As long as this land sticks to quadrennial presidential elections, there’ll be quadrennial tributes to what Newt Gingrich accomplished tonight on CNN, at the last debate before Saturday’s South Carolina primary. That is, the most vicious, sneering, manipulative, compact, part-true, part-hogwash rant against the mainstream media that the mainstream media may ever host.
It came at the very beginning, when CNN’s John King invoked a story by ABC and The Post regarding Newt’s ex-wife Marianne Gingrich, who said that Newt had requested an “open marriage.” The story, noted King, had gone “viral” on the Internet. Did the Speaker want to take a shot at the issue?
Gingrich: “No, but I will.”
Skinny: If only he had stopped at “No.” It would have been even more classic.
Gingrich: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
Skinny: A boilerplate Gingrichian anti-media cant. He’s been doing this throughout the primary season, especially in debates. The audience at this one roared at his “appalled” line — evidence that the attendees had no appreciation for how easily this guy gets appalled.
Gingrich: “Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things.”
Skinny: Well executed — even though Gingrich appears to have been the one inflicting pain in the Marianne episode, he seeks communion with the crowd over experiencing pain.
Gingrich: “To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question in a presidential campaign, is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Skinny: Mr. Historian’s imagination must have been on the fritz on Thursday night. Couldn’t he come up with more despicable examples of media behavior than this? What about Dan Rather and W.’s National Guard papers? What about Jayson Blair?
Gingrich: “My two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it...”
Skinny: I didn’t drag your daughters into this thing, Gingrich — you did. But now that they’re front and center, let me just say that I don’t care what they wrote to the head of ABC.
Gingrich: “I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.” To which King replied: “As you noted, Mr. Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is the subject of conversation on the campaign....” To which Gingrich replied: “John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t blame it on somebody else. You and your staff chose to start the debate with it.”
Skinny: Point, Gingrich. Rookie mistake by a veteran in King’s case. Once CNN chose the item as its kickoff theme, it takes ownership of the story and all its integrity or sleaze, depending on your point of view. This isn’t an innocent case of aggregation; it’s a buy-in. King should have just vouched for the relevance of the Marianne story.
Gingrich: “Let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear.”
Skinny: Had he said that only once, I fear that things would have been murky.
Gingrich: “This story is false. Every personal friend I had in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false.”
Skinny: This is a towering challenge for the fact-checking community. No matter what these friends may say, aren’t there only two people in the world who know the veracity of the “open marriage” story? Divorces are ugly, and part of the ugliness is that people take sides. Not sure I’d believe the friends of either party in this one.
Gingrich: “[ABC wasn’t] interested because they would like to attack any Republican. They’re attacking the governor, they’re attacking me, I’m sure they’ll get around to Sen. Santorum, and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
Skinny: The elite media will attack anyone, especially when doing so requires merely sitting down with a source and turning on a camera.