Andy Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and arguably the most dazzling writer on the right, has been a one-man killing machine. In a series of pieces on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Jon Huntsman, he has systematically done in (or helped to do in) more Republican candidates than Think Progress, the New York Times and George Soros ever could.
In some cases, the effort was an intentional dissection of the candidate’s foibles. He wrote of the liberal elites’ favorite Republican: “Huntsman seems to have missed something big in the landslides of 2010. The reason for his Rip Van Winkle aura, to use still another metaphor, is that Huntsman spent most of the Obama administration out of the country.” His kickoff suffered from “hoary rhetoric [and] the overpackaging that can’t quite obscure the obvious lack of anything fresh to say.” At other times, Ferguson has simply caught the candidates unaware, letting them sink themselves (Daniels’s “social truce” and Barbour’s musing about the civil rights movement in Yazoo City).
But none is so devastating as his literary journey through Newt Gingrich’s books. All of them. Twenty-one of them. In doing so he exposes what too few recognize: the vacuity of Gingrich’s ludicrously exaggerated intellect. Gingrich posits himself as a sort of Alvin Toffler meets Allan Bloom. Ferguson’s skewers it all.
There is the over-the-top Gingrich. “Reading the Gingrich catalog, you get used to intimations — or are they threats? — of Armageddon. Windows are slamming shut, or are just about to, all over the place, all the time. ‘Time is running out,’ he wrote toward the end of ‘Window of Opportunity,’ 27 years ago. It’s no wonder that Washington thinks he’s so smart: Gingrich was panicky before panicky was cool.”
There is Gingrich the lover of technology by way of the Jetsons. “There are problems inherent in futurism, most of them involving the future, which the futurist is obliged to predict (it’s his job) and which seldom cooperates as he would hope. Gingrich has called some and missed some. In 1984, he saw more clearly than most that computers would touch every aspect of commercial and private life, but nobody any longer wants to build ‘a large array of mirrors [that] could affect the earth’s climate,’ warming it up so farmers could extend the growing season.”
And there is Gingrich the liberal. “The liberal revulsion toward him obscured how unorthodox — occasionally, how liberal — his conservatism was. The books then and now are full of heresy. He showed a willingness to criticize other Republicans, even Reagan at the height of his popularity. He advocated a health tax on alcohol to discourage drinking — social engineering, it’s called — and imagined government-issued credit cards that would allow citizens to order goods and services directly from the feds. He thought the government should run nutritional programs at grocery stores and give away some foodstuffs free. He was pushing cuts in the defense budget in 1984 and a prototype of President Obama’s cash-for-clunkers program in 1995.”What is noteworthy is not only how liberal are his prescriptions, but how mundanely statist they are.
Finally, there is Gingrich the disorganized. “Gingrich’s vagueness was always a problem, but the books show something more: a near-total lack of interest in the political implementation of his grand ideas — a lack of interest, finally, in politics at its most mundane and consequential level. Gingrich’s inattention to detail is one reason his speakership was so chaotic, as readers of a certain age will recall, and the primary reason he was shunned by his own party after four years with the gavel.”
When many in the mainstream media and far too many conservatives who should know better swoon over his pronouncements, the cannier on the right and left justifiably roll their eyes in disgust. Gingrich’s mind is an attic of throwaway, unusable and downright goofy ideas, piled high like newspapers in the room of a troubled subject on “Hoarders.” The volume is great, the quality is shoddy. His hobbyhorse is technology, or rather gimmickry. (“The coming rush of high technology will dismantle the welfare state and provide a replacement that is humane and efficient; it will free the poor from government dependency, take apart a failing educational establishment, relieve the drudgery of industrial labor and provide a steady supply of pleasant jobs, defrock out-of-touch elites in every corner of the ruthlessly secular society, clean up the environment and bequeath to us an America that is ‘safe, healthy, prosperous and free,’ as he wrote in ‘Winning the Future’ and, with slight variation, in most of his other books too.”)
But, ironically, what he never masters is politics. His collapse as speaker is more understandable once you grasp the full extent of his egomania and grandiose visions (“Muddling through — which is the default option of our constitutional system and the one that most Americans, latently conservative as they are, seem to prefer — never surfaces in the swirling mists of his crystal ball.”) Daydreamers and narcissists can make (in small doses) amusing writers and entertaining cocktail party guests, but lousy political leaders. And as president? Shudder.