Newt Gingrich’s standing ovation Thursday night, when he attacked CNN moderator John King for asking about allegations that Gingrich wanted an “open marriage” with his second wife, told us little about South Carolina but much about human nature.
The query, for which King has been exhaustively critiqued, was both necessary and inevitable. Forget the elephant in the living room; it was the herd in the powder room.
Marianne Gingrich, to whom Gingrich was married when he began an affair with his current wife, Callista, had been in the news all day as excerpts of a then soon-to-be-released interview with ABC News were replayed dozens of times. By debate time, the words “open marriage,” a stale phrase from the silly ’70s when Gingrich was a bespectacled college professor with mutton-chop sideburns, were on the tips of the tongues of a million wags.
Just as King had no choice but to ask, Gingrich answered in the only way he could — by attacking the questioner. Shooting the messenger is a time-honored method of spin control among royals and their imitators. Gingrich’s bilious reproach was an oratorical defenestration. King’s audacity was “despicable,” he intoned, and the crowd roared.
Suddenly, Gingrich’s questionable past was forgotten, and whatever ire his record might have inspired was redirected at The Media — that monolithic target of communal contempt. Not only did Gingrich deflect attention from his immediate problem, but he managed to win the public’s heart. He may not have shifted the entire planet, as he described the object of his ambition in 1985, but he managed to secure his rising momentum in the state that consistently selects the Republican presidential nominee.
People who know Gingrich, and certainly those enemies who convinced Marianne Gingrich that she should step forward for the good of the country, must have wondered how things could go so wrong. How could they have miscalculated that Gingrich’s greatest liability could become his greatest strength? They did not, as one might first suppose, underestimate the public’s disdain for the media. Very likely they share it. What they forgot were the lessons wrought by Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr and the power of projection.
In a nutshell: The more you pick on a person for human failings with which all can identify, the more likely you will create sympathy rather than antipathy, especially if that individual has been forthright in his confession and penitent for his transgression, as Gingrich has been. He was ahead of the curveball this time, with nothing left to tell or for his aggrieved former wife to expose. Thus, her interview and the King question had the feel not of revelation but of a political hit aided and abetted by a salacious press.
Even Bill Clinton, who was less forthcoming and therefore, at least initially, less sympathetic, came to be viewed as a victim following months of investigation and the airing of sordid details only voyeurs could enjoy. Starr, as King, was merely doing his job, yet he became less likable than Clinton among Regular Joes watching television in their kitchens. However nobly Republicans may have considered their mission, everyday Americans — particularly men — saw persecution.
A Catholic friend captures the operative sentiment in terms Gingrich surely would appreciate. When she sees someone succumb to temptation or betray some other human frailty, she says: “I have those weeds in my garden.”
To err is human; to forgive divine. We like that way of thinking because we all need others’ forgiveness. When Gingrich turned to his audience and said that we all know pain — we all know people who have suffered pain — he instantly morphed from sinner to savior, the redeemer in chief. He correctly counted on the empathy of his fellow man, if not necessarily womankind, and won the moment.
But a moment is just that, and projection of the sort experienced by the Charleston, S.C., audience can be fraught with peril. Over-identification clouds judgment, and, though we are all sinners, we are not all running for president of the United States. Gingrich’s sins of the flesh ultimately are of less importance than the narcissism and grandiosity that compel his actions.
Voters would do well to think less of what they would do in his shoes than what Gingrich will do, should he win the prize. As the reality of his astonishing self-regard sinks in and one imagines where his unflagging certitude might lead, it is less easy to identify with the weeds in his garden. As projection falters, empathy finds no place to land.