Newt and Winston

Of Winston Churchill, the popular Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once said, “[W]hen Winston was born lots of faeries swooped down on his cradle with gifts—imagination, eloquence, industry, ability and then came a fairy who said ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom.” 

The same could be said of Newt Gingrich, who parallels the erratic and brilliant Churchill in many ways.  The lives of both men show a love of history, knowledge of both domestic and foreign affairs, the ability to earn a living by their writing and speaking talents, and a zest for life with what seems to be boundless energy.

Newt rose to fame in the House of Representatives during the 1980s, when he led the fight to oust then-speaker Jim Wright.  Elected as Minority Whip, Gingrich became known as an aggressive leader but also a brilliant one.  He was a key architect of the 1994 Contract with America, a set of ten reforms that the Republicans used to unite their party and win control of Congress that year. With a Republican majority in the House—for the first time in forty years—Newt was elected Speaker.  He repeatedly badgered President Clinton to sign a welfare reform bill, and worked with Democrats to balance the federal budget.

Newt’s gifts were apparent, but so was his bad judgment. He was investigated by the House in 1995 for making millions in writing contracts and misusing tax-exempt donations.  To his credit, he paid for the $300,000 investigation himself and returned the $4.5 million book deal. The House still voted to reprimand him, 395 to 28.

Newt’s combative leadership during the 1998 impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton led to problems for the Speaker, who was perceived as being too mean-spirited during the crisis while having women problems of his own. Republicans lost seats in the 1998 elections, and Newt stepped down as Speaker.  In 1999, he resigned his seat in Congress.

When detractors say that Newt has a filing cabinet full of bad ideas, and another filing cabinet full of good ideas, that description also fits Winston Churchill.  Churchill had a knack for climbing up the political ladder and then sliding down again when his erratic judgment led him to rush into issues that wiser men avoided.  For example, throughout his long life Churchill championed the virtues of British imperialism; therefore he opposed independence for India, even when the tide of human events was clearly moving toward the end of British sovereignty there.  When Edward VIII wished to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American beauty, Churchill unwisely became the spokesman for supporting king and country; Churchill’s prestige and influence fell again.

If Churchill made some large mistakes, he also displayed brilliant accuracy. By the late 1930s, his predictions in regard to Adolf Hitler proved to be exactly on the mark. In his knowledge of military preparedness, Churchill outshone anyone in the British cabinet. His standing with both the public and his colleagues in Parliament soared. 

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the current prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, had to include the prophetic Churchill in his war cabinet.  In May 1940, as Nazi troops raced into Belgium, Holland, and France, Great Britain needed a wartime prime minister to guide the empire through this gargantuan crisis.  But who?  Churchill assumed the office, not to wild acclaim, but with glum support within his own party. “There seems to be some inclination in Whitehall,” noted one skeptic, “that Winston will be a complete failure and Neville will return.” Most Britons worried that Churchill would once again appear erratic and let the country down.  Not so.  This time, Churchill showed an understanding of both military strategy and inspiring leadership that sustained his nation. He fulfilled the duties of prime minister for five years, becoming one of the political giants of the twentieth century as he guided Great Britain to victory.

Newt Gingrich has also risen to dizzying heights and then fallen back to earth. In the years since leaving elected office, he has written several books and appeared frequently as a political commentator. He unwisely accepted large stipends from Freddie Mac, the highly criticized mortgage giant. He has been married three times, with messy divorces on two occasions. Can Gingrich make a comeback and win the Republican nomination? Can he be elected president?  In the 1930s, when Winston Churchill was in his mid-60s, most of his countrymen had written him off as a former leader who was in the sunset of his career; yet he made a spectacular comeback. Is the sun rising or setting on Newt Gingrich?