Frankly, Newt Gingrich never had a chance, no matter how many “profounds” and “fundamentals” he threw at us. He exits as he began: As a presidential candidate, he was always Sarah Palin without the enthusiastic supporters but with a marital record that made John Edwards look good.
If we’re lucky — and we won’t be, alas — this would mark the end of Gingrich as a national political figure. The record is not a good one:
●Several years as a back-bench bomb-thrower in the House;
●Two terms as speaker, in which he was responsible for the longest government shutdown on record as well as the disgusting decision to impeach a president to produce partisan talking points;
●Chased from office by a party conference that initially (and mistakenly) credited him with the shocking 1994 election sweep but soon enough plotted against him and eventually grew fed up enough to dump him;
●And then, after threatening it for 16 years, the coda: a self-aggrandizing and futile run for the presidency. Many observers suspected it was always more about promoting his various ways of cashing in on his political career than a real attempt to win office, although others pointed to his Churchill-obsessed megalomania in positing that he really thought he was going to win.
There was a Twitter debate the other day about the most destructive figures for U.S. political culture. My nominees, at least for the 20th century:
●Woodrow Wilson, who as president attempted to delegitimize Congress and play up a mystical (and mythical) ability of the man in the White House to channel the deepest wishes of the American people;
●Richard Nixon, who turned partisan viciousness into an art form and attempted to delegitimize the executive-branch bureaucracy and the press;
●And Newt Gingrich, who was even more viciously partisan than Nixon and who attempted to delegitimize so many institutions that it would take something much longer than a blog post to list them all.
Newt’s entire mode of action was to destroy whatever was in his path in order to “save” it, whether it was the House of Representatives, the presidency or the Republican Party. It's the spirit of Newt Gingrich that has left us with coarser, uglier and more extreme language in our daily politics; it's the spirit of Newt Gingrich that leads to things such as Senate Republicans filibustering against nominees they don't even actually oppose.
He was never, as some learned to their embarrassment over the last few months (and as new Republican members of the House learned to their surprise in 1995), much of a conservative. He was a radical, always eagerly embracing whatever struck his fancy at the moment or whatever he believed he needed to believe in order to achieve his goals, which were usually about destroying someone — Jim Wright, Bob Michel, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney. If that meant aligning himself with movement conservatives, fine; if it meant sitting on a couch and talking climate change with Nancy Pelosi, or bashing Paul Ryan’s budget, or attacking Romney’s business, that was fine too.
With any luck, conservatives will have learned their lesson and they’ll finally exile him to wherever disgraced politicians go. More likely, they’ll eagerly welcome him and his beloved extreme words back into the fold once he retrains his aim on Barack Obama. It’s too bad.
By the way, the best things I’ve read about Gingrich are John M. Barry’s “The Ambition and the Power,” for how Gingrich manipulated the media to take on then-House Speaker Jim Wright, and “Tell Newt to Shut Up!” by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf, about his disastrous first year as speaker. I recommend them both.