Newt Gingrich’s Desperate, Dishonest, Irresponsible Pitch

In 1960 the better hair beat the better debater. Maybe Newt's basing his strategy on his hair.

I heard it again on a radio ad for Newt yesterday, and decided that it was unfair to slam him for it, because the sponsor was his Super Pac, and we all know that (cough!) Super Pacs have no contact with the candidates they support. Then, last night, Gingrich made the argument himself, and not for the first time. The reason Newt Gingrich should be the Republican nominee for President is that he is the one best equipped to trounce Barack Obama in the debates.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had our smartest guy going head to head against their smartest guy in the debates?” the perky actress playing a Newt supporter ( a dumb Newt supporter) said in the ad. “ “Newt would win for sure!”

The ad, please note, said absolutely nothing about whether Gingrich had any skills actually relevant to being President of the United States, and never said what his policies would be or how he would govern. Newt himself has talked about these things, but in the end he too boils his pitch down to one asset: He’s a better debater than Barack Obama. And the proper responses to that are, in order,

  • Oh, yeah?
  • So what?
  • Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Regarding the first, Newt has hardly been dazzling in the gazillion debates we’ve seen him in so far. He is articulate and has a command of facts, but he has still issued a lot of whoppers, still seemed nasty and petulant much of the time, and still showed a penchant for making sweeping statements and wild suggestions that make one question his stability if not his sanity….like forcing judges who displease him to justify their decisions before Congress. Whatever criticism one might have of Barack Obama, he is cool in the spotlight, and not prone to rash statements. When Presidential debates have been decisive, it has usually come down to one spontaneous gaffe—Gerald Ford’s weird assertion that Communist Poland wasn’t under Soviet control, Jimmy Carter’s story about consulting little Amy about nuclear warfare, Mike Dukakis reacting to his wife’s theoretical rape and murder like he was reviewing his grocery list. Newt is a veritable gaffe machine.

Even if Newt could out-debate Obama, it is unlikely that the public would see it that way. This isn’t junior high, though Newt strikes me as the kind of kid that would be elected a junior high president. Presidential debates aren’t  decided on points. I have had the pleasure of knowing a man named Arch Lustberg for more than three decades: he is arguably the most astute speech coach and public presentation expert in the country. Arch can take a fumbling, boring, nervous speaker and have him or her look and sound like an experienced public speaker in a matter of hours—I’ve seen it, and it’s incredible. His usual clients are business executives, but Arch could have worked wonders with such hard cases as George W. Bush, his father, and John McCain too. Arch explains that in any political setting, including debates, the most important ability is to be seen as likable, whether the candidate in fact is likable or not. Reagan-Carter, Reagan-Mondale, Bush I-Dukakis, Clinton-Anybody, Bush II-Gore, Bush II- Kerry, Obama-McCain…the most likable candidate won, regardless of the technical debate points. Unless, Newt hires Arch Lustberg quick, and I have arranged to have him hidden in a secret underground bunker until Newt’s gone, he’s not going to win any debate with Barack Obama in the ways that matter.

But let’s assume, just to be nice, that Newt is right, and that he will win the debates and the election as a result. How irresponsible is it to base your candidacy for President on a skill irrelevant to national leadership? This is like claiming that we should elect a candidate who shakes hands or kisses babies well. Okay: we elect the best debater in the country as President. What happens until the next debate, four years away? This is a reckless, non-serious, cynical, thoroughly irresponsible campaign strategy, the equivalent of  arguing that a candidate should be leader of the free world because he can beat the current President in a pogo stick race.

And you know what? Newt knows all this! This is what is really infuriating: Gingrich does know his history, as he tells us so often. He knows that debating is a skill that is irrelevant to the presidency. He does know that being smart has little to do with effective leadership* and nothing to do with winning presidential debates. That theory was thoroughly debunked in the very first debate in 1960, when Richard Nixon, a trained debater and probably quite a bit smarter than Newt, took on a young Senator from Massachusetts with a funny accent. Debate experts recruited by newspapers to score the debate had Nixon winning easily, but what the viewers were impressed with was Kennedy’s fresh look, his youth, his poise, and the fact that he wasn’t embarrassed or intimidated by the glowering Vice-President with the five 0’clock shadow.

Gingrich knows this, and knows something else too: if Obama thinks that the only way Gingrich can beat him is through debates, there won’t be many debates. Maybe one, perhaps two. The main argument for Newt Gingrich’s candidacy is based on a lie. Newt is lying.

That, of course, is no surprise.


* The proportion of our most smartest Presidents who were less than dazzling (or less than trustworthy) in office is distressingly high: both Adamses, Madison, Van Buren, Buchanan (maybe the worst President of all), Grant, Arthur, Taft, Wilson, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Clinton…and I personally would include the current Chief Executive on that list.




