DEFINING DOWN THE DEFINER OF CIVILIZATION
Request of the Week
November 23, 2011
With the Second Coming of Newt, I'm reminded of your circa '99 political obituary where you sent him off in style. Your piece had me in stitches then, and thinking of it today still brings on a chuckle. If you're wondering which column to which I'm referring, search your library for "grim platter of meats", or something to this effect. I would love to read it again, ideally before the media declares a new front runner in the GOP race.
George Town, Cayman Islands
MARK SAYS: My pleasure. It was actually not 1999 but the November 14th 1998 of The Spectator - a few days after the Republicans (in the Year of Monica) lost five seats in the election, and Newt resigned as Speaker. And "grim platter" was actually "Teutonic plates". But otherwise you were pretty close. A lot has changed over 13 years, not least Joe Scarborough's protestations of fealty, and the appeal of Barney Frank's lisp, but Newtworld remains refreshingly unspoilt by progress, and the latter parts of this piece - the bit about the lily-livered ninny passing himself off as a right-wing bastard - still seem pertinent.
We're running our Request of the Week a day early this week, because of Thanksgiving tomorrow and just in case Newt self-detonates in the next 24 hours. But don't forget, we're here every Thursday dusting off the archives. If you've a favorite column - or even a favourite column - you'd like us to reprise, drop me a line here. Meanwhile, here's me on Newt from the Speccie 13 years ago:
'Gingrich - primary mission,' wrote the fledgling Newt in a reminder to himself in December 1992. 'Advocate of civilisation. Definer of civilisation. Teacher of the rules of civilisation.' So far, so good. But, at this point, a touch of self-doubt sets in: 'Leader (possibly) of the civilising forces.'
Sadly, it was not to be.
Today, Newt Gingrich is Loser (undoubtedly) of the '98 election. Stunned to find someone in Washington going down even faster than Monica, President Clinton generously saluted the Speaker as a 'worthy adversary'. Alas, the Democrats' House Leader Dick Gephardt, cruising past Newt's bullet- riddled body in the gutter, couldn't resist reversing back over it: 'I hope that whoever succeeds Newt Gingrich as Speaker will immediately begin the process of repairing the damage that was wrought on this institution over the last four years.'
Whoa, steady on! Before we confine the Great Definer and Supreme Advocate to the trash can of history, it's worth remembering what the House of Representatives was like in the long-past pre-Newtian era of four years ago. After 40 years of Democratic control, it was a stinking sewer of corruption - not just who-paid-whose-bill-at-the- Paris-Ritz piffle, but rampant, systemic corruption.
At the House bank, for example, Congressmen could write cheques for vast sums of cash, regardless of whether they had any funds to cover them. In Britain, where cheque-bouncing and extravagant overdrafts are routine, that might not seem a big deal. But, over here, if you bounce a cheque for 12 bucks to the general store, they pin it up over the register and the whole town knows. Do it again and you'll get 30 days in the county jail. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story about a fellow whose entire life was ruined because in his youth he passed one bad cheque. Yet, under a system that prides itself on checks and balances, Congressmen could write all the cheques they want regardless of their balances. In the House post office, they could wander in with a $10,000 contributor's cheque, buy a 29¢ stamp and get $9,999.71 change. My postmistress won't let you do that.
But the most telling symptom of the moral decay under one-party rule was a simple one: the laws Congress passed on behalf of the people applied to all the people - except them. They were exempt from their own legislation. In 1994, the then Speaker Tom Foley, a Democratic Congressman from Washington State, was suing his own electors because they'd been impertinent enough to pass a ballot proposition mandating term limits for the Representatives. His crony, Dan Rostenkowski, had an even more fundamentalist view of the perks of office: they found furniture from the House in the basement of his home in Illinois.
Newt and the new Republican leadership ended those scams: legislators, like any other citizens, are now bound by the law of the land; Rostenkowski went to gaol and Foley to a richly deserved political oblivion; whatever else may be said about Newt's tenure as Speaker, you no longer have to nail down the furniture.
Instead, it was nailing down Newt that proved the problem. About a week before the 1994 Republican landslide, I was on a radio show where someone mentioned a poll showing that over 50 per cent of the American people had never hear of Newt Gingrich. 'I wish I could say the same,' muttered a Democrat pundit. In 1994, no one voted for Newt; some voted for the 'Contract With America', and a lot voted against the Democratic incumbents and the Washington establishment.
Newt deserves credit for his bold strategy that year and for his much derided 'Contract', of which most proposals (welfare reform, a balanced budget, etc.) were savaged by Democrats at the time, yet almost all of which have since been co-opted by the President. In his humbler, non-Definer of Civilisation moments, he saw himself as another Churchill, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria ... But I think, in these media-conscious times, the most appropriate comparison would be with the creators of a hit TV show - say, James Brooks and Allan Burns, who cooked up The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They invented a superb vehicle, but they didn't make the mistake of putting themselves in it: brilliant as they might be, no one would want to see The Brooks and Burns Show every night of the week; they want to see perky, sunny Mary. Newt's mistake was to muddle a congressional election with the Miss America pageant: he was convinced people loved him. Like that other pudgy, greying boomer in the Oval Office, he thought everything had to be about him: all Newt, all the time.
