Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gingrich: Courting the Apocalyptic

The last topic in my Western Civilization class this fall was Napoleon. I always use that as an occasion to introduce students to two basic views of history: the "great man" and the "great forces" theories. It is an admittedly simplistic dichotomy, but it comes down to this: does the individual make history, or does history make the individual?

Napoleon is an easy case for discussing those ideas. Historians sometimes write of the "Napoleonic Era" as if it were the product of one man, but without the "great forces" that made the French Revolution, there would have been no opportunity for there to be a "Napoleonic Era." A more sophisticated view is that certain individuals capture the spirit of the moment, and the combination of the individual and the times makes for great changes in history.

Newt Gingrich's recent rise as the latest "not-Mitt" in the Republican race has had me thinking lately about this idea, because, as Jonah Goldberg writes in the National Review: "It’s no secret [Gingrich] sees himself as a world historical figure, the last of the great statesmen." In other words, Gingrich believes he is one of those rare individuals, like Napoleon (or for Gingrich, Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan), who uniquely understands the historical moment, seizes the mantle of leadership, and leaves an indelible mark.

Frank Bruni's piece in Sunday's New York Times on New Gingrich's massive ego nicely catalogs Gingrich's most grandiloquent expressions of his own historical significance. My personal favorite is this self-description from 1992:
"Advocate of civilization
Definer of civilization
Teacher of the Rules of Civilization

Arouser of those who Fan Civilization

Organizer of the pro-civilization activists

Leader (Possibly) of the civilizing forces"
I love the "Possibly"--that's as close as Gingrich gets to humility. As Bruni rightly notes, an arrogant egotism is effectively a prerequisite for the presidency, but Gingrich's variety "would make him a dangerous president."

But Bruni fails to focus on precisely why Gingrich would be dangerous. The death of Kim Jong-Il Sunday brought it into focus for me: in a delicate moment in international affairs such as this, how many people really wish we had a President Gingrich in charge?

For a conservative like Goldberg, the danger is that Newt's desire to make history might lead him--God forbid!--to make a grand compromise with liberals. But I think his ambitions are grander. Newt seeks to bestride the world.

When Bill Clinton (who in some ways is Gingrich's liberal, generational twin) was leaving office, there were numerous articles about how the soon-to-be ex-president was privately bemoaning the fact that no single event gave him the opportunity to seize greatness. He presided over largely prosperous times domestically, and in the lull between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 internationally. His achievements, one observer noted, came "in increments."

Clinton, for all the recklessness of his private life, was largely sober and prudent in discharging his office (one of the reasons he almost always bested Gingrich politically). Gingrich, I fear, would not accept change by increment. I can see him courting the apocalyptic in his search for "greatness."

He is certainly given to apocalyptic rhetoric. For example, in the foreword to Michael Reagan's recent book, The New Reagan Revolution, Newt writes: "Our generation will decide if America remains free--or if freedom goes extinct."

Or think for a moment of this comment from last week's debate: “if we do survive,” he ominously intoned, while discussing the possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

As a New York Times article recently noted, "Mr. Gingrich is warning of a protracted ideological struggle — and perhaps military intervention in Iran — as part of a battle of ideas in the Muslim world."

Just as the Arab Spring is sweeping away dictatorial leaders, with Al Qaeda in disarray and decapitated by the killing of Osama bin Laden, Gingrich envisions not a potentially beneficial democratic awakening in the Muslim world, but a new Cold War with Islam.

"The United States is 'about where we were in 1946' up against the Soviet Union, he said recently." The date is not coincidental. That was the year of Winston Churchill's famous "Iron Curtain" speech, which many conservatives credit with stiffening the resolve of the Truman administration to prosecute the Cold War against the Soviets.

Like so many modern American conservatives, Gingrich belongs to the cult of Churchill (the Republican House scheduled a vote Monday on a resolution that would put a statue of Churchill in the Capitol).

Churchill certainly is due credit for the role he played in the defeat of Hitler. I always point out to my Western Civ students that it is not implausible that a different Prime Minister in the summer of 1940 might have decided that it was in Britain's interests to make a deal with Hitler. Churchill's resolute defiance mattered.

But there's a difference between admiring Churchill and wanting to become Churchill. Gingrich sees himself as an American Churchill. He longs so much for his own Churchillian moment that I can easily see him creating one if history doesn't it offer it up to him.

Referring to the Palestinians, Gingrich said last week: "Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists. It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, 'Enough lying about the Middle East.'"

This is Gingrich posing as Churchill, the prescient and bold truth-teller, warning about Hitler in the 1930s or Stalin in 1946. "I will tell the truth, even if it causes some confusion sometimes with the timid," he sneered in reply to Mitt Romney's criticism of him as a rhetorical bomb-thrower. I guess the only question is whether Newt thinks Romney or Obama is Neville Chamberlain.

