The Gingrich MomentNovember 20, 2011
If you follow politics, you know the last two weeks have been dominated by talk of the Gingrich Surge. With Herman Cain tumbling from his precarious perch atop the Republican field, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is enjoying his moment as the I’m-Not-Mitt-Romney choice of perpetually unsatisfied primary voters.
It was obvious that the Gingrich story would land on the cover of this week’s issue of The Weekly Standard and I hoped they would take advantage of this by replaying a version of the famous cover from the premier issue, dated September 9, 1995. It was the height of the Gingrich Revolution, just before the government shutdown, Monica Lewinsky, and his remarkable fall. Alas, they did not.
A brief email exchange with Playbook made me curious about how many covers Gingrich had been on over the years. I tracked down four and the beauty of them is they sum up Gingrich’s career in just four images.
I was also curious about how Gingrich was portrayed in the premier issue, which as someone with a thing for premier issues, I happened to have. I located my copy and spent some time in that blissful period before multiple bubble crashes, 9/11, and reality television.
The Gingrich articles were fascinating. Charles Krauthammer wrote A Critique of Pure Newt, which looked at Gingrich’s book, To Renew America. He reminds us that there was a time when Gingrich was known more for his optimism and faith in a future utopia than aggressive partisanship (or, more accurately, he was known for both).
The book is unsystematic, but its underlying vision is easily discerned. It is positive. It is visionary. It is optimistic. It is non-divisive. And it does not hold up.
Gingrich’s optimism has always been driven by a faith in technology.
It is as if Gingrich’s entire philosophy hinged on the famous Apple commercial (shown once, during the Super Bowl) that had the individual, armed with the Mac, destroying the Big Brother telescreen.
Finally, Krauthammer addresses how Gingrich’s philosophy has always differed from the restrained and realistic conservatism of William F. Buckley and others.
At root, the problem with Gingrichism is not its belief in technology, but its belief in revolution. Technology is just the means. Revolution is the end—and for conservatism, a very odd end. Technology is how Gingrich gets there. “There,” however, is a strange place for a conservative to be. […] It is not the business of conservatives to offer utopias. Utopia is the business of liberals and socialists. It is the business of conservatism to debunk such visions, not just as impractical but as inimical to liberty.
Fred Barnes offered GOP on Offense, which captures the confidence of Republicans in Washington just months before their fall.
Now comes Gingrich, who believes it will take six to ten years for Republicans to replace, not merely reform, the welfare state and the status quo in Washington. That’s if all goes well, which means staying on offense.
The most prescient piece came from David Frum in his Case for a New ‘Do-Nothing’ Congress, who already saw signs of what was to come, particularly during George W. Bush’s two terms.
If the legacy of the 104th Congress will evaporate the moment the Republicans lose power, Republicans will quickly—and not unreasonably—come to regard holding onto power as the most urgent of all their responsibilities.
Ten years after that issue, the magazine published a collection of the best writing from their first 10 years. William Kristol wrote the forward, which included this look back at the premier issue:
And sometimes a magazine about the news is driven by the news. Much that’s happened at The Weekly Standard we never—and probably couldn’t have—expected. On Labor Day, 1995, when we were just getting under way, Washington’s “Gingrich Revolution” was still in full swing. Already in our first issue we were spotting weaknesses in the speaker and his footsoldiers. But overall, we were fairly enthusiastic about them, just the same, and the cover of that premier issue carried a picture of Newt Gingrich as a martial, confident Tarzan—under the soon-to-be-laughable headline “Permanent Offense.” Two months later, history will record, Gingrich and the congressional Republicans were on permanent defense, having alienated the country with an ill-conceived government shutdown.
I would not be surprised to see something similar in the magazine in the near future. We’ve seen how this story ends.
To be clear, I find Gingrich fascinating in much the same way as President Clinton. In fact, one of my favorite political books, The Pact by Steven Gillon, describes their relationship in great detail, along with the grand bargain they were working on before each was forced to retreat to the safety of their respective defenders. Yes, it’s largely the same grand bargain everyone is so desperate for now, 16 years later.
But the other side of Gingrich is never far away. It comes out consistently in his numerous books. Andrew Ferguson wrote about it in What Does Newt Gingrich Know? for the New York Times. It’s actually one of the best things you can read about Gingrich period. Newt the author and Newt the candidate are one and the same.
Reading the Gingrich catalog, you get used to intimations—or are they threats?—of Armageddon. Windows are slamming shut, or are just about to, all over the place, all the time.
Gingrich is interesting, quite smart, often surprising, and no doubt, entertaining. I appreciate that unlike so many people who run for president these days, he has extensive government experience and is skilled in both politics and governing. Like most, I expect his moment to be a relatively brief one, despite these skills.
But, that’s o.k. We benefit from Gingrich running. We also benefit from him not winning.