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"Naughty Newt Gingrich"

Republican presidential hopeful, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures while speaking during a Town Hall style meeting at the Derry Medical Center in Derry, N.H., May 25, 2011.
AP Photo

"Naughty Newt Gingrich"

Op-Ed, Newsweek

December 19, 2011

Author: Niall Ferguson, Member of the Board, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

 

The Christmas season is upon us, and that means it will be soon be time for the Ferguson family to deck the halls with holly and ivy, prepare the spicy mulled wine, and gather around the blazing Yule log to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Beyond question the funniest film ever made, Life of Brian also contains my favorite line in all cinema. It’s uttered by Terry Jones, in the role of Brian’s mother. For those whose religious principles have prevented them from watching the movie, I should explain that the late Graham Chapman’s Brian is an exact contemporary of Jesus Christ who entirely lacks the latter’s divine qualities. Despite Brian’s cluelessness, he is repeatedly mistaken for Our Savior. Finally, in exasperation, his mum erupts at a crowd of would-be Brian disciples: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy. Now piss off!”

In these words lies the key to one of the great mysteries of our time: why so many people seriously want the former House speaker Newt Gingrich to be the next president of the United States. It’s because ... he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

For Americans utterly fed up with President Obama’s repeated failure to feed the five thousand, cure the lame, and turn water into wine, there is something irresistibly attractive about a man who embodies so many human frailties.

Four years ago, a large part of the nation was beginning to succumb to the delusion that a one-term senator from Illinois (of all places) was The One. Well, there’s no danger of any of that kind of nonsense with Newt as nominee. Because he’s as far from being the Messiah as it’s possible to get. This is a man who was having an affair with a staffer while trying to oust President Clinton over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. This is a man whose political career seemed to be at an end in January 1997 when he was fined by the House of Representatives for (in the words of the House ethics committee) “intentional or ... reckless” disregard of House rules. Think what it means to be found ethically wanting by the lower house of Congress! It’s like winning the Oscar for Best Sinner.

This doesn’t mean I don’t admire the man. I just read the transcripts of some lectures he gave in the 1990s on “Renewing American Civilization.” They positively fizz with historical insights and brilliant brain waves. They make the case against big government as vividly as anything you’ll ever read. And after all my complaints about the historical ignorance of politicians, shouldn’t Newt, with his Ph.D. from Tulane (on “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960”), be my dream candidate?

The reality is that Gingrich could very well win the Republican nomination. According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, he now has 40 percent support among likely GOP voters—way up from 13 percent a month ago—compared with the usual 23 percent for Mitt Romney. In a two-way contest between the two men, Gingrich would have the support of nearly six out of 10 Republicans.

But precisely the qualities of Sinner Newt that make him more attractive to Republicans than Straight Mitt make him a likely loser as a presidential candidate against The One.

According to that same poll, half of all voters say they wouldn’t vote for Gingrich if he were the Republican nominee, compared with 44 percent who say they wouldn’t vote for Romney. Independents and Hispanics are especially allergic to Newt. So Obama would destroy Gingrich by 51 percent to 40 percent, whereas a Romney–Obama election looks like a 2000-style dead heat.

And don’t forget: if the Republicans opt for Gingrich over Romney, the probability rises that a third candidate will enter the fray. Until last week I wasn’t taking Americans Elect seriously. But the hip movement to nominate a nonparty candidate via the Internet may provide the biggest political surprise of 2012 if, as one campaign-hardened journalist explained to me last week, it ends up drafting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Mike’s not the Messiah either. But neither is he such a naughty boy as Newt.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.

 

For Academic Citation:

Ferguson, Niall. "Naughty Newt Gingrich." Newsweek, December 19, 2011.

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