It was November 1994. I was in Greece at the Temple of Delphi. As I walked the grounds of the ancient pagan oracle I saw a news kiosk. Approaching it, I spied the International Herald Tribune. Across its pages was the monumental news that after 50 years the Republicans had taken the House!
I vaulted into the air with a yell. Finding no drachmas on me (in that pre-Euro age) I cajoled my liberal democratic friend to give me the means to buy the paper. He hesitated. “Well, ok if we abide by a 24 hour gloat period and that’s it.”
I then eagerly read the news and the triumphant march of the former back bencher who had made life hell for the go-along-get-along-sing-along Bob Michaels, and Speakers O’Neal and Wright. Only the advent of Reagan and a Republican Senate in 1980 could have matched that. Taking the House, until then the Impenetrable Fortress Democrat, was in many ways a greater achievement.
That moment would not have happened absent Newt Gingrich. He was its instigator, General and true believer. The House fulfilled its promises and voted on all the items in the Contract with America. I obtained a “Friend of Newt Card”, common among young conservatives in Washington. So shell-shocked were the Democrats that a rattled President Clinton had to explain that the “President was still relevant.”
From that Republican take over came the boom years and balanced budgets of the Clinton Presidency. The last budget of the Democratic House posited “deficits as far as the eye could see.” By 1998 it was in virtual balance. Welfare reform-which had to be passed three times by Gingrich and the Republicans before a Dick Morris influenced Clinton to sign it is with us. It is perhaps the greatest conservative reform in 30 years. And that is Newt’s too.
But then there was the rest. Newt always talked apocalyptically. Jennifer Rubin notes Andy Ferguson’s review of Newt’s books and Lord help me if its not always 1860. Moreover, the pollster Frank Luntz did some work shaping the Contract with America and had taught Newt some words that worked well. He has never dropped them. “Extraordinary.” “Frankly” “Transformative.” Even now they pepper the debates and delineate the inimitable Newt style.
He allowed Clinton to blame the Government “shutdown” on Republicans and did not effectively counter that he was passing budgets and the President was vetoing them. He refused to understand that the Speaker of the House is not the Chief Executive and can not command the bully pulpit quite as well. He also seemed to want Clinton to like and respect him. During the shutdown he allowed a dispute on where he sat on a plane to become an issue.
His subalterns, including John Boehner, and the estimable Vin Weber could never know exactly what Newt was up to or what he had promised. Then came impeachment. I do not believe that the impeachment “was about sex” as the liberals love to say. President Clinton was the Chief Magistrate. He was a defendant in a legal case strengthened by a law he had signed. The oath matters or it does not matter. We can not be a nation of laws if the Chief Magistrate can lie under oath to defend his pocket book. The Judge in that case, a Democrat who Clinton had taught at law school, sanctioned him. He is disbarred to this very day. Clinton is the only man of whom it can be said he lacked the honesty and good character to be a lawyer but had enough to be President.
Be that as it may, public perception is public perception. That Gingrich had a wandering eye I knew from direct observation. Moreover, his present wife went to school with the crowd I ran with and the gossip from that small school meant we knew more than was in the papers. The story that he sprung divorce on a surprised and dying cancer stricken wife has been denounced as bunk by his children (and that wife is still alive). But conservatives particularly do not admire incontinence in personal life.
Then there are the wild gyrations of policy. I went to a conference once where the then Republican Arianna Huffington and Newt Gingrich appeared. It was all futurist twaddle that at minimum is in tension with conservatism. Early on he posited heating up farms with mirrors to increase crop yield but then switched to a belief in man made global warming. And yet… he still speaks and fights like no living Republican. I would watch Newt Gingrich talk about positronic farming before I would listen to virtually any other Republican candidate talk about anything.
But it’s not enough. George W. Bush has a famous story of how he stopped drinking and was a changed man after forty. That gave some confidence in him they had not had previously. He demonstrably lived his life differently. Newt converted to Catholicism but it does not seem like it has changed him. The bill at Tiffany is more Imelda Marcos than Mother Theresa. He seems like the same, eloquent, flawed visionary he was when I carried his card in my pocket.
I was for Pawlenty because this election has to be about Obama and his policies. If Newt is the nominee, it wont’ be. So I am still without a candidate.