Newt Gingrich, Lost In Space
Citizen Zed - 5/23/11
Watching Newt Gingrich flail about in terminal gyrations provokes as much sympathy as witnessing a velociraptor sinking in a tar pit. Strange that none of the wildlife experts on Meet the Press saw the misstep.
Newt's performance last week was that of a "compelling character" according to the darling dame of Reaganspeak, Peggy Noonan. Halperin, Cooper and Bai chimed in with "underrated", "more disciplined", and "very thoughtful". Our cognoscenti can only spew superficial goo upon witnessing a mediocre charlatan jumping the shark.
Indeed, lately the old wizard (a.k.a. "Fat Elvis") appears ironically caught in the legacy of his own spell, as he's reviled for breaking Reagan's 11th Commandment and harangued by the rank and file. Going off message and violating team talking points, especially given the Republican sensitivity over Medicare and the Ryan plan, is a capital offense in today's GOP.
Not only did Newt pin "radical change" and "social engineering" on Republican plans, he doubled down on dangling racial code speak while ostensibly waiving off charges of bigotry. Newt laughs off charges of racism over his "foodstamp President" remark as "bizarre", dodges the question, and casts a line into the chum filled waters. "Detroit and destruction" is our fate under Obama, a construct with just enough plausible deniability yet pumped with sufficient virulence to stoke the right subterranean vibrations of the reptilian brain.
When Gregory hits him again over his statement that "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior" is "the most accurate, predictive model" for Obama's "out of touch behavior", Newt dodges as if he were merely talking in the context of another's thesis - and then makes a slick segue into pimping a dramatic torsion: that of the "analyst" and "intellectual" engaged in the hazardous transform into "leader".
Newt is all about selling drama. And here in a maudlin act of contrition and self-effacement aimed at soliciting sympathy, the myth of the brand rides unscathed behind the foreground performance. Namely, the preposterous notion of Gingrich as "historian" and "intellectual".
And yet, with the repetitive broadcasting of this identity, our talking heads can only recycle the received wisdom. All so adroit in an analysis of brands and how they resonate amidst the feelings of various demographics, they forget to peel back labels for themselves and become unwitting agents of product placement. Indeed Peggy Noonan charmingly suggests that "to somebody who's 18 or 22, this is a new figure" and "they may find him quite compelling."
With the trendy upsurge in the consumption of libertarian formulae, some of these students may hook into Ron Paul. But Gingrich? Is she serious? Given a palpable and building rejection of homophobia and racism (not to mention militarism), it's doubtful few but the terminally maladjusted will identify with a figure who teases at the threads of both. And if any of them appraise his status as an "intellectual", they'll find it rings as true as "Drinkability" or "What does Greatness taste like?" when suffering lite beer commercials.
Bill Maher recently nailed a sense of this, saying "What I find really scary about Gingrich is his certitude, which is the hallmark of unbright people". While it may be possible to conflate intellect with a capacity for cunning and manipulation, 'intellectual' is something we recognize in those who demonstrate a high calibre aversion to control, manipulation and certainty. It's an embodiment of wonder, the eggshells of which still stick to a character we call 'scientific', cultivating doubt, forever working to open lines of inquiry rather than shut them down. It's not easy to nail down - but whatever it is, it often comes into relief when witnessing its opposite.
Gingrich bounded on the scene in the '80s, quickly becoming heralded as a "bomb thrower" in the House. If there's a master of deadlock and patriarch of modern partisanship,Gingrich can lay a special claim. Pragmatic comity was the prime casualty of confrontational, scorched earth rhetoric (often delivered to an empty chamber). That might not be so alarming if it weren't for the insipid style, one that came to reverberate virally with an extra vengeance through talk radio.
The ugly core is a focus on gaming and subverting real debate with language, derailing meaningful discourse by systematically begging questions with the careful implementation of loaded terms, thus emasculating inquiry and argument. The philosopher George Lakoff has devoted serious energy to unmasking this framing game. It's a game Newt developed and pushed to new levels, surfacing more or less explicitly in the 90's with the memo "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control".
"...we have heard a plaintive plea: "I wish I could speak like Newt."
"The words", we hear from Gingrich's cover letter, "are tested language from a recent series of focus groups where we actually tested ideas and language." With this political style directly imported from advertising, working below the radar of active reason, one can only wish for the kind of disclaimers that pop into fantastical car and truck ads: "Dramatization", "Professional sophist on a closed course" or "Do not attempt in a real debate".
Remarking that Gingrich is not an intellectual may appear a strong claim for some. For others, given this behavior appears self-evidently as the antithesis of intellectual, it's remarkable that an argument is even necessary. But do look closely. Whether its contradicting himself over intervention in Libya, courting absurdity in claiming he really wasn't talking about Paul Ryan last week on Meet the Press, or the welter of Newtisms collected over the years, listen closely and ask yourself how sure you are that 'intellectual' isn't just another carefully chosen word in a vapid self-branding campaign
Stretching back prior to the '08 race, Newt began emphatically to pepper comments with the term 'conversation'. Who else but an intellectual could lament the sorry and perfunctory state of American political "debates"? Eleanor Clift appears to believe the answer is an obvious one - at least back in '07 when Gingrich was all on about the need for genuine political exchange along the lines of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This morning however, as Gingrich addressed a Monitor breakfast, a commentator appears to betray reservations: "Gingrich used the word 'conversation' throughout the breakfast, which perhaps befits someone whose greatest political assets include volubility."
But oddly enough, Newt's fate may be all the worse insofar as Republicans take seriously his stature as an intellectual. When one can imagine Jerry Springer as the most apt moderator for a Republican debate, there are hazards to branding oneself in a way that leverages opportunity amidst a general intellectual vacuum. The tar pit indeed. His audience is more likely to see him cast "appropriately" - alongside Will Robinson and the Robot, dramatically lost in space.