The South Carolina primary ended the Thursday before the voting, at around 8:05 p.m. That’s when Newt Gingrich stopped berating CNN’s John King for asking him about his ex-wife Marianne’s allegation that he wanted an “open marriage.” Newt’s reply was a virtuoso display of bluff and indignation.
He angrily dismissed Marianne’s account as false, even though the balance of evidence suggests it’s true. Whether he explicitly told Marianne he wanted an open marriage or not, he had operationally pried open their marriage through years of unfaithfulness. He summoned dubious evidence in his defense, saying all their mutual friends knew Marianne’s charge was untrue, although there could have been no witnesses to a private conversation. But his outraged forcefulness carried the day. At the end of a debate he must have known he had decisively won, he congratulated King on his fine moderating — as if his volcanic outburst had been for show.
Only one other politician in America could have played the victim card so expertly when confronted by the story of a wronged woman. Only one other politician would have thrown out so many obfuscating “facts,” or turned his lavish anger on and off so quickly. Only one other politician would have dared hope to turn such an embarrassing imbroglio to his advantage. If he was watching the debate somewhere, Bill Clinton must have chuckled in admiration and thought, “Well played, my friend. Well played.”
Newt is the Republican Clinton — shameless, needy, hopelessly egotistical. The two former adversaries and tentative partners have largely the same set of faults and talents. They are self-indulgent, prone to disregard rules inconvenient to them and consumed by ambition. They are glib, knowledgeable and imaginative. They are baby boomers who hadn’t fully grown up even when they occupied two of the most powerful offices in the land.
Steven Gillon, author of “The Pact,” a book about the Gingrich-Clinton interplay in the 1990s, was struck by their “unique personal chemistry, which traced back to their childhoods.” Both were raised by distant or abusive stepfathers and surrounded by strong women. Both were drawn to politics and wanted to serve, in Newt’s case on a vast, civilizational scale. Both were allegedly sleeping around on the campaign trail before they had won anything.
Yet their personalities are different. Growing up in an alcoholic household, Gillon notes, Clinton was a natural conciliator. Gingrich was given to defiance. Clinton was gregarious, a people-pleaser. Gingrich was bookish, a lecturer at heart. Clinton made his way in politics in the unfriendly territory of Arkansas; he had to dodge and weave and seduce. Gingrich climbed through the ranks of the House Republican conference; he stood out as a partisan provocateur.
And so he remains today. He utterly lacks the Clinton soft touch. No one will ever consider him a lovable rogue. Quin Hillyer of the American Spectator says he’s the “Bill Clinton of the Right With Half the Charm and Twice the Abrasiveness.” Republican voters lit up by his debate performances believe he’s the most electable candidate, even though the three recent national polls show him with a favorable rating in the 20s. Presidents dip that low after they lose a war or before they get impeached. Newt Gingrich starts out there.
Could he turn it around with smashing debate performances against President Barack Obama in the fall? Doubtful. In a presidential debate, a candidate’s bearing matters. Al Gore may have beaten George W. Bush on points in their first debate in 2000, but he audibly sighed. That small indicator of an arrogant impatience sank him. If Gingrich shows the slightest bombast or ill temper, if he hectors or gives off a sense of intellectual superiority — in short, if he conducts himself in a typical Gingrichian manner — he will lose the debates in a rout even if he bests President Obama on the merits.
It’s another reason why wily old Bill Clinton has to be pulling for his Republican alter ego.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.