Opinion writer May 16, 2011

A Post feature — The Fact Checker — is possibly the most powerful force for good since Clark Kent encountered a phone booth. The other day it laid into Newt Gingrich, who had just announced he was running for president to save the nation from what would happen if he did not run for president. Glenn Kessler, the mild-mannered reporter behind “The Fact Checker,” had to use almost 2,000 words in the online version of his Sunday column — so many lies, so little newspaper space — to deal with just some of Gingrich’s exaggerations and wound up awarding him four Pinocchios. For most politicians this would be a titanic embarrassment, but for Gingrich it is not even a personal best.

My favorite of Gingrich’s whoppers — more of an absurdity, really — is where he takes on East Coast elitism by asserting that only one of Ronald Reagan’s movies (“Kings Row”) got a good review from the New York Times. Kessler pounced. “Kings Row” didn’t get a good review, but some other Reagan movies did. As for the Times critic who reviewed “Kings Row,” Bosley Crowther, he was hardly an exemplar of elitism. On the contrary, he was something of a stick in the mud who loathed some of the best movies of our time. Inexcusably, he called David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” a “thundering camel-opera,” which is about as wrong as you can get and not be remanded to the custody of the court.

Getting things upside down and backward when it comes to a single film critic is no big deal. But this is Gingrich in his pose as a Renaissance Man, not just another pol — but a thinker and social critic who, nonetheless, has never succumbed to elitism. With Crowther, though, Gingrich fingered a fuddy-duddy who reached the apogee of stodginess with his review of “Bonnie and Clyde.” As Mark Harris points out in his wonderful book “Pictures at a Revolution,” Crowther called it “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy.” Two thumbs down, I’d say.

None of this matters much to Gingrich. Had he known the particulars about Crowther, he probably would have proceeded anyway. He deals in boogeymen — menacing abstractions such as “left-wing radicals,” the “secular socialist machine” and “gay and secular fascism,” all of which (or some of which) represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” The purplish mixing of homosexuality and fascism is both breathtakingly wrong and breathtakingly tasteless. No one was more anti-gay than the Nazis. They killed ’em.

This core dishonesty is what separates Gingrich from the rest of the Republican presidential candidates, committed or not-quite-yet. Some of the others say things that are untrue — Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” for instance — but these untruths spill out of the mouths of ditzes. Not so with Gingrich. He is a former history professor with a doctorate, someone who knows his way around the stacks. He talks in neon, using gaudy words such as “socialism” not because they’re true but because they’re ear-catching. He employs the ugly language of demagoguery not because he is oblivious to its history but on account of it. He mimics. He was, however, brilliantly original in explaining to the Christian Broadcasting Network why he had committed adultery. It had to do with “how passionately I felt about this country” — a genuine contribution to the annals of sexual fibbery.

“The Fact Checker,” not as fixated on movies as I am, moved on to less important topics such as the budget deficit, Gingrich’s (inflated) resume, Medicare and his smearing of Attorney General Eric Holder who, Gingrich charged, “volunteered to write papers for terrorists.” Gingrich might be referring to Jose Padilla, an American citizen the Bush administration was holding as an “enemy combatant.” Padilla sued to be tried in federal court and Holder merely signed on to that brief. (The Bush administration abandoned its position and Padilla was convicted in federal court.) This is what lawyers not only do but are supposed to do, and it is unconscionable for Gingrich to demagogue on this issue. Surely, in his readings, he has come across some mention of the obligation of lawyers.

There is more than a little Richard Nixon in Gingrich — the same lack of place, the same keen intellect, the same petty fights and imaginary enemies, the same hallucinatory grievances, the same willingness to lie, exaggerate and smear. On a given day, Newt Gingrich could be a brilliant president. On any night, he could be a monster.

cohenr@washpost.com