Friday, March 09, 2007

Newt asks forgiveness for his zipper problem

With so many conservatives still disillusioned about their choices in the 2008 Republican race (Rudy Giuliani’s liberal stances on social issues, John McCain’s past heresies, and Mitt Romney’s conveniently-timed flipflops), the door remains glaringly ajar for a true-believer. Or at least somebody who can be perceived that way.

Which is why Newt Gingrich is so busy these days trying to purge his personal past (which is a nice way of saying he needs to deal with the zipper issue), and polish his ideological credentials by airbrushing his track record. He’s clearly a believer in the Field of Dreams strategy – that if he builds himself, they will come.

Two fresh incidents have convinced me that Gingrich is seriously weighing a White House bid. Exhibit A is what Gingrich said to religious conservative leader James Dobson. Exhibit B is what Gingrich’s press secretary said to me.

Exhibit A: Dobson is the religious-right leader who doubles as a GOP political boss. There’s a long history of political bosses in politics, of course. Fifty years ago, aspiring Democrats would go to Chicago to kiss the ring of Mayor Daley; today, aspiring Republicans drop to their knees and pray with James Dobson. Gingrich is serious about a presidential bid because now he is praying with James Dobson.

In perhaps the most unsubtle pandering gesture since Hillary Clinton donned a Yankee cap, Gingrich went on Dobson’s radio show today, and sought to atone for his messy personal life and demonstrate his spiritual bona fides. He didn’t cover all the bases – he left out the part about serving divorce papers to his first wife as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a cancer operation – but, with Dobson’s gentle prompting, he did confess to weaknesses of the flesh. Especially the part about assailing President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair while concurrently canoodling with a congressional aide, an affair that occurred while he was married to the wife who had replaced the wife from the hospital bed. (That second wife has since yielded to the aide, now his current wife.)

Dobson’s radio show reaches millions of listeners, people who tend to vote heavily in Republican primaries. Clearly, Gingrich can’t tout his conservative credentials to that audience without first seeking forgiveness for his three-wife life. (In a sense, he upped the ante for Giuliani, another three-wife lifer, who at some point might also feel the need to humble himself.) Hence, the decision to join Dobson on the air. (The whole interview is here, dated March 9, starting around minute 17:00). Gingrich spoke about his past in full humility mode:

“There are some elements I’m not proud of….There were times when I was praying, and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong, but I was still doing them. I look back at this as periods of weakness, periods not only that I’m not proud of, but I deeply urge my grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps.”

Dobson then asked Gingrich to verify the “rumors” that he, Gingrich, had been sleeping with the congressional aide while simultaneously passing judgment on Clinton. Gingrich has never spoken publicly about this. Yet it was clear, from the way Dobson framed the question, that Gingrich had already told Dobson – and that this interview was designed to help Gingrich ‘fess up with his own spiritual spin.

Dobson said to Gingrich, “I (recently) asked you if the rumors were true…”

Gingrich replied, “The honest answer is yes.” Then he launched into a lengthy argument about how he wasn’t as bad as Clinton, because Clinton had lied about sex under oath, and thus it had been his duty to assail that, because if everybody started lying under oath, America would resemble “a corrupt country like Nigeria.”

Dobson waited him out, then steered him back to his own behavior: “You and I have prayed together…Do you understand that word repentance?”

Gingrich replied (and, for the audience, this was the intended money quote): “Absolutely…I believe deeply that people fall short, that people have to recognize they have to turn to God for forgiveness…I don’t know how you could live with yourself…if you don’t deal with your own weaknesses and go to God about them.”

And, he just as well might have added, I don’t know how you can win a Republican presidential nomination unless you turn to the religious-right voters and ask for forgiveness.

Exhibit B: But atoning for personal failings is only one facet of the Gingrich political strategy. The other is to polish Gingrich’s conservative credentials to the point where all the tarnish is removed. After all, restive conservative voters are more likely to pine for Gingrich if they view him in an idealized form. These voters, however, are less likely to embrace the idealized Gingrich if he retains his true-life tarnish. Hence the need to rebut all those who would seek to resurrect the actual Gingrich history.

This is where I come in.