25 thoughts on “Newt Gingrich’s Desperate, Dishonest, Irresponsible Pitch

    • No, I do like him, up to a point. I was in a private management seminar taught by Newt in the Eighties, and it was probably the most useful two hours I ever experienced in my life. He’s fun to talk to. He’s lively and interesting. I just wouldn’t trust him with the time of day, and anyone who would is nuts.

  1. Jack, don’t you consider at all that skillful oral communication is a desirable, highly valuable, and even predictive quality, essential to the success of a person in any job (or seeking approval necessary to assume any job)?

    I just feel like I am reading mixed signals from you in your post here.

    If it was all up to me to weigh the talents and skills of a U.S. presidential candidate, I would reason thus; debate skill or success aside:

    The President is not going to have time to sit and write as much as he or she or anyone else might wish. Nor is the President going to have time to just give speeches or engage in debates. The President is going to have to be a supreme guide and director, firsthand, to more people than probably any other person in the world in any job. The President is going to have to establish and sustain integrity of direction and guidance in a more relentlessly dynamic environment than that to be faced in any other job in the world. Accordingly, the President simply must be able to articulate clearly, unmistakeably, and compellingly by oral means to all the persons with whom he or she communicates directly, and must do so with relentlessness and integrity that exceed that of the demands of the job. Any lesser communicator risks monumental failure, starting from the very top.

    Am I expecting too much? I’m “thinkin’ of Lincoln.”

    • I was thinkin’ of Reagan! Jack obviously came away from this experience with Gingrich with a negative opinion. First impressions count! But… we can’t always make that good first impression. Newt’s got some serious personal baggage from his earlier days, too. His ability to lead, I don’t doubt. Is he of higher moral character, though, than from those earlier days in regard to his personal life? That’s the question that’s cost him with many voters. Character is the principal factor for a leader.

    • Communication, of course. Bush would have been twice as effective if he could put a coherent sentence together, Debating skills, no. Especially in a campaign. They don’t matter.

      Lincoln would have done horribly in a TV debate. WAAAAY too ugly, and a bad voice.

      • Lincoln DID learn that a beard leant him as aspect of wisdom, covering up that gaunt face that made him look like a wandering handyman. One assumes that he had a pronounced midwestern twang and was, apparently, a slow speaker. That wouldn’t have done well in the typical TV debate forum of today… which I despise, anyway!

      • “Debating skills, no. Especially in a campaign.” There it is, I think, what’s been bugging me all day about what you’ve said so far on this topic.

        So what, if the “debate” is not the classical, televised event with candidates going head-to-head like we are familiar with? The stumping, the public monologues during the campaign stops, the town halls, the candidates’ own voices or voice-overs in ads…that is all “debating,” too, and is as much (if not moreso) a factor in winning the battle for hearts and minds (and votes) as the one-on-one-face-offs-under-the-bright-lights-and-confronted-by-clever-questioners-with-special-rules format. The gaffes certainly occur in both venues (or “channels”). So why wouldn’t the opposites of the gaffes, the “zingers,” the “winners,” the “you-are-so-busted’s,” occur and have great effect, even if opponents never met to debate in person? And you don’ t think that what Reagan did to Mondale in at least one of the 1984 debates made any difference in the outcome of that campaign?

        So Jack, why do you seem to be discounting (completely disregarding?) the potential for a Gingrich speaking campaign to pose serious challenges to Obama’s re-election, even if Gingrich is not nominated and there is no direct Obama-vs.-Gingrich debate? You concede that teaching may be Gingrich’s real talent. Well, if I learned anything from the brief period when I was trained in sales, I learned that selling involves, in a very large part, a manner of education. If I am Obama, I am feeling threatened (regarding re-election) by Gingrich in ways I do not feel threatened by anyone else the Republicans might nominate. (Santorum has shown some notably spunky speech in recent weeks, but I think it’s fair to project, with extremely high confidence, that Romney will be the #1 “R” vs. the #1 “D.”)

        Jack, I just think that today and here, you are weaving and spinning, then jumping to attributing lying to Gingrich in matters that he is not lying about. In my opinion, it would be lying for someone, anyone, even the almighty biased (and/or prostituted and/or control-freaky, wannabe-king-maker) media, to dismiss and try to ignore Gingrich’s power to influence voters, no matter what becomes of his candidacy. That would be “lying to self.” I just checked the dictionary, to be more sure; “lying to self” matches up fairly closely with “delusion.” Given the proven success of “negative campaigning,” I know I wouldn’t want to be running for any office that Gingrich is campaigning negatively to prevent my winning.

        • Okay, I rambled earlier, and did not even get to a point I wanted to make. So now, I have to ramble some more. Jack, you may be right and I may be wrong, on this: Likeability is becoming less and less relevant to U.S. political candidates’ prospects for election – especially, candidates who are in the Democratic Party. (I consider that to be the truth, and a genuine, terribly underappreciated danger to the Republic.)

