When I first heard that Newt Gingrich was mapping a Republican presidential bid — he formally announced Wednesday — I recalled what conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said recently about the guy. It sure wasn’t pretty.
Coburn was a Newt soldier back in the ‘90s, when Newt was riding high as House speaker and conservative Pied Piper. Nevertheless, Coburn told C-SPAN in March that “having served under him in the House, he’s probably not one I would choose to support” for the presidency. Why not? Because the Republicans need someone who is “stable and is learned and is going to consistently bring us together rather than alienate us.”
Hang on ... Newt Gingrich isn’t “stable”?
Yup, that’s what the man said. And he’s not the only Republican talking trash.
What voters typically prize is a presidential candidate who seems cool, calm and collected, somebody who exudes steadiness and certitude. Indeed, Barack Obama won the ‘08 race in part because he manifested those traits better than John McCain. The problem with Newt is that he long ago morphed into a blowtorch, forever setting up straw men and burning them down. I question whether Republican primary voters will want to entrust him with the nuclear launch codes.
When Republicans dis Newt, one adjective surfaces repeatedly. Matt Latimer, former deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush, says that Newt comes off as “undisciplined, unable to focus.” Party strategist John Feehery says Newt is perceived as “undisciplined.” Conservative radio host Mark Levin says Newt is “undisciplined.” Ex-Bush strategist Mark McKinnon phrases it differently; he says Newt “leads with his head and his mouth. . . . He can sure as hell throw grenades and make things blow up.”
My ears still ring from this verbal blast, detonated last autumn: “What if (Obama) is so outside our comprehension that only if you understand Kenyan anticolonial behavior can you piece together (his actions as president)? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”
Newt’s Kenya reference, of course, was a standard racist attack on Obama’s purported Otherness, but the real problem with Newt’s loose-cannon rhetoric is that it often seems incoherent. What’s wrong with being “anticolonial”? When America’s Founding Fathers fought the British, weren’t they “anticolonial”? And why is that the most “predictive” behavioral model for a president who is fighting multiple wars in Muslim nations?
Speaking of wars, one recent episode best exemplifies the ill-disciplined Newt behavioral model. On March 8, he told Fox News that Obama should intervene in Libya by instituting a no-fly zone. But when Obama intervened shortly thereafter, Newt went on the “Today” show and declared: “I would not have intervened.”
Pirouetting in midair on matters of war and peace is no way to audition for commander in chief. Worse yet, nobody really knew in early March whether he was auditioning or not. At the time, a top Newt aide announced that his candidacy was imminent. But the next day, a different top aide said that the first aide was wrong, that no such decision had been made. Longtime Newt-watchers nodded knowingly, because this was the Newt they had known in the late ‘90s, the House speaker whose tenure was so chaotic that a cabal of Republicans — including John Boehner — tried to overthrow him.
And when they behold the new Newt still swinging for the fences (Obama and his allies represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did”), they think back to the old Newt, who said he was “sickened” by Bill Clinton’s sexual conduct and who declared, “I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic.”
We now know, of course, that during the anti-Clinton crusade, Newt was canoodling outside his own marriage. This is more grist for his discipline deficit — not so much the behavior itself but the spin he offers for the behavior. In 2007, he said: “There were times when I was praying, and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong, but I was still doing them.” Two months ago, he said: “There’s no question that at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and that things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”
Maybe. But I bet that in the throes of cheating on his first two wives, Newt was feeling neither prayerful nor patriotic.
Newt himself told the Washington Times this week that he’s “working very diligently” to becalm his temperament. But he has precious few months to sway the skeptics in his own party and correct for decades of indiscipline.
• Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.