Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s blistering smack-down of CNN’s John King during last week’s South Carolina debate will go down as one of the most memorable moments of the 2012 campaign. Now comes the shocking revelation that Gingrich’s big applause line during said smack-down was false. Yes, “shocking revelation” is meant to be sarcastic. The applause line seemed obviously false to me on its face, as anyone could have figured out upon 10 seconds of reflection. No one seems to have invested those 10 seconds — certainly not my fellow Republicans, who were too caught up in their Newt sugar high to ponder the consequences of the inevitable crash.
I was in the live audience in Charleston for last Thursday’s debate. That was the day that ABC News aired an interview with Marianne Gingrich, the former speaker’s second wife, in which she alleged that Gingrich at one point requested that they have an “open marriage.” John King famously opened the debate by asking Gingrich whether he wanted to respond to those allegations. Newt pounced, indignantly taking King to task for opening a presidential debate with such tawdry personal subject matter. Newt then shifted his ire to ABC News: “The story is false! Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false! We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false! They weren’t interested because they would like to attack any Republican.”
In the live audience, I was only able to hear the very beginning of Gingrich’s response. He was quickly drowned out by thunderous applause that grew into a standing ovation. (I’d say that a quarter of the audience at most was standing, but the televised camera angle made it look unanimous.) When I first heard Gingrich’s full response to the question on the radio driving back to my hotel, I immediately thought: wait a minute. How could “every personal friend” that knew Gingrich back then possibly know that the story was “false”? Were these personal friends all present during the private marital conversations between Newt and Marianne? They would have had to have been present with the couple every second of every day to be able to “prove” that the conversation alleged by Marianne Gingrich never happened. If Newt’s friends were that close, it would explain why the marriage broke up.
I’m not making light of the painful personal situation that existed between Gingrich and his second wife. And I have no idea whether Marianne Gingrich’s story is indeed false, as Gingrich insists, nor do I care. What I am making light of his how Gingrich could so vociferously insist on having proof of something clearly not provable — and how everyone could get so swept away by his indignant brilliance so as not to notice. It’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but indicative of some troubling things about Gingrich. He reminds me of Bill Clinton in the way that he feeds off the adulation of a crowd, slickly telling them whatever they want to hear in the moment. And he reminds me of Hillary Clinton in the way that he uses his base’s resentments to deflect attention from personal issues. (Remember the “vast right-wing conspiracy”? At least Hillary, unlike Newt, was attempting to divert attention from her spouse’s failings rather than her own.)
When Newt gets a head of steam, he can really get caught up in his own “pious baloney.” Another example: his angry denial that he was acting as a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. Even if his activities didn’t fall within the legalistic definition of “lobbying,” does anyone seriously believe that Freddie Mac’s “government relations” arm would have paid him $1.6 million had it not been for the contacts and influence Gingrich amassed as House speaker? It may not technically have been lobbying, but it was certainly the exact type of influence-peddling that the public gets upset about when they complain about lobbying. Even if there’s “no controlling legal authority” to prove that Gingrich was a lobbyist, the distinction between what he did and what he is accused of doing isn’t significant enough in the public’s mind to justify Newt’s indignation.
What brought the crowd to its feet in Charleston was the justifiable resentment that conservatives feel about liberal bias in the media. That resentment was strong enough to overcome any inclination that the crowd may have otherwise had to question what Gingrich was actually saying. But as real as liberal media bias is (liberals outnumber conservatives in journalism by about four to one, despite being outnumbered in the country as whole by about two to one), it will not be an issue in the general election. It will likely have an impact on the general election, but it will not be an issue that will determine how people vote — especially the all-important independent voters. Independent voters recognize the media’s liberal bias, but do not feel victimized by it in the way that we conservatives do; Gingrich’s emotional appeals to our sense of resentment will therefore leave independent voters unmoved. Indeed, Gingrich turns independent voters off: voters find anger very unappealing in a politician unless they share that anger, and Newt’s fury at the liberal media makes him come off as an unappetizing Unhappy Warrior in the eyes of independents.
Standing and clapping for one of Newt’s spectacular rants can indeed be a short-term thrill for conservatives — but it isn’t worth the long-term pain of a second Obama term.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Follow him on Twitter @DavidBCohen1.