I’m starting to think that Newt Gingrich misunderstands the most commonly used meaning of the word “grandiose.” At a campaign stop Wednesday, the winner of the South Carolina GOP primary not only told crowds near Cape Canaveral that he intended to start a colony on the moon, but proudly admitted he is grandiose. ”I was attacked the other night for being grandiose,” reported the Post’s Amy Gardner. “I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.”
Gingrich is referring, of course, to the moment in last week’s debate when Rick Santorum, upon being asked about the former Speaker of the House urging him to get out of the race, replied that “grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich.” He went on to accuse Gingrich of having thoughts that weren’t “cogent”: “I’m steady. I’m solid. I’m not gonna go out and do things that you’re gonna worry about.” Gingrich embraced the term during that debate (“you're right: I think grandiose thoughts”) and then doubled down on being identified with it at the event on Wednesday.
Rick Santorum was implying the most common—and not exactly positive—definition of grandiose when he lobbed his attack. Let’s look it up. The first definition of the word (and therefore its most prevalent meaning) according to Merriam-Webster, is “characterized by affectation of grandeur or splendor or by absurd exaggeration.” Oxford Dictionaries defines the word as meaning “extravagantly or pretentiously imposing in appearance or style.” Dictionary.com’s first two definitions are “affectedly grand or important; pompous” and “more complicated or elaborate than necessary,” and mentions the word’s meaning in psychiatry: “having an exaggerated belief in one’s importance, sometimes reaching delusional proportions, and occurring as a common symptom of mental illnesses, as manic disorder.”
Granted, Merriam-Webster also lists “impressive because of uncommon largeness, scope, effect, or grandeur” as a secondary definition. Dictionary.com includes “grand in an imposing or impressive way” as a third definition, and no doubt these are the meanings with which Gingrich is choosing to identify. While not as negative as the more frequently used definitions, his embrace of the term still implies a distinct narcissism.
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but the last time I checked, grandiosity was not a quality most people like to associate with the people who lead them. Self-assured? Absolutely. Future-oriented and bold-minded? Yes. I’d guess most people even welcome the idea of leaders who believe they have been called on to serve; who think running for president is something they are meant to do. Confidence, vision and a mission-like zeal for the job are all hallmarks of a strong and committed leader.
But leadership is also about humility, and there is little of that in Newt Gingrich. Comparing oneself to historical figures tends to be more attractive once one has actually successfully held the office in question. Admitting that you are grandiose—whether you mean “characterized by affectation of grandeur” or even just “impressive because of uncommon largeness”—sounds a lot like hubris bordering on arrogance to me. There is a fine line between ambitious self assurance and grandiose pretension. And in this case, Newt Gingrich has crossed it.
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