Rick Perry was destined to wear the villain’s cowl. It was almost too easy: Perry consciously embodied the caricature liberals always wanted G. W. Bush to be. But even Bush saw Perry as distasteful. This was a man who took personal pride in executions (during a televised debate, he stated that he’d “never struggled” with the possibility that even one of the 234 prisoners he’d killed during his governorship might have been innocent). Perry wanted to be the villain, probably for strategic reasons. But it didn’t take. He wasn’t smart enough; he probably didn’t even know how “Ayn” was pronounced. The low point was when Perry confidently insisted he would immediately eliminate three governmental agencies upon election, yet could not remember what those agencies were. Perry didn’t scare anyone; sure, he might sentence you to lethal injection, but he also might confuse the potassium chloride with Diet Dr. Pepper. He was a man without a plan. This is why the 2012 Republican villain became Newt Gingrich, a man with more plans than any human on earth. Gingrich wanted to eliminate child labor laws, which would have seemed extreme had he not also wanted to colonize the moon. For a while, he held all his media press conferences inside zoos (before addressing the NRA, he was bitten by a penguin). He had so many crazy, interesting, quasi-diabolical plans that there was simply no way he could be president. Even when he surged in the polls, he never had a chance; you can’t be that clever and that devoid of compassion without engendering more hate than affection. (Once, when asked to describe himself in one word, Gingrich said, “Cheerful,” which was the cognitive equivalent of “Go fuck yourself for asking that question.”) Even when his most loyal supporters discussed his candidacy, they felt obligated to preface their use of “genius” with modifiers like “unpredictable” and “perverse.” And that did not bother him; Gingrich loves who he is. He doesn’t care what other people think of him, because he doesn’t particularly care about other people. This is charming, problematic, and extraordinarily effective — particularly as means of appealing to committed anti-ideologues who spend their lives worrying about the problem of false authenticity. “I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting Newt Gingrich and having a chat with the fellow on a staircase,” ex-Sex Pistols vocalist John Lydon once told Rolling Stone. “I found him completely dishonest and totally likable, because he doesn’t care.” This is both the highest compliment a Sex Pistol can disperse and an incisive description about Newt’s character. He exclusively cares about ideas, regardless of their merits. He would tie a woman to the railroad tracks just to prove he knew what time the train left the station. This is why I always find myself rooting for him, even when I’m against what he purports to desire. I know exactly what he’s doing. It’s like looking in a mirror I do not possess the capacity to smash.
Why does someone like Newt run for president? Because he’s crazy. But why is he crazy?
George Packer’s book The Unwinding has a lot of amazing chapters telling true stories of Americans both famous and unknown. My favorite chapter is about Jay-Z (who quoted “The Godfather Part II” as he stabbed a man); my second-favorite chapter is about Newt Gingrich.
Throughout, I kept thinking of the crazy Dick Whitman flashbacks in “Mad Men.” Idiot critics complain about these scenes, in which Don Draper’s childhood self is awkward and ugly and being raised by evil men and whores. The purpose, though, is to establish the backstory that made this man what he is in the show’s (1960s) present: genius creative star of big-money advertising on Madison Avenue, using his grasp of dark psychology to convince consumers they’re fulfilling deep internal desires by buying floor cleaner. If you’ve watched your father get killed by a spooked horse’s kick to the face, or you lost your virginity to a hooker you thought of as your mother, or you stole a dead soldier’s identity, then you are the best kind of person to convince people to start smoking when science says cigarettes cause cancer.
Who turns into someone like Newt Gingrich?
His father, Big Newt McPherson, “was a bar brawler in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, during World War II,” Packer writes. “On the third morning after he married Kit Daugherty, a 16-year-old house cleaner, Big Newt’s young bride tried to wake him up from a hangover, and he punched her. That was the end of the marriage, but it had lasted just long enough for Kit to get pregnant.”
She had a boy, and named him after his father. Then she married a man named Robert Gingrich. “Big Newt allowed him to adopt Little Newty to get out of paying child support. ‘Isn’t it awful,’ Kit said years later, ‘a man willing to sell off his own son?'”
Not if you’re creating the perfect turn-of-the-century American politician. His stepfather “was a tyrant around the house, silent and intimidating. . . . Little Newty was a weird, myopic kid with no close friends. He sought out the older women around him, who fed him sugar cookies and encouraged him to read.”
Decades later, he’d articulate his destiny in personal notes uncovered during an ethics investigation: “Gingrich—primary mission: advocate of civilization, definer of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who fan civilization, organizer of the pro-civilization activists, leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.” That’s grander than President of the United States, isn’t it?
That was in the 1990s, when he was Speaker of the House. In the 1960s, he was being Dick Whitman-eque: “In high school he secretly dated his geometry teacher Jackie Battley—seven years his senior, another doting older woman. When Gingrich was 19, they married (Bob Gingrich refused to attend), then had two daughters.”
In the late 1970s, Newt ran for Congress. “Gingrich’s Democratic opponent was made to order, a wealthy liberal female state senator originally from New York. Gingrich knew exactly what to do. He moved to the right and went after her on welfare and taxes. He had a new rock in his pocket, ‘the corrupt liberal welfare state,’ and he nailed her between the eyes with it. The Moral Majority was about to take Washington by storm, and Gingrich talked about family values, said that his opponent would break her family up if she went to Washington, and featured Jackie and the girls in his ads.”
Know where this is going. . . ? Dick Whitman is Don Draper at this point in the story. Only worse.
“But Jackie looked fat and unattractive, and it was an open secret in political circles that Newt was cheating on her. Like most Arousers of those who Fan Civilization, he had powerful appetites, but he had not grown up to be the most desirable of men—big head under big graying helmet, cold clever grin, belly pushing against his sky-blue waistline—and his successes were limited. He tried to keep it to oral sex so he could claim literal fidelity if anyone asked, but within two years the marriage was over, another adoring woman about to become the next Mrs. Gingrich, the Advocate of civilization standing at Jackie’s hospital bed as she lay recovering from uterine cancer, a yellow legal pad with divorce terms in his hand. Years later, Gingrich would attribute his indiscretions to hard work brought on by patriotic zeal.”
Gingrich started giving crazy speeches to empty chambers because the C-SPAN cameras were running. He got famous. “I want to shift the entire planet,” he said, “and I’m doing it.”
Language was huge for Gingrich, and he may be the father of talking points. He did shift the entire planet, when you think about it.
Which is f*cking crazy. Whether that makes him a villain is for each of us to decide for ourselves, but it certainly makes him interesting. This is what politics has become, and through Gingrich we better understand the likes of condescending Congressional perma-liars, or the dodgy and apparently corrupt governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez.
It is what it is. Over the past few years I’ve been a newspaper reporter and then an editor for a union-funded super PAC. Now I’m neither. Now I’m just a fan of crazy bad guys. Staying informed is much more enjoyable this way. The news can be “Breaking Bad” if you watch it right.