The most interesting political race this presidential election season may just be Newt Gingrich versus himself.
There is clearly a faction within the Republican Party looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney, for whatever reason, and Mr. Gingrich is the latest to capture their attention. Two polls out over the weekend showed Mr. Gingrich leading the Republicans in Iowa, where the caucuses are a month away. Another recent poll showed him leading in South Carolina, an early primary state.
I’ve been watching Mr. Gingrich for a long time now — I first saw him in action in person back in 1995, when I covered for the Los Angeles Times a visit that the then- Speaker of the House made to the Reagan Library. That durability is something to consider in thinking about Mr. Gingrich.
Americans tend to like voting for presidents who have been on the national scene for a long time, or at least presidents whose families have been. It’s somehow reassuring, compared with entrusting the presidency to a newcomer. Mr. Gingrich’s first two unsuccessful congressional races, in 1974 and 1976, and his first successful congressional race, in 1978, took place when Barack Obama was 13, 15, and 17. In other words, Mr. Gingrich had run three congressional races as a candidate, and won one, before Mr. Obama had even finished high school. Mr. Gingrich is so old that his big, groundbreaking technological innovation as a Republican political organizer was training would-be-candidates by mailing them audio cassette tapes.
Audio cassette tapes. They were cutting-edge, at the time.
There’s a fine line, in other words, between durability and datedness, as Republicans learned with the candidacies of Robert Dole and John McCain. Mr. Gingrich, who was born June 17, 1943, is slightly older than the baby boom generation, but he can display some of the worst of its tendency to self-absorption; I know at least one person who arrived at small-group meeting with Mr. Gingrich expecting to be asked his opinion, or at least to have an exchange of views, only to leave annoyed that nearly every word spoken in an hour-long session had come from Mr. Gingrich’s own mouth. Not for nothing did Charles Krauthammer write the other day that “Gingrich has a self-regard so immense that it rivals Obama’s.”
There are other ways in which Obama and Gingrich, though separated by age, are similar. Both were born to teen mothers — Stanley Ann Dunham was 18 when Mr. Obama was born, while Mr. Gingrich’s mother Kathleen was just 16 or 17 when she had Newt. And both boys were estranged from their fathers. Newt’s biological father, Big Newt McPherson, gave up his son for adoption by Kathleen’s new husband in exchange for forgiveness of four months of overdue child support payments, according to a 1996 PBS Frontline program. Barack Obama’s father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr., didn’t put his son up for adoption, but he wasn’t particularly present as a father, either, moving back to Africa when his American son was three.
I spent part of last week calling some of Mr. Gingrich’s former colleagues, asking them whether they plan to vote for him, and whether they’d trust him with his finger on the nuclear button.
One said no, citing his “delusions of grandeur” and his tendency to be “seized by fads and fancies.” Another said yes, while acknowledging that Mr. Gingrich “knows he comes up with a lot of ideas” and suggesting that a successful Gingrich administration would best include a secretary of state and national security adviser with the stature to say “no” to Mr. Gingrich. The risk with Mr. Gingrich, this former colleague said, would be “a big decision that might be wrong.” Mr. Gingrich would likely avoid, this source said, however, the risk posed by some of the other candidates, of a continued slow decline in American self-confidence.
If that national self-confidence is in need of renewal, consider this: two sons of divorced teen mothers who were more or less abandoned by their fathers are now the incumbent Democratic president of the United States and the Republican challenger who is leading Iowa and South Carolina polls. America has its problems, and it may be that Mr. Romney, who comes from a more conventional family background, would make a better president than either Mr. Obama or Mr. Gingrich. For all America’s challenges, though, as a land of opportunity, our country is hard to beat.
Mr. Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com.