He’s the last person you’d expect to feel a trace of pity for.
But watching Newt Gingrich mortgage every last trace of dignity over the last few days, watching him say asinine thing after asinine thing in a flailing, desperate, futile attempt to stay in the news and wrench approval out of millions of hard-line conservative voters who wouldn’t support him if the Gipper himself rode down from heaven on a B-movie steed and personally told them to, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for a rather unlikable man, for a guy who suggested just a few months ago that child-labor laws are “stupid.”
After all, Gingrich has always wanted to be seen as a Big Thinker, as an Ideas Man. But as is so often the case, his worst gasbag tendencies are interfering, and he may be forfeiting his last chance to be seen as a bona fide intellectual—a designation he has never really deserved, but which American journalists and politicians have abetted him in chasing for decades.
Both of his comments on Friday stood out for their awfulness, even in the house of horrors that is campaign-season rhetoric. First, on Sean Hannity's radio show, he called Obama’s response to a question about the Trayvon Martin shooting “disgraceful” and “appalling”—two words that, if you’ve seen or read Obama’s comments, simply don’t come close to describing them.
Then, at a campaign event, he suggested that Obama himself is to blame for the persistent belief that he is a Muslim. “I think it is very bizarre that he is desperately concerned to apologize to Muslim religious fanatics while they are killing young Americans,” he told reporters, “while at the same time going to war against the Catholic Church and against every right-to-life Protestant organization in the country. I just think it’s a very strange value system.”
Sure enough, Gingrich was able to gobble up some headlines with this substanceless nonsense, like a condemned man scarfing down a few dozen doughnuts before heading to the gurney.
It’s easy to laugh at the spectacle, but there’s also something a bit sad, in the forgotten-dreams sense, about the ease with which Gingrich is talking himself down to the status of a bigoted clown. After all, he has long fashioned himself as a capital-I Intellectual, offering up a smorgasbord of policy ideas about everything from health care to a permanent presence on the moon. He’s got a Ph.D.—not a common credential for a presidential candidate, let alone among this cycle’s GOP crop.
As a result, many have been all too eager to prop him up as a Serious Thinker: he’s an “ideas man” or an “ideas machine,” depending on whether you ask Eric Cantor or Mark McKinnon (let’s compromise and call him an “ideas cyborg”). He even got more moderate voices, like The Washington Post and Time’s Mark Halperin, to join the chorus.
It’s a different story, of course, when experts poke and prod his ideas; they don’t stand up as well. “I am not qualified to judge Gingrich’s knowledge of pterodactyls or the merits of establishing a colony on Mars,” wrote Georgetown historian Michael Kazin in The New Republic, to take just one example. “However, I have just completed his latest book of history: A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. And I can say, with absolute confidence, that it may be the most inaccurate, least intellectual book about our nation’s past I have ever read.”
But whatever the legitimacy of his claims to be an intellectual, it’s a telling sign both of the current climate and the schizophrenia that has long defined Gingrich (half wannabe high-minded policy wonk, half frothing right-wing populist) that he is crawling around in the gutter on his hands and knees, searching for bits of soggy detritus to hurl at Obama.
Gingrich may not be a likable guy, but it’s still not easy to watch him implode like this.