I’m glad Newt Gingrich is in the presidential race, however foolishly and futilely. He is perhaps the perfect illustration of how a potential political leader’s private personal conduct is not only relevant to assessing his fitness to lead, but predictive of it. What makes Newt especially useful in this regard is that he is a Republican, and all the Democrats who are going to be sneering at his candidacy will have to square their attacks on his character with their indignant claims in 1998 that Bill Clinton’s adultery, sexual harassment and lies were irrelevant to his leadership—and they weren’t truly private or personal. Similarly, Newt will be helpful to some of my ethically-addled trial lawyer friends who have argued that John Edwards is still a trustworthy lawyer, despite his betrayals of his dying wife, his family, his supporters and his party.
Of course private conduct is relevant to judging a leader, especially when private conduct shows an individual to be dishonest, disloyal, cowardly, ruthless, selfish and cruel—like Newt. Cheating on two wives and leaving both of them when they were battling health crises isn’t a mistake, or a coincidence, or a misunderstanding; it is a pattern, and a symptom. You can’t trust Newt. You can’t rely on Newt. You can’t believe Newt. Ask his ex-wives, and eventually, I am quite certain, his current one.
Today conservative talk radio is abuzz with Gingrich’s frenzied efforts to sooth the conservative faithful after he attacked Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget reforms over the weekend. What??? You mean Newt Gingrich stabbed a political ally and fellow party stalwart in the back without warning? Who could have seen that coming? Oh, only everybody: You can’t trust Newt. You can’t rely on Newt. You can’t believe Newt. Ask his ex-wives.
It is all about ethics alarms, and politicians like Clinton, Edwards and Gingrich were born without a full operating set. Astoundingly, intelligent commentators, historians and citizens continue to tell us that despite the fact that the busted alarms fail to work when these leaders are dealing with the people they supposedly care about most, the alarms will magically be in top working order when these leaders are doing their jobs. Ethics doesn’t work that way. Human beings don’t work that way.
And Newt Gingrich doesn’t work that way.
The Ethics Miscreant
Gingrich announced his candidacy last week with an appearance on Fox’s “Sean Hannity Show,” and immediately demonstrated why he has no business leading anything except perhaps a former Speaker of the House parade. As was once said about Lillian Hellman, virtually everything Newt said was a lie, including “and” and “the.” The Washington Post fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, biased as he often is, couldn’t mess this one up: Newt gave him so much ammunition that if he wanted to bias his review of Gingrich’s appearance against Newt, he couldn’t concoct any spin that would make it worse than it already was. Kessler evaluates politicians’ truthfulness by awarding between one and four “Pinnochios”; Newt’s Hannity lie-fest got four, and made it clear that he needs to expand the options to seven or maybe ten.
I was especially pleased with Kessler for focusing on what some will see as a trivial lie, Newt’s comment about Ronald Reagan’s film reviews. Newt told Sean:
“Ronald Reagan didn’t get up every morning and say, gee, I wish they like me. Ronald Reagan had been a movie actor. Only had one movie, ‘King’s Row,’ get a good review from the New York Times. Only one. But he had a pretty good career because it turned out that middle class, Middle America liked his movies.”
The context for this anecdote was Newt’s noting that the Northeast liberal media elite never respected Ronald Reagan because he was a conservative. As such, it is a misleading and dishonest statement of mind-blowing proportions. We must begin with the fact that Gingrich is a smart man. I once took part in a small group seminar on planning led by Newt back in the 80’s, and he was dazzling. He knows that the film reviewers weren’t biased by Reagan’s politics, because nobody knew or cared what Reagan’s politics were when he was a movie star. John Wayne’s movies were often panned by liberal reviewers out of ideological animus, but not Reagan’s. So Gingrich knows that the Times film reviews are a non-sequitur; if they were panned, it wasn’t because of politics, but because the reviewers thought the movies stunk, as in fact they often did. Still, Newt uses the story anyway, for the benefit of the ignorant, culturally illiterate and logically-challenged.
I detest that. I think we can often tell more about a politicians’ honesty through their small lies than their big ones, because small lies have small pay-offs, and cannot be rationalized as utilitarian tactics. A politician who lies when there is no benefit in lying is usually just a liar by nature.
Like Newt. It turns out, as Kessler documents, that Gingrich’s assertion about the Times film reviews was a total falsehood:
“Thanks to the fact the New York Times has posted many of the old Bosley Crowther reviews on the Internet, this is easily debunked.
