Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Best and Worst of Newt

Newt Gingrich had a good night in Fox News's South Carolina debate.  All of the candidates besides Ron Paul did in Noman's estimation.  

Newt was especially strong when deflecting Juan Williams's race baiting (on Martin Luther King day), and generally by laying out intelligent ideas in compelling language.  His only faux pas was going after Mitt Romney's super-pac for running misleading ads, when his own has been less than circumspect.

It's hard not to like Newt when he's demonstrating how smart he is, and exposing how smart Lefty reporters aren't.  But, it's hard to like him when he gets strategic, political and worst of all, venal.

Newt's virtue is of the battle-tested, intellectual variety rather than moral.  Newt is reflective and wise from experience, not just intelligence.  

But, his Achilles heel--vain opportunism--periodically rears its ugly head to choke off his greatest virtue.  That makes him hard to trust.

This is not to say that Newt is a bad man.  But, it is to say that he wears his fallenness--a universal condition that he shares with humanity--rather heavily.

Neither should his untrustworthiness be likened to that of President Obama.  Newt merely gets lost in a miasma of ideas and incentives.

President Obama thinks he has to transform America for it to be good.  That takes vanity and opportunism to another level, that of Olympian deities.

Questions of stability notwithstanding, Newt had a good night.  Noman hopes that whatever the outcome of the nominating process, his formidable skills won't be lost to the country.  

The same goes for all of the other contestants that began this arduous process, even Sarah Palin who declined to engage in it.  If the debates have revealed anything, it is the breadth and depth of the Republican Party: in a word, diversity.

What the candidates share--their choice for life rather than its destruction; a sense of personal and governmental limits; respect for American traditions and history; a predilection for market solutions; a mistrust of concentrated power; a love of country and resentment towards its antagonists; a belief in what free people can achieve rather than an obsession with what they supposedly can't; a preference for opportunity rather than structured outcomes--leads Noman to believe that they can get along for the common good.  If only they can control their staffers.

Jack Abramoff shares a 1990's anecdote about Speaker Gingrich in his political confession "Capitol Punishment" that sheds light on why Newt can't mollify the disconcerted.

Abramoff had been retained by the Northern Marianas Commonwealth--a group of islands located in the North-western Pacific Ocean immediately to the east of the Philippine Sea. The largest island in the group is Saipan.

It wanted to preserve its dominion over applicable immigration and minimum wage laws for which it had negotiated when becoming a US territory.  Labor unions were on the attack through Congress, however, as goods from the Marianas bore the "Made in the USA" label even though it's workers were not paid mainland scale.  

Had the island price of labor been that high, goods from the Marianas would have lost their competitive advantage.  Consequently, the Marianas would have forfeited the benefit they had gained--favorable access to the US market--by ceding control of the islands.

Abramoff saw it as a free-market issue and began to sell it as such in Congress, which was receptive to such an appeal after the Republican Revolution of 1994.  He describes his meeting with Speaker Gingrich:
I had only a few minutes with Newt in the Speaker's office, but I figured that should suffice.  I was wrong.  His tendency to wander was a bit unnerving, as he never seemed to be able to sit still or focus for more than a few minutes.  Finally, when I told him about the Marianas, his response stunned me.  He suggested we make the Marianas and other American Pacific territories--Guam and American Samoa--part of Hawaii.  "That way," he said, "they can all have a congressman and be a real part of the United States."
Was he not listening at all, or did I somehow say something to lead him to such a conclusion? Later on, I'd come to realize this was classic Newt.  As soon as he heard an issue, he would quickly decide what to do--even without the benefit of all the information--and that was the end of the discussion.  I tried feebly to bring us back to the real issues at hand, but he was having none of it.
He continued, ignoring me, "Yes, part of Hawaii.  That would be great.  That would solve their problems.  Super... Jack, you take care."  The meeting was over. 
In the event the reader is interested, Abramoff was able to retain the Marianas' privileges, no thanks to the Speaker.

This vignette in the life of a public man about whom much has been recounted reveals something important.  Gingrich is a man who relies a touch too much on his own intellectual prowess.

Should Newt become President, he will need people around him that question his thinking and challenge him on it, rather than like-minded strategy wonks who merely seek to foist his legislative agenda onto the American public via Congress.  In other words, he'll need to run the White House in a completely different fashion than it's presently being run.

Unlike President Obama, Newt is a grown up.  Noman imagines that he will see the wisdom of surrounding himself with strong, experienced, and contrary minded people.

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