Discredited Gingrich re-emerges as `Even Newt'

July 17, 2005|By Michael Kinsley

IN WASHINGTON, old politicians don't even fade away.

Ten years ago, when he was speaker of the House and riding high, Newt Gingrich wrote a book called To Renew America, in which he predicted that in "just a decade or so," people would have a "diagnostic chair" in their homes that would save them the trouble of going to the doctor.

That doesn't seem to have happened. But then, even professional pundits can sometimes be wrong in predicting the future. For example, I thought that when he slunk out of Congress in 1998, we had heard the last of Newt Gingrich. And he did lie low for a while. But now he's back, big-time.

He's the man to go to for a quote about anything relating to the Republican Party or the universe generally. He is hitting the talk shows a lot. He recently co-chaired a congressionally sponsored commission on the future of the United Nations. And then there's his enormously publicized mutual embrace (intellectual, not physical) with Hillary Rodham Clinton. They agree about something to do with health care, which would seem more amazing if the subtext weren't so obvious: he helps her to seem moderate, she helps him to seem legitimate.

What does it take in Washington to be so thoroughly discredited that nobody cares what you think? Mr. Gingrich is far from the worst miscreant ever to be rehabilitated. By the time he died, even Richard Nixon was regarded as a major foreign policy guru. But Mr. Gingrich may hold the record for being discredited in so many ways.

He's failed as a prognosticator. (Pick almost anything he's said about the economy, for example.) He's failed as a strategist. (In 1994, he was King of the World. Time's Man of the Year. His revolution had succeeded. The presidency was his for the asking. By 1998, it was all gone, gone, gone, primarily because of his own ineptitude and overreaching.) His moral authority is, or ought to be, zilch. (He led the impeachment campaign against President Bill Clinton while conducting an extramarital affair of his own with a congressional aide.) He's been out of office for years. Who is Newt Gingrich to lend luster to Hillary Clinton?

Answer: He's a celebrity. In the famous definition of that term, he's famous for being famous. In our celebrity culture, it doesn't matter if you're a famous war hero or a famous ax murderer. What matters is the size of your fame, not its cause.

Hollywood is thought to be the center of empty celebrity. But actually, of this country's three capitals (Washington for political power, Wall Street for money and Hollywood for culture), Hollywood is probably the most rigorous enforcer of fame's limits. And Wall Street is second. A movie star who stops selling tickets actually can sink into television, into commercials and ultimately into genuine obscurity. A top businessperson also can lose his or her job if the numbers turn south, but at least Wall Street losers get tens of millions of dollars as a going-away present.

Washington, by contrast, is littered with has-beens, many of whom are richer, happier and even more influential than when they were in elected jobs.

Newt has always had his cuddly-little-piglet side, which he is nurturing. But even more helpful has been his use of the notorious "even" technique. It's very simple. You just endorse, embrace or otherwise attach yourself to something or someone representing everything, or as close to everything as possible, of what you have always stood against. Try it yourself. Suddenly, you are interesting. You're thoughtful. You're a statesman.

As part of this transformation, you become more moderate and more tolerant generally. And you get a new name. You're not just Newt Gingrich anymore. You're a new, improved version known as "Even Newt Gingrich." This fellow Even Newt does things the old, unimproved Newt would never do, such as share a press conference with Hillary Clinton. He can criticize House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for behaving more or less the way Mr. Gingrich himself did in his weeks of absolute power.

"Even" is not an ancient British heraldic title like Sir or Lord. But it may be the American equivalent. It is a rebuke to Scott Fitzgerald's misguided remark that American lives have no second acts. And nobody deserves this honor more than Newt.

Michael Kinsley is opinion page editor and editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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