We checked 10 of Reagan’s best-known movies. As mentioned, “King’s Row” (1942) was panned by The Times, as were “Working Her Way Through College” (1952), “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), “The Killers” (1964) and “Storm Warning” (1951). “Bedtime for Bonzo” (1951) got a lukewarm review. But these movies got positive notices, even raves: “Knute Rockne: All American” (1940), “Hasty Heart” (1949), “The Winning Team” (1952), and “Brother Rat” (1938). One wonders how and why Gingrich came to believe this fairy tale. Too good to check?”
No, that’s not it. Newt was talking to people (like Sean Hannity) that he knows wouldn’t bother to check. The story fits the conservative legend and narrative, so he made it up, confident that the viewers the tale was designed for would reason, “Well, even if it’s not literally true, the point is correct.” Gingrich is a trained scholar; if he cares about the facts, he knows how to confirm them.
The rest of Kessler’s piece just confirms what the imaginary film story proves. Newt Gingrich will lie whenever it suits his purposes.
The Ethics Victim
Besides disgracing himself by his own statements this weekend, Gingrich also fell victim to a blatant news media ethics foul that illustrates the First Sarah Palin Principle, which holds that even when a political figure’s conduct deserves criticism, biased and unfair news media treatment of her (or him) is still unethical. (The Second Sarah Palin Principle: “The fact that the news media is biased and unfair to a political figure doesn’t mean that her (or his) conduct isn’t still reckless, irresponsible, stupid or wrong.”) In a speech last week, Gingrich said,
“President Obama is the most successful food stamp president in American history. I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history.”
This is a clear and unremarkable statement. Gingrich was referencing the fact that under Obama, food stamp recipients have risen to 1 in every 7 citizen of the U.S. He was suggesting that what Obama has been successful at is increasing reliance on food stamps. As campaign rhetoric goes, it is within the rules. “He increased the number of people out of work, I’ll increase the number of people with jobs“—that’s what Newt said and meant, and any fair, intelligent listener heard it that way.
Not “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, however, who hit Gingrich with this:
GREGORY: First of all, you gave a speech in Georgia with language a lot of people think could be coded racially-tinged language, calling the president, the first black president, a food stamp president.
NBC should fire David Gregory, whose dim-bulb questions and naked bias disgrace the memory of Tim Russert and his predecessors. This was the worst example yet.
Gregory’s statement is racist. Who is equating being on food stamps with being black? Not Gingrich…Gregory. Who are the “lot of people” who think the phrase “food stamp president” is racially-tinged? A lot of morons? Gregory is the one giving them credibility. Let’s see…how could “food stamp president” be racist? Do more blacks than whites use food stamps? Er, no. Did Gingrich suggest that they did? Mmm…no again. Was Gingrich suggesting that President Obama is on food stamps? No, that wouldn’t make sense. Is this something that couldn’t or wouldn’t be said about any white president who, like Obama, has seen the number of citizens requiring federal assistance rise? Well, no. In fact, the phrase is unambiguously race neutral.
What Gregory did to Gingrich was to sucker punch him in the gut with an unjustified racism accusation on national TV, throwing Newt off-balance and turning a fair interview into a mugging and a smear. Gingrich should have said this:
“David, that is outrageous and unprofessional. There is no way my statement could be interpreted as having any racial content, coded or otherwise. You have 10 seconds to apologize to me, on TV, now, or I will walk off this set.”
And he should have walked. Moreover, every Republican, and every fair-minded Democrat, should agree to boycott “Meet the Press” until Gregory does apologize.
(And I should sprout wings and fly to Capistrano. I know, I know.)
It got worse. Later this week, the shameless MSNBC host Ed Schultz took the hand-off from Gregory and said this:
ED SCHULTZ: Now as far as food stamps go, President Obama inherited, may we point out, an economic mess from President Bush that has led to a record number of Americans needing help just to put food on the table. Gingrich of course is hell-bent on election. He just wants to cut these 42, 44.2 million Americans who currently use food stamps to give tax breaks to old white millionaires. That’s his priority. If Gingrich has his way on food stamps, you know who it’s going to hurt? African-Americans, women and children, and millions of low-income families. The Republican Party still can’t win on issues so their only chance is to play the race card again.
Gingrich, of course, has never advocated eliminating food stamps. Nor did his “food stamp President” line evidence any hostility to the program whatsoever. Nevertheless, now two NBC hosts have suggested that Newt Gingrich is a racist with no justification whatsoever.
Newt’s not a racist. He’s just untrustworthy, and a walking, talking ethics lesson.