Have you ever seen a Boy Scout wilt?
Newt Gingrich has this effect on children. It’s not the Mitt Romneyesque, Oh Boy Oh Boy What Fun We’re All About To Have Trip Leader vibe. It’s something far more insidious.
At first the Gingrich Effect manifests merely as a nervous agitation. The Boy Scout shifts from foot to foot. What started off looking like a five-minute speech has stretched into an eternal 10. The scout nobly resists the urge to shake his watch to make certain it is still going. Then you see the terror dawning in his eyes. Perhaps, the boy has realized, this man will not stop talking at all. Perhaps the speech will go on and on forever. This is how the world ends. Not with a bang. With a blather.
I think the Boy Scouts have a point.
But his adult audiences seem enthralled, so I may have missed something.
It’s Newt Gingrich’s Primary Eve rally cum book signing, on the deck of a battleship, the USS Yorktown.
A crowd of three men holding anti-Newt “Cheater In Chief” signs stand on the shore waiting for Newt’s crowd. They’ve driven down from Virginia just to be here. Whom do they support? “Romney, Paul, or Santorum.” They “just can’t stand Newt.”
Newt’s a polarizing figure. If politics don’t work out, he has a promising career ahead of him doing things to car windshields. Unfortunately, not of the sort that reduces glare.
So the battleship seems fitting. Like the man, the ship is heavy, yet buoyant. It has seen better days. It is capable of shooting airplanes from the sky. And a few South Carolinians seem to be on board. They nod as Gingrich extols American Exceptionalism; they shake their heads as he expresses disgust with the “more negative parts of this campaign”; they applaud as he castigates a heckler demanding that he release his ethics report. (“You know, some people are just unhappy, you know?”)
Who are these Gingrich supporters?
Bobbie Weigel, white-haired and gregarious, is a former New Jersey resident who migrated south just over a decade ago. Her husband, Robert, has come along for the ride.
“We are classic South Carolinians,” Robert says. What other candidates did they consider? “All of the above.”
At long last she has settled on Gingrich.
“I ended up thinking that I would vote for Mitt,” Bobbie says. “But then I remembered I always liked Newt. . . . He’s so smart. He retains all of what I think that he knows. He sent me something in 1991 when I was running for office . . . . I glanced over it. I can be very verbative and go on and on — well, he can, too — I never read his thing . . . . I lost by 3 percent . . . . I never got to read it, but I’m wondering if he looks at me, because I still look about the same as I did then, I didn’t put on weight . . . he may not remember me; he may not even remember that he sent it.”
Robert is not entirely sold. “I’m a purist,” he says. And when you arrive at a rally and “you walk through a private party and a book signing, to me that’s bad tact. I’ll write a check — but — ”
And these are the people willing to drive out to a battleship on their Friday night and pay $5 for parking. Newt’s peculiar beauty lies entirely in the eye of the beholder. Depending on which beholder you ask, he’s smart or glib, a great debater or a tiresome blowhard, an adulterer or a repentant sinner, an experienced leader or the exile of his own party, a man who thinks grandiose thoughts or a man who thinks grandiose thoughts.
After Newt’s speech, as the Boy Scouts dart from the indoor stage, Bobbie looks confident in her decision. “This one’s the right one,” she says.
Robert approaches, looking dubious. “I’m a perfectionist,” he says. “That was a weak performance.”
Bobbie shakes her head.
“He’ll vote the way I do,” she whispers.
Newt had better hope so.
If he wins South Carolina today, this is why.
If he loses, this is why.