Newtonian physics

Sarah Palin took to Facebook this weekend to decry the “GOP Establishment” for having “adopted the tactics of the left in using the media and the politics of personal destruction to attack an opponent.” The victim she speaks of is Newt Gingrich, practitioner extraordinaire of gotcha politics whose tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives strangely excludes him from membership in this shadowy “GOP Establishment” according to the party’s last vice presidential nominee.

It’s certainly true that, by means fair and foul, Newt’s internecine adversaries issued a beat down in the wake of his South Carolina victory. When Elliot Abrams mined Gingrich golden oldies that lambasted President Reagan’s foreign policy, he did so with unintentional irony writing for National Review. The ’80s-era Gingrich merely rehashed ’80s-era National Review, after all. The magazine, for instance, characterized the 40th president’s support for arms control as “Reagan’s Suicide Pact” on its May 22, 1987 cover. But labeling National Review anti-Reagan for one story would be as misleading as calling Gingrich anti-Reagan based on a few cherry-picked sentences.  

Live by the sword die by the sword, hoisted by his own petard, people in glasses houses—pick your cliché. Here’s mine: Newt reaps what he sows.

If it were not for the “politics of personal destruction,” there would be no Newt Gingrich.

We know Gingrich primarily for collecting political scalps, not for advancing conservative principles. For a movement that too often confuses the sideshow for the main event, Gingrich’s role as scandal barker is misinterpreted as conservative leadership. But as Gingrich’s well-publicized ethical lapses show, scandal generally tells us little about this party or that party but a lot about how fallen human nature knows no party. 

Gingrich’s last acts in public office involved hounding Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky as he cheated on his wife with a woman born the same year as his youngest daughter. He toppled Speaker Jim Wright for a crooked book deal and then unwisely entered into a lucrative book deal with a political backer once he became Speaker. The Georgia congressman first became famous outside of his bailiwick by loudly demanding the expulsions of House members Dan Crane and Gerry Studds for bedding teenaged congressional pages.

Gingrich’s stances were lower-case right, but they weren’t necessarily capital-letter Right. They didn’t make government smaller, taxes lower, or the Constitution adhered to.

In those early days as a bomb-throwing back-bencher, Gingrich reflected that “the minute Tip O’Neill attacked me, he and I got 90 seconds at the close of all three network news shows. You have to give them confrontations. When you give them confrontations, you get attention.” His detractors apparently read from the same playbook.

While conservatives remember Gingrich’s denunciations of Studds, they forget that he later cosponsored the reauthorization of the Endangered Species Act with the Cape Cod liberal. Nancy Pelosi wasn’t the first House lefty that Gingrich cozied up to on green issues. The founder of the environmental studies program at West Georgia College voted to reauthorize the Clean Air Act. He crucially voted for the Alaska Lands Bill, which has made ANWR oil exploration impossible.

Before Sarah said drill, baby, drill, Newt said no, baby, no.

In that first term that he disastrously opted for energy dependence, Gingrich again went against his party by saying “yea” to the Department of Education. Long before his misguided first years in Congress, Gingrich undermined his conservative credibility by siding with Nelson Rockefeller over Barry Goldwater. His work advising Freddie Mac and lobbying members of Congress to support the prescription drug giveaway shows that he hasn’t evolved as much as his conservative enthusiasts imagine.

His latest lunatic idea seeks to colonize the moon. Why not save the trillion dollars and mine cheese in Wisconsin?

It’s not hard to appear conservative when juxtaposed with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. But Sarah Palin’s Facebook post depicts Newt Gingrich as an heir to Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Gingrich, who opposed Goldwater in 1964 and has repeatedly pointed to Franklin Roosevelt and not Ronald Reagan as the best president of the last century, disagrees—or at least he used to. “I come out of the Theodore Roosevelt-LaFollette progressive tradition,” Gingrich told C-SPAN viewers in 1999.

“Looking back on everything, Newt was always focused on his agenda,” Dot Crews, a ’70s campaign aide, told Vanity Fair in 1995. “It was not about political philosophy with Newt—never. If the country today were to move to the left, Newt would sense it before it started happening and lead the way.” And now that America has moved Right, Newt has become a born-again tea partier.

But Newt’s true calling isn’t conservatism. It’s hardball politics. He goes for the jugular against Democrats who have never hesitated to go for the jugular. That strangely passes for conservatism. That his opponents within the Republican Party have employed similar tactics in derailing Gingrich’s Florida primary hopes is, well, Gingrichian. It’s also poetic justice.