Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Newt Gingrich had never worked for a profit-making venture.

Newt Gingrich, provocateur in chief

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

He has a doctorate in the social sciences and taught briefly at the college level. He has been married three times, divorced twice and confessed to an extramarital affair. He has never served in the military and lives in one of Washington's poshest suburbs. He is the very personification of his much-reviled "cultural elite." He is Newt Gingrich, and he is out to get himself.

Gingrich has been on something of a tear lately, brandishing the term "secular-socialist machine" with the elan of William Jennings Bryan declaiming about a Cross of Gold -- and, God willing, with the same effect. He used it recently in a Washington Post op-ed laced with the sort of gloating demagoguery that makes Gingrich his own acolyte. The man rides a pogo stick. When he is over the top, he just keeps going.

The most obvious repellent characteristic of the cultural elite is that it is out of step with the views of most Americans -- or, as Gingrich put it, "Americans oppose the views of academic elites." This nimble grammatical construction makes the academic elite something other than Americans, even though some of them may well have served in the military -- always proof of red-bloodedness. The argument presupposes, also, that what is popular is right, when, as suffragettes could once attest, this is not always the case.

Neither "socialism" nor "secularism" comes close to describing America or the Obama administration's programs. In fact, the very reason most Americans find secularism a strange and useless term is that this country has never had a state religion. If Gingrich wants to see what secularism looks like, he should read a history of France. There, a suffocating state religion produced a nasty sort of secularism that on May 24, 1871, resulted in the execution of Georges Darboy, no less than the archbishop of Paris. In this country, by contrast, the Pentagon celebrates National Prayer Day, and the winner of a nationally televised bull-riding event credits his triumph neither to his own skills nor to the lack of them by the bull, but to God. It must have been as slow a Sunday for God as it was for me.

Cultural conservatives date the beginning of the clash between good and evil to when the Supreme Court outlawed school prayer. That was in 1963, too late for me or Gingrich to avoid that dreary and soporific recitation of the same old thing every morning. Shockingly, though, this prayer seems to have had precious little effect on either one of us. But as Gingrich must know, the prayer issue is a cynical device to appeal to people who want their prayer recited -- and not those of Muslims, Hindus and the rest. I always knew to whom I was praying -- it was the school's God, the principal's God and the God of the teacher. Mine was at home, along with a waiting glass of milk.

This business about socialism has become a conservative trope -- as loony on the right as is some of the left's admiration for Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. The current issue of Commentary, a magazine that virtually created the neoconservative movement, devotes about 4,500 words to the subject. It asks: "What Kind of Socialist Is Barack Obama?" To which any sane person would have to reply: "Not a Very Good One."

As with Gingrich, one example of Obama's socialist intent is the recently enacted health-care law that, to the chagrin of the left, did not contain a so-called public option (now that would have been some welcome socialism!) and which nationalized not a single insurance company. Instead, if you look at, say, Aetna, and expect that it has been delisted from the stock exchange, you find, to your utter relief, that its share price, while down as of late, is still higher than its 52-week low. As a socialist, Obama could not even get into my grandfather's pinochle game.

That same grandfather would have had a term for Gingrich: luftmensch. This is a wonderfully descriptive Yiddish word for a fellow who has no visible means of support -- who lives off the air itself. This, in an updated and very Washington way, is Gingrich. No longer an office holder, not a chief executive, not really an academic, he lives on the kindness of think tanks and the gullibility of strangers. His business is the manufacturing of provocation, at being a troublemaker, a glint of mischievousness in his eyes, a wee smile of inner satisfaction. He is bad. He is good at being bad. He is just not any good at being good.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company