Before last night’s CNN debate was five minutes old, commentators were saying that Newt Gingrich had won it. That he was dominating, crushing and so on. All such commentary was based on Gingrich’s tightly articulated rant against ABC and the media writ large, for airing gripes from his ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich.
Typical of the pundital consensus was a CNN roundtable discussion just after the event. Analyst extraordinaire David Gergen: “I think there’s a reasonable chance, after talking to people here tonight, that he could win South Carolina based on that answer.” Right: Based on an answer with an apparent falsehood sitting right in the middle of it.
Now, whether you regard Gingrich as a “stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like” (Paul Krugman) or whether you “respect his ability to think and do” (Bill Clinton), one point sticks out above all the chatter: Gingrich had to know that the stories offered him a grand opportunity, especially as they came on the same day as a nationally televised debate in a conservative state. He had to know that his much-practiced diatribes against the media would go over enormous with the audience. And once he got settled before his podium and fielded the fateful question, he had to be enjoying it all, too, despite the look of disgust that he managed to sustain over the three legendary minutes.
We all know what Gingrich said in response to John King’s question. But here’s a guess at what he had to be thinking. It’s an edit of the transcript, with a simple rule: Strike all instances of “appalled” or “astounded” and replace with “delighted.” (Italics represent my edits of the Gingrich remarks; plain text represents his actual remarks.)
John King: As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post, and this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
GINGRICH: Yes, delighted.... I think — I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and easier for me to deflect attention from my vulnerabilities. And I am delighted that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. (Cheers, applause.)
GINGRICH: Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as helpful as anything I can imagine. (Cheers, applause.)
My — my two daughters, my two daughters wrote the head of ABC, and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it. And I am frankly delighted that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate. (Cheers, applause.)
KING: As you noted, Mr. Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I’m not — I get your point; I take get your —
GINGRICH: John, John, it was repeated by your network. (Boos.) You chose to start the debate with it. Though it’s generous of you to share the credit for the story, you and your staff were kind enough to start this debate with that. (Cheers, applause.)
Now, let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. That’s what friends are for. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren’t interested, because they would like to attack any Republican. They’re attacking the governor, they’re attacking me. I’m sure they’ll probably get around to Senator Santorum and Congressman Paul, and I’ll repeat those attacks if they suit my purposes. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans, though I’m not tired of scoring political points by talking about it.