Shortly after he became Speaker, his staff circulated a five-page document of interconnected projects under the heading 'Newtworld'. Newtworld proved to be one of those theme-parks nobody wants to visit - and who can blame them? At Newtworld, what you mostly get is lots of Newt, at great length. A couple of years ago, I happened to be on a discussion panel presided over by Mrs Thatcher. In the moments before the debate began, rather than waste her time yakking with me, she cast an eye over an upcoming Newt speech that one of his aides had asked for her thoughts on. She took up her pen and scored through one line, then another. 'Even the best speeches can lose a line or two' I mumbled, nervously glancing at my own address. She scored through the rest of the paragraph, then down to the foot of the page, and over on to the next. When she'd eventually finished, she called over the lady from Newt's political action committee, and handed her the replacement text for the deleted portions: one short sentence. Poor Newt. He was never that disciplined. He was fond of movements and 'Movement Planning Proposals', but he couldn't resist moving from movement to movement. He's responsible for more movements than a crate of Ease-O-Lax: from 'The Triangle of American Progress' to the 'Caring Humanitarian Reform Movement' to 'The America That Can Be' to the 'Citizens' Opportunities Movement' to 'Renewing American Civilisation'.
If you're wondering what 'The Triangle of American Progress' is, relax: pretty soon it had evolved into 'The Four Pillars of American Civilisation', which in turn expanded into the 'Five Pillars of the 21st Century'. The collected brainstorms of Newt sound like a cross between T.E. Lawrence and the numerologically obsessed Fruit of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan who claims that once a month he's taken up into a spacecraft floating above earth to commune with the spirits of deceased African-Americans. Aside from his 'Five Pillars', Newt had the 'Four Great Truths', the 'Nine Zones of Creativity', the 'Fourteen Steps to RAC' (see Renewing American Civilisation above), the Four Can'ts, the Five Cs, the Four Tops, the Jackson Five, the McGuire Sisters, and on and on.
The Democrats demonised Newt as an extreme right-wing crazy. They were right - apart from the 'extreme' and 'right-wing', that is. Most of the above seem more like the burblings of a frustrated self-help guru than blueprints for conservative government. For example, Pillar No. 5 of the 'Five Pillars of American Civilisation' is: 'Total quality management'. Unfortunately for Newt, the person who most needed a self-help manual was him - How to Win Friends and Influence People for a start. After last week's election, Republicans have now embarked on the time-honoured ritual, well known to British Tories and Labour before them, of bickering over whether they did badly because they were too extreme or because they were too moderate. In Newt's case, the answer is both. He spent the last year pre-emptively surrendering on anything of legislative consequence, but then, feeling bad at having abandoned another two or three of his 'Fourteen Steps to RAC', he'd go on television and snarl at everybody in sight. In so doing, he betrayed Item No. 8 of his 1997 Movement Planning Proposal:
'We are FOR rather than AGAINST.
'We are Inclusive rather than Exclusive . . .
For Republicans it was the worst of all worlds: a lily-livered ninny whom everyone thinks is a ferocious right-wing bastard. In the 1996 presidential race, the Democrats ran commercials attacking not Dole but 'Dole-Gingrich'; in congressional campaigns, the bland, anonymous face of some unexceptional Senator or Representative would suddenly be electronically morphed into the satanic smirk of Newt. In the days before the Speaker decided to pull the Five Pillars down around his head and hurl himself down the Fourteen Steps, Texas Governor George W. Bush was telling friends that he was almost certainly going to run for president, but that, if he did, he wanted to win or lose on his own merits and not because the Democrats tagged the campaign 'Bush-Gingrich'. Newt had movement proposals for every subject but one: likability. It's clear from his 45-minute non- farewell address on Monday that he still hopes to run for the White House in 2000, but he has an insurmountable obstacle: the American people will never warm to him.
At the Congressional level, likability is becoming a major problem for the GOP. Late on election night, I switched on ABC to find, for the Republicans, Senator Orrin Hatch and House Majority Leader Dick Armey and, for the Democrats, Barney Frank. For most people, Congressman Frank's name conjures up, if anything at all, a hazy memory of a long-ago scandal about a gay prostitution ring being operated from his premises. In purely objective terms, he's a faintly creepy old queen with a lisp, but, next to Senator Hatch, a stiff-necked Mormon, and Armey, a dim bruiser with a sore head, he seemed by far the most relaxed and non-off-putting. The Republicans are still looking for their Mary Tyler Moore: Americans like their leaders on the sunny side.
Bob Livingston, the new Speaker, doesn't fit that bill. Except for occasional explosions, he's as boring as a ledger. But these days non-exciting is in, and Mr Livingston has promised 'to make the trains run on time'. In contrast to Mussolini-era deployments of the term, this is a mere figure of speech: it seems to be beyond either party to make Amtrak, the country's federally funded, ramshackle passenger rail network, run on time. But, that said, he'll be lower-key than his predecessor, which means that when Governor Bush or some other non-congressional Republican wins the presidential nomination, they'll be the party's undisputed leader and not merely Newt's sidekick.
Meanwhile, everything's back to normal: on Monday, Justice Department officials interviewed the President about alleged 'soft money' fundraising abuses, and the Supreme Court ruled against him on the questions of testimony from government counsel and Secret Service agents. Life goes on - except without Newt - lost in the Bermuda Triangle of American Progress. 'It has', declared former Christian Coalition head honcho Ralph Reed, 'shifted the Teutonic plates'. Maybe he meant Tectonic, maybe not. Maybe he saw Newt as some grim Teutonic platter of cold meats that the public was never going to find any more appetising: the wurst was yet to come.
Florida Congressman Joe Scarborough, formerly one of the 1994 Gingrich revolutionaries, nailed his colours to the new mast. 'I'm a George W. Bush Republican,' he says. 'I don't know what that means, but I'll know it when I see it.'
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