Hypocrisy is one thing. Mental illness is another.
Watching Newt Gingrich excoriate the media for making his personal life an issue in Thursday’s presidential debate, you realized that he wasn’t merely guilty of not practicing what he preaches. The real issue isn’t that Gingrich has done things that he castigates others for doing. The real, disturbing issue is what seems to be his deeply embedded pattern of finding his own sordid nature in other people, and then mercilessly persecuting them.
“Projection” is a psychological commonplace. The person suffering from depression will find depression everywhere. The person in the grip of lust will see randiness in everyone he meets. And on and on. We all see, in one degree or another, the world in terms of our own condition. Our sanity depends upon the degree.
Borderline personality, clinical narcissist, megalomaniac, sociopath—however you want to characterize Newt Gingrich, he clearly has difficulty distinguishing his own reality from that of other people. The man who cheated on his first wife as she lay in a hospital bed with cancer proclaimed in 1992, just as the Democratic National Convention was taking place, “Woody Allen having non-incest with a non-daughter to whom he was a non-father because they were a non-family fits the Democratic platform perfectly.” The man who then went on to cheat on his second wife compared Democrats, two years later, to Susan Smith: “I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”
The man who brought down Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright on ethics charges in 1988 for an improper book deal himself used political funds to promote the sale of his own book. As House Speaker, Gingrich had 84 ethics charges filed against him. And this compulsive philanderer and morally challenged legislator routinely accuses American teenagers of immorality and poor blacks of lax moral natures.
If all this were only hypocrisy, Gingrich might legitimately expect voters to shrug off his lapses of decency and humanity. As he thundered to the debate audience sitting inside the Charleston arena Thursday night (a pathetic tin parody of Joe Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency?”), “Every person in here knows personal pain.” Because of the law of projection, we often stumble privately and then try to restore our sense of moral dignity by harping on precisely the same deficiencies in other people. As petty and sometimes mean-spirited as that may be, it is a run-of-the-mill hypocrisy. It is simply a psychological convenience for getting through life.
But hypocrisy becomes mental illness when we seek to punish people for our own tendency to hurt other people. When Gingrich treats his wives worse than chattel and then turns around and attempts to demonize others for what he declares are their hurtful moral missteps; when his projections have the potential to cause harmful concrete consequences—that is a diseased relationship with the world that puts him on a par with every tyrant who ever wreaked his damaged personality on the society he governed.
Perhaps Gingrich’s sickness—what Santorum nicely called that “worrisome moment” in Gingrich—is what led him to commit political suicide in 1996. That was when he blamed his obduracy during the government shutdown over the budget on being snubbed by Clinton on a flight to Israel. People who cannot separate themselves from the reality around them go berserk when that reality turns and bites.
But, then, lacking a solid core, projectors like Gingrich secretly lust after the identities of the people they persecute. Gingrich lashed out at Clinton for the latter’s moral trespasses during the Lewinsky scandal, but he had long fancied himself Clinton’s legislative soulmate, as the two worked on making Social Security and Medicare solvent. His fury at Clinton seemed to be fueled by a desperate desire to inhabit Clinton’s charm, his intellect, his “vision thing,” his grandness. The echo of Clinton’s “I feel your pain” was unmistakable in Gingrich’s “Every person in here knows pain.”
Clinton was, however, at his worst, a wily rogue. Gingrich is the projector/persecutor so proud of his “grandiosity” who has replaced human relations with abstract ideas, and whose sagging posture and enervated demeanor seem propped up by spitefulness and revenge. This Gingrich is no slick rogue. He is, to bluntly state the ugly fact of the matter, a very sick man.