“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863,” wrote William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust, speaking of the moment just before Pickett’s charge, when “this time, maybe this time” the Confederate forces will achieve a “desperate and unbelievable victory.” And for certain conservatives, now around sixty years old, there is an instant when it’s always 1994, and the rebel troops of Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, armed with the Contract for America, shellacked the Democrats and drove Bill Clinton into despair and confusion.
Well, we know what happened then. Within a few months, Timothy McVeigh took all the anti-Washington rhetoric seriously and blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, and a few months after that Gingrich took all the anti-Washington rhetoric seriously and shut down the government, and that was it for the Republican counter-revolution. Clinton regained control, and governed for another term, despite a vast right-wing conspiracy to de-legitimate his election.
These days, those Gingrichites are in high clover, as by some measures the novelist/Tiffany’ Customer of the Year has taken the lead for the GOP presidential nomination. I wish them the joy of the moment, for it will all be over soon enough. Before long, it will be remembered that before Gingrich met this moment, he stood in line, suit-buttoned, hair-combed, resume suitably updated, while flibbertigibbet Republicans swooned for Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain– in short, pretty nearly anybody–to stand as an alternative to Mitt Romney. Newt is getting a shot now because there is practically no one else in the room. It is impossible to think that Gingrich would be in any way a factor in this race if any of these lightweights had caught fire, or if Jeb Bush or Chris Christie or some other real candidate were running. (Of course, all these other candidates looked strong before they had to actually run, so maybe they would have pulled an el foldo as well.)
Gingrich should not be underestimated. He could win the nomination. He presents himself forcefully and with great confidence, and he brings with him an air of authority. Having gone toe-to-toe with Bill Clinton, he will be able to face President Obama on an equal basis (maybe too much of an equal basis–Gingrich will have trouble looking respectful, and not looking like a condescending know-it-all.) But it says here that long before the election, Gingrich will implode. Seldom have we ever seen a public official more self-impressed and self-satisfied, more in love with his own voice and his own clever formulations, than Newt Gingrich.
He will blow himself up. He nearly did it the other day when he said “child labor laws are stupid.” Lurking with in that remark was the not unreasonable idea that teenagers could be given part-time jobs to teach them a work ethic, pride and responsibility. But Gingrich could not make that simple proposition. He had to throw a bomb. He had to insult a century-old accomplishment of the Progressive Era. He had to assert his own intelligence over all those who spend their lives thinking about children and education and work and poverty. He had to put himself forward as the sneering, snarling expert on everything. Why? He cannot stop himself. He believes he is the smartest man in any room in which he stands.
And that is why he is an idiot.
[Cross-posted at JamieMalanowski.com]