The Return Of Newt Gingrich

By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

Last Wednesday (May 11, 2011), Newt Gingrich, the 58th Speaker of the United States Congress (1995-1999), but who is better known for championing a historic opposition against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and, perhaps, also, for leading a team of conservatives to win back the control of the House for his Republican Party in 1994, formally joined the already crowded 2012 Republican presidential primary run. He announced his candidacy via a video message released Wednesday evening.

"I believe we can return America to hope and opportunity, to full employment, to real security, to an American energy programme, to a balanced budget… We owe it to our children, our grandchildren, our country and frankly to ourselves. So let's get together, look reality in the face, tell the truth, make the tough choices and get the job done", Gingrich said in the video.

Almost twelve years after he resigned as Speaker and his membership of Congress that Friday afternoon early in November 1999 following the dismal performance of his party in midterm elections which was largely blamed on him, Mr. Gingrich has kept himself away from electoral contests. He has, however, maintained an appreciable visibility by writing books, making speeches, producing films, launching vicious (but often uncoordinated) attacks on Democrats through his numerous television appearances and influencing policy formulations for the conservatives.

In the spring of 2008, for instance, he deployed the combined resources of the internet, cheerleaders and a petition to Congress backed with over a million signatures to push forward his advocacy for increased domestic oil production. His slogan: "Drill here. Drill now. Pay less!" helped popularize his campaign for increased domestic drilling, although, this has now come to haunt his presidential run given a 2008 pro-environment ad he did with Nancy Pelosi for Al Gore's NGO, Alliance for Climate Protection, calling for clean energy solutions and appearing to urge the lawmakers (by shooting the ad outside the Capitol) to deploy serious efforts to contain global warming, a theme that received further mention in the 2007 book he co-authored, A Contract With the Earth.

But last Wednesday, Gingrich returned with a lot of flourish, media excitement and overwhelming public scrutiny. There is no doubt that among the Republican presidential hopefuls, he, perhaps, enjoys the widest name-recognition in both the party and across the United States. A prolific author, historian and accomplished professor, Gingrich received his PhD in Modern European History from Tulane University, New Orleans, in 1971, and has taught history at both the University of West Georgia and Kennesaw State University. His book, Real Change, spent quite a number of weeks on the New York Times Best Seller Series.

Although the high point of Gingrich's presidential run is his new-found belief in family values evidenced by the stability, love and faithfulness he claims have distinguished his third marriage to Callista Bisek these past eleven years, (also, his 2007 book, Rediscovering God In America, was hailed by Liberty University as a sign of his resolve to call "America back to our Christian heritage"), Gingrich will need more than suspicious claims and books to convince voters that he is still believable and that the very serious moral problems which sank him very low in the estimation of several Americans over a decade ago should now be confined to the dustbin of history. And his attempts so far to address these yawning concerns have been, sadly, less than impressive. An outright contrition and sincere apology would have been the best way to start, but for his unduly bloated ego.

The huge irony of what Gingrich's critics refer to as his life of hypocrisy is that while he led one of the most aggressive political battles in America to bring President Bill Clinton down for engaging in extra-marital affair and lying about it, he was himself, during that same period, deeply involved in a serious adulterous relationship!

Mr. Gingrich is now in his third marriage. But while married to Wife No1, he cheated on her with would-be Wife No2, and while Wife No1 was still in hospital after a very excruciating surgery for uterine cancer, he reportedly went to her sick bed to present her with divorce papers. After successfully dumping Wife No1, he married Wife No 2, and for six years while still married to Wife No2 (and fighting Bill Clinton for marital infidelity and unduly overheating America in the process), he was having affairs with Miss. Callista Bisek, a Congressional aide, who is now Wife No3. In 1999, Wife No2 was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), and soon after, he divorced her and married Ms. Bisek with whom he is now out there emphasizing family values and prefixing all his comments with "Callista and I" to prove the love and loyalty flourishing between them.

Last March, Chris Wallace pointedly asked Gingrich during an appearance on "Fox News On Sunday": "Did you ever think to yourself [when he was championing Clinton's impeachment because of marital unfaithfulness]: ‘I'm living in a really glass house. Maybe I shouldn't be throwing stones?' "

To this Gingrich answered: "No, I thought to myself if I cannot do what I have to do as a public leader, I would have resigned. Now, look, I think you have to look at whether or not people have to be perfect in order to be leaders. I don't think I'm perfect. I admitted I had problems. I admitted that I sought forgiveness."

I am sure you are still trying to grasp what exactly he intended to convey by that answer, although he also added that he fought Clinton for lying under oath, and not necessarily the act of infidelity he had committed.

Questioned again on the same matter on Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that same March, Gingrich made his now famous claim that he cheated on his wives because of his exceptional passion for America!

Here him: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate." This response which attracted countless screaming headlines across America and derisory comments from multitudes of readers, makes one wonder whether it was indeed Gingrich, the media-crowned great thinker that actually uttered it.

This, no doubt, will continue to haunt him throughout this race, and may even crash his presidential ambition, because it speaks volumes about the capacity of Gingrich to be truthful and plain, not just on these unflattering personal issues. Now, as US president, Mr. Gingrich would be expected to be more passionate about America and work even harder to improve her lot; so, does it then mean that Americans will yet witness more confessions and half-hearted apologies?

