It hasn’t been a great week for recently announced presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich. The former speaker of the house had to explain why he seemed to contradict himself in statements about the Obama administration’s health care plan. He called Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plans “right-wing extremism,” setting off criticism. He was called out for a revolving charge account at the jewelers Tiffany’s from back in 2005 and 2006 in the amount of $250,000 to $500,000, and refused to comment on whether he had paid off the tab and why he had such hefty bills to the jeweler. (A bad case of the mean reds, perhaps?)
As a result, pundits are hard at work dissecting Gingrich’s lack of discipline. On the one hand, his blunt, say-anything approach gets him outsized attention, a risky but valuable asset amid a crowded primary campaign. At the same time, the fact that Newt is “irresistibly drawn to operatic overstatement,” in the words of one conservative writer, means he is just as likely to say something brilliant that will generate great press for days as he is to say something that could seriously damage his campaign.
But what might be a benefit prior to the launch of the campaign—especially for someone who hasn’t held public office in 12 years—is unquestionably a disadvantage once the actual campaign for president begins. That’s because now the calculus isn’t just how much attention Newt can get, even in a crowded primary, but how presidential he seems. While that will matter even more when voters really start paying attention in the general election, it’s something to worry about now too.
For leaders, the ability to project an image of self-control and discipline is everything. Knowing what not to say is more important than saying too much. While swipes and jabs are a natural part of the political process, they should be well-timed and well-conceived. Especially when it comes to the presidency, voters start to wonder what that slip of the tongue will mean when it comes not in the middle of a campaign stop, but during a critical tete-a-tete with a leader in the Middle East.
Unlike other leaders with foot-in-mouth disease—think George W. Bush’s grammatical flubs, or Joe Biden’s loquaciousness—Gingrich’s Achilles heel appears to be a byproduct of his intellect. “The former college history professor wants forever to be the lecturer,” writes The National Review’s Rich Lowery, “finding connections and putting them together in a startling and memorable theory.” In other words, Lowery implies, it is his ego, rather than a penchant not to think before he speaks, that can get Gingrich in trouble.
Newt is aware of the flaw—he said so in the same interview in which he slammed Ryan’s Medicare plan and seemed to agree that people should be required to buy health insurance. “One of the most painful lessons I’ve had to learn, and I haven’t fully learned it, obviously, is that if you seek to be the president of the United States, you are never an analyst, and you are never a college teacher because those folks can say what they want to say.” Obviously. For leaders, the desire to say something smart can’t get in the way of always being smart about what you say.
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