Newt Gingrich: A Republican master of ceremonies

December 13, 2011

Has politics ever seen a greater triumph of stage presence? Newt Gingrich’s promotion from the lowest ranks to star of the GOP presidential polls has been roundly attributed to his debate performances.

It’s no wonder. The former House speaker is a master of control. Onstage among some less-assured hopefuls, he is as much in his element as a diva soaking up the spotlight in one of the operas he so loves. But his greatest feat has been the mastery of a tricky balancing act, offsetting his desire to dominate with a warming dose of old-fashioned grace.

Dominance: In one debate, Gingrich upbraided Politico’s John F. Harris for seeking his opinion on other candidates’ positions. “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other,” he sniffed.

Grace: “Once again, New Hampshire is proving why it’s first in the nation with a primary,” the candidate cooed at a questioner from the audience in another debate, “because the question is so good.” Sweet smile, flash of dimples. Nice! (But maybe a little forced?)

Gingrich wove dominance and grace into rhetorical gold in a November debate, when he bristled at the 30-second time limit on a health-care query put to the entire field. “I just want to point out, my colleagues have done a terrific job of answering an absurd question,” he deadpanned, managing all at once to demean the moderators, flatter his competitors and show himself to be their superior for spotting the inanity they missed.

Pure theater.

Nevertheless, the other candidates seemed to enjoy Gingrich’s cool display of verbal virtuosity, which included a plug for one of his books and about a dozen dependent clauses.

But Gingrich’s tool kit contains more than wordsmithery. There is also his granite confidence and comfortable delivery. While Mitt Romney can seem to rush through his responses, Gingrich never hurries. He speaks as though he has all the time in the world. He even moves with nonchalance, taking up space with the ease of a man accustomed to a grand stage. As he talks, one arm might sweep through the air, pushing lesser concerns aside, then up swings the other until he’s at full sail. La Divina holding a high note could hardly look more regally inflated.

Gingrich never seems uncertain, never hesitates. With an air of imperious remove, he stays above the fray.

“Let me point out,” he observed in an October debate that saw Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry spar, “that maximizing bickering is probably not the road to the White House.”

But the former speaker walks a fine line. He has a habit of talking with his chin tucked down like a scolding headmaster. When he’s really rolling, he’ll cock his head, a faux-adorable pose that rings with vanity. He’ll cut his eyes toward the moderators, then, bored, he’ll aim his remarks over their heads.

Some of Gingrich’s verbal put-downs come close to reveling in others’ inferiority. Is condescension the road to the GOP nomination?

There’s a certain breathlessness attending his good fortune. How will his second act end? Skilled performer that Gingrich is, he will keep us glued.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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