If Gingrich wins the GOP primaries, President Barack Obama would find him a very formidable opponent on debates about policies and dynamics of government business. There is no doubt about that. Great emphasis is often made in the American media about Gingrich's intellectual capacity and vast knowledge, and he, too, appears to have allowed such undue stress on his abilities to exaggerate his own rating of himself. And so, his critics tend to identify a tinge of arrogance in him and an impression that his audience, sometimes, is merely some secondary school kids he is taking some pains to educate, even when he is not saying anything particularly profound or unfamiliar.

Yet, his life is riddled with memorable history of great gaffes and contradictions. But he is probably always too blinded by his exaggerated view of himself to realize when he has made a really embarrassing mistake, and to find the right words to make amends. Till now, he is yet to see clearly the enormity of the contradictions betrayed by his popular ad for Al Gore's climate change group and his equally popular advocacy for aggressive domestic drilling of oil (which is widely and regularly blamed for climate change), which won him the acclaim of fellow conservatives.

Marc Morano, former aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R.Okla.), for instance, is demanding an apology from Mr. Gingrich for the ad he did with Pelosi. "It's almost like he can't admit he made a mistake. He needs to say it was a brain fart, at the very least," he told recently. Predicting that this would certainly hurt Gingrich in the primaries, Morano regretted that "Newt Gingrich is arrogant enough to believe that he doesn't have to play by the same rules as everyone else. I can't think of any Republican who hasn't addressed this in a way that is satisfactory to the Republican base."

But Gingrich's aides are saying their principal is yet to see any contradictions in his stance. "Newt does not apologize for trying to persuade his ideological opponents that his conservative solutions are the best solutions," his spokesman, Rick Tyler, said recently. "His attempt to work with Speaker Pelosi is another testament to Gingrich's willingness to debate his conservative solutions with liberals, in this case Pelosi. As it turned out, Pelosi ... and Gingrich still disagree about how to best protect the environment. But Gingrich will never shy away from debating those on the left on issues like the environment, education and healthcare that they think they own."

How this answer resolves the big question about Gingrich's ideological inconsistency is, perhaps, clear to only him and his aides. In the 2008 ad Gingrich was shown sitting very close to Pelosi outside the U.S. Capitol. Then their dialogue went this way:

"We don't always see eye to eye, do we Newt?" said Pelosi.

"No, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change," replied Gingrich.

And yet during an appearance on Fox News after his formal declaration of interest in the presidential race, Gingrich restated emphatically: "I would reverse Obama's entire pattern of being anti-American energy. I would start by saying drill here. Drill now. Pay less."

That's vintage Newt! Never afraid to change his positions suddenly while insisting that he is still where he was. Only recently, he publicly opposed President Obama's decision intervene in Libya, but before Americans could fully swallow that, Gingrich was out there again fully supporting it. Is he very impulsive, always eager to intervene before fully grasping the issues involved? How this casts him as a dependable commander-in-chief American's would like to elect is what would certainly engage many Republicans in the days ahead.

Over the years, Gingrich's intolerance of opposing views has become legendary, and this has made him a highly divisive character. There is also a strong feeling that he unduly personalized his opposition to Clinton, and anyone that reads Hillary Clinton's book, Living History, will wonder whether Gingrich is capable of the slightest hint of the mercy he said recently he had sought from God for his ugly personal history.

A popular incident in the Clinton-Gingrich saga comes to mind. After the American delegation returned from the November 6, 1995, burial of Yitzhak Rabin, Newt Gingrich complained that Clinton had snubbed him on Air Force One during the long flight back from Jerusalem. He also did not like the fact that he had to "get off the plane by the back ramp," with some other guests at Andrews Air Force Base. "You wonder where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?" he queried during a breakfast meeting with reporters on November 15, 1995. This was the time a showdown over issues on the budget between the presidency and the Gingrich-led House had led to a government shutdown. Now Gingrich was probably showing that his grievances went beyond the issues of disagreement over the budget, prompting the New York Daily News to publish the next day a cartoon of him in diapers as "Cry-Cry-Baby." But the White House, however, put a lie to Gingrich's claims by releasing a picture of himself, Clinton and Bob Dole sitting in a conference room on Air Force One and seriously engaged in a deliberation. Newt had misfired again.

As Gingrich seeks to become America's president, he should expect his views to be defeated by superior ones, and discourage his personal character traits from always interfering in his handling of public issues. His ability to convince the Republicans that he is able to do this will largely determine the outcome of his run. He needs to work hard to improve his acceptability, even though, there seems to be a growing impression that with his entry into the race, the GOPs seem to have been faced with a fait accompli. Their choices are limited. Some commentators are already saying: Gingrich may not be the best the Republicans can offer for now, but if not him, then who?

Again, given his decision to give his wife a central role in his campaign as a character witness to his new image as a good family man and one who has lately "found" God, it must occur to him that Americans are also eager to hear his wife's side of the story of his moral problems in which she played a prominent role, if she hopes to be a credible witness and eventually the first lady. Indeed, her continued refusal to speak on those issues might severely discredit her testimonies, hurt her husband's ambition and inspire serious doubts about the genuineness of the "New Gingrich" they are seeking to sell to Americans.

And given the image he came away with after his epic political battle with Clinton, Gingrich must hasten to demonstrate convincingly that he is not merely some dry-as-dust, take-no-prisoner politician, ready to devour and swallow. He should not forget in a hurry that it was the disenchantment of Americans over the vicious nature of his very bitter opposition against Clinton that led to his downfall a decade ago, and severely polarized the conservatives. And given that he has not won any election outside his district in Georgia (not even a state-wide vote), he should not underestimate the current challenge but hasten to realize that his bid for the presidency would surely require a more mature approach, greater respect and accommodation of others and their views, extra humility and plainness.



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May 18, 2011