          After seeing Gingrich scold John King in South Carolina, and then seeing the rallying of people to Gingrich’s support in response to that, it is not possible for me to dismiss what a not-very-nice, not-very-likeable candidate might get away with in the future, as he or she taps any “gusher” of public discontent. I said (or was trying to say), in a post either yesterday or the day before, that the culture of the U.S. has devolved beyond a tipping point in the ways of civility (and even, rationality) applied to political discourse. Newt Gingrich has the power of speech that could overwhelm any and all intermediate forces’ attempts to block his rallying of discontented voters – and woe to those forces, once the “ungarbled word” hits the public’s raw nerves. Unlike Ross Perot, Gingrich IS smart enough to be reckoned with, insofar as pulling off a “coup” of courting “none of the above” voters that would accelerate the degeneration of civility in U.S. politics – even without a turnabout in the Democratic Party’s trend of giving passes to their mean-spirited allies.

          What’s worse, is that Gingrich is nearly 70 years old; there WILL be even smarter, richer, meaner, more effective-when-speaking, and more reckless “leaders” after Gingrich’s ways – younger, even stronger, more durable and resilient than Newt – who will draw voters away from the familiar “two-party” battle camps in numbers sufficient to make U.S. politics more nasty and tumultuous than any of us can now imagine.

          I am warning: it’s coming. It cannot, and will not, be stopped. When you observe the undeniable uptick in terrible things happening to more and more of the prominent faces and voices (some ephemeral, some long recognized) in media, religion, business, academia, “entertainment,” political discourse in general, and government, you’ll know that the next, ugly wave (tsunami, really) of U.S. political culture has washed ashore.

          Ethics? I predict that the tsunamis of ever increasing violence will push them ever further into the culture’s backwaters. The campaigns of 2012 are relatively gentle harbingers of the ugliness to come.

      • And dont forget Jefferson who was a horrible public speaker and often spoke so softly that people could not hear his speach.

  2. I have to say, I would love to watch a debate between Obama and Gingrich. It would be much more interesting and probably have more meat to it than most recent debates. That said, debating skills alone does not a President make.

    In response to Eeyoure – I’m not sure I equate oral communication and debating. Yes, clear communication skills are essential for a leader. And yes, clear communications skills are essential to a good debater. It does not follow that a good debater will be a good leader. The difference is that a good leader must have a vision and the drive to see that vision implemented. A good debater just needs to speak to the vision.

    • No fundamental disagreement with your points, Catherine. I do not equate debating skill with other oral communication skills, either, but I do see the potential for some correlation between those skills.

      Newt Gingrich’s character issues aside, I do think that since the 1990s he has shown more vision, with more (and more easily relatable) specifics, than any of the leading Democrat presidential candidates since that same time. I have been chafing for months at the snubbing that has been given to another candidate with clear vision and drive, Gary Johnson (although he exudes “something” that I still am unable to put into words, that causes me to doubt his potential to be a successful leader as President).

      • Besides an utter lack of charisma and energy, Johnson is a centrist in an era where such people really have no place. The ideological battle lines are too sharply defined. And, as Limbaugh once said, “Who ever heard of a great moderate?”.

            • Did Jack mean to call himself “extreme moderate?” Regarding Gary Johnson, insofar as I studied his positions, he impressed me as anything but a centrist. An “extreme reformist,” as a label for him, I could accept. Johnson’s “energy” was/is lacking? Steven, you knew he did iron man triathlete stuff, right? I will agree that I did not find Johnson especially charismatic. But I did not see anything about him that lacked passion.

              • I didn’t know about the Iron Man part, Eeyoure! What I was commenting on, of course, was what I perceived as a lack of amination and originality on his part. I only saw him a few times in the early debates, but this was the impression I carried away.

                • He’s running as a Libertarian now, it appears. Hmmm…party switch. Ethics alarm! (I’m dreaming of campaign finance reform that actually empowers party-independent candidates more…)

                    • I agree with you Steven. Gary Johnson was a virtual utter misfit in the Republican party. It’s amazing that he and the party used each other for as long as they did – no, wait: No, that isn’t amazing at all. Politics! “Just win, baby!” Same goes for Ron Paul, too, I agree. Besides his advanced age, I think that (mismatch between Paul’s core views and Republican planks) is one reason why I have not trusted, and do not trust, Paul.

                    • Winning elections CAN go a long way, Eeyoure! But there’s one thing that Paul has difficulty in concealing to non-libertarians. He’s crazed! Those wide, staring eyes and frenzied articulation- often about random, unrelated topics- gives one a definite urge to take a step backward and say “whoa!” upon meeting him. And I have on several occasions!

  3. “I have arranged to have him hidden in a secret underground bunker until Newt’s gone”

    Does it have lasers, Jack? Unless it has lasers, how do you expect to keep the Republicans at bay?

    I’d like to think it has a wall-to-wall supercomputer that scans newspapers all over the world the minute they’re released to check for ethics mis-steps- and as we speak, you’re assembling the greatest ethicists the world has ever known into an all-powerful Justice League of ethics.

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