Three weeks ago, on Feb. 20, on this blog, I pointed out that Gingrich’s conservative credentials aren’t nearly as spotless as nostalgia would suggest. A long excerpt was reprinted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in a number of other newspapers as a guest column. One key paragraph: “People forget, for instance, that the House speaker was nearly overthrown in 1997, by conspirators that included Tom DeLay, in part because he was not deemed to be sufficiently conservative. They felt that Newt had caved to President Clinton on a number of key budget issues. They complained when Newt invited Jesse Jackson to join him on the House podium in January of ’97. They were angry when Newt refused to launch a frontal assault on affirmative action. They didn’t like it when he defended the National Endowment for the Arts and broke bread with liberal activist and actor Alec Baldwin.”

From the perspective of the Gingrich camp, such material clearly messes with the Gingrich strategy. Press secretary, Rick Tyler, promptly wrote a long letter to the editor, defending Gingrich’s track record. Let’s give him the floor. Here’s an excerpt: “After winning the majority for the Republicans in 1994, Newt Gingrich fulfilled all of the promises laid out in the Contract with America, including the first tax cut in 17 years, the first child tax credit, a capital gains tax cut, welfare reform (how could you forget that?), Congressional reforms including term limits for committee chairs, and making all laws passed by Congress applicable to the Congress itself. He led in passing the first increase in defense and intelligence spending since Reagan. And the Republican Congress under his leadership was re-elected for the first time since the 1920s. It was Newt who led the charge for a Constitutional Amendment to balance the Federal budget, when Congress failed to pass it, he committed to balancing it anyway….The fact is that no other political leader today can match Newt Gingrich’s conservative legislative accomplishments.”

It’s the job of a press secretary to make the boss look good, so I have no problem with Tyler recounting the heady days of 1995, when Gingrich was most effective. Nor would I disagree with the argument that Gingrich has more “legislative accomplishments” than any potential conservative rival. But nowhere does he address my main point – that Gingrich, as House Speaker, was widely viewed as insufficiently conservative by many of his conservative colleagues. Which is one big reason why they tried to overthrow him in 1997.

This is part of the historical record, notwithstanding Tyler’s assertion that I was “laughably” questioning Gingrich’s conservative credentials. Indeed, let’s return to that era, and see what certain people were saying at the time about Gingrich’s credentials.

Here’s an item, from June 30, 1997: “Gingrich’s men…are desperate for Gingrich to step down, the sooner the better…Christopher Cox of California, the chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, has been grousing about Gingrich for months, insisting that he’s not a real conservative. (Rep. David) McIntosh says, ‘It was the decision to compromise (with Clinton) at the beginning of this term rather than push for our agenda’ that soured him on Gingrich….hat is unusual – and far more significant – is the deep distrust of the party leader by his closest colleagues in the leadership.”

That report was written by Fred Barnes, the reliably conservative commentator, in the reliably conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

Here’s another: “Newt appears beyond salvage. (His 1997 budget deal with Clinton) is a band-aid cure…The federal administrative behemoth will expand, a result that contradicts everything the Republican party and conservativism are supposed to embody…The budget deal will not save Republicans from their obligation to stand for something. It will not save them from their Gingrich trouble. It will not save Newt Gingrich from himself.”

That was the lead editorial in the Weekly Standard, dated July 28, 1997. And a week later came this editorial: “The House GOP now resembles a decadent royal court, with Newt Gingrich cast as Louis XIV at Versailles. He is a monarch at once all-important and ineffectual….(The House GOP) is a balloon that floats with the wind.”

I could go on; that summer, there was another reference in the magazine to Gingrich’s “frequent compromises, flip flops, and stumbles.” And today there are plenty of conservatives who don’t buy the idealized Gingrich – starting with columnist Robert Novak, who writes that Gingrich’s conservative record is “far from flawless,” and with David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who wrote last month that Gingrich has “more baggage than a Grand Central red-cap.”

But if Gingrich can successfully atone for the zipper problem, and persuade an amnesiac electorate to play the nostalgia card, he might yet fill the niche that he is eying so assiduously...Unless somebody else - perhaps Fred Thompson, the politician/actor - comes along.