The last thing this country needs is a president so intent on making his mark on the world that he is willing to precipitate a crisis just so that he has a chance to save civilization. As Sen. Carl Levin put it, in response to the comments on the Palestinians, "Gingrich offered no solutions — just a can of gasoline and a match."

The world today needs firemen. Gingrich is an arsonist.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judging Newt

When Newt Gingrich starts a sentence with "As a historian ...," I brace myself. You never know what's coming, but, as a historian, I worry.

So it was the other night at the final pre-Iowa caucus debate. When Megyn Kelly challenged Gingrich on his proposals for judicial "reform," noting that two former Republican attorneys general called his ideas "dangerous, ridiculous, outrageous, totally irresponsible," Gingrich said: "As a historian, I may understand this better than lawyers."

As a historian, I doubt it.

Let's examine Newt's case. He has proposed that judges should be impeached, or entire courts abolished, for issuing unpopular decisions. He cites Thomas Jefferson as precedent: "I’d ask, first of all, have they studied Jefferson, who in 1802 abolished 18 out of 35 federal judges?"

He's referring to the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which did in fact abolish recently created district and circuit courts, and thus the judges who sat on those courts were removed from office. But why was that done?

The Judiciary Act had been passed in February 1801 by a lame-duck Federalist Congress after its defeat at the hands of Jefferson's Republicans in the election of 1800. Maybe you remember hearing about the so-called "Midnight Judges" in your American history classes? They were a product of this act.

While the idea of expanding the federal judiciary had been percolating for years, the repudiation of Federalists at the polls gave added urgency to the issue. Congress passed the bill less then three weeks before Jefferson took office, allowing outgoing Federalist President John Adams to put Federalist judges in place before the Republicans took over the Congress and Presidency.  One Federalist reportedly said: “it is as good to the party as an election.”

The Republicans saw the act--with some justification--as a blatant, anti-democratic attempt by the Federalists to maintain power and influence in the third branch despite having been recently trounced in elections to the first two branches. The Republicans therefore repealed the act in 1802, and thus, as Gingrich notes, abolished courts and judges.

But what Gingrich proposes is different. He wants to abolish courts to get rid of specific judges who have issued decisions he does not like. He's quite up front about it. He has stated that the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in particular should be abolished because of its decisions. Jefferson's 1802 act abolished all of the recently created circuit courts because they had been created for partisan reasons. Gingrich wants to target specific courts for making specific rulings which he opposes for partisan reasons.

To be fair to Newt, there also were attempts to similarly politicize the courts during Jefferson's presidency. A federal district court judge in New Hampshire, John Pickering, was impeached by the House and convicted and removed from office by the Senate in 1804. Gordon Wood writes that Pickering was "an alcoholic and probably insane," but his real sin was that he "had been violently partisan" on the bench.

In this instance, impeachment had been used "in effect as a mode of removal, and not as a charge and conviction of high crimes and misdemeanors." (Rather like the Clinton impeachment, I would argue, in which of course Gingrich had a big hand.) That success emboldened the Republicans to up the ante and impeach Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase. 

That attempt alarmed John Marshall, who feared what he called the "modern doctrine ... that a Judge giving a legal opinion contrary to the legislature is liable to impeachment." But even the overwhelmingly Republican Senate (they held 25 of 34 seats) failed to produce the two-thirds vote needed to convict Chase, avoiding the result Marshall feared.

The Chase trial precedent was the important one. He had committed no crime. His impeachment was transparently partisan. According to Wood, John Quincy Adams "thought that the failure to convict Chase established that only actual crimes were impeachable offenses." Jefferson himself said: "Impeachment was a farce which will not be tried again."

But Thomas Jefferson never met Newt Gingrich. As an experienced practitioner of political farce, Gingrich certainly has something to teach us. As a historian, not so much.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rick Perry's Theocratic Vision

Rick Perry's new "I'm a Christian" ad is evidence that the people he's targeting do not understand something fundamental about the American system that they proclaim is so "exceptional." The mindset expressed in the ad is nothing short of theocratic.

Perry says: “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” Discussing that passage, Andrew Sullivan writes:
we get a classic non-sequitur: the notion that allowing openly gay servicemembers to serve without fear of prosecution is somehow connected to the constitutional prohibition of prayer in schools. There is zero connection between the two issues - except both are objected to by Christianist fundamentalists.
I think there is a connection between the two, beyond what Sullivan says, and that the way Perry connects the two is instructive.

Perry is really saying that government, by allowing open service by gays in the military, is thereby endorsing who they are. Defending the ad today, Perry said: "President Obama has again mistaken America's tolerance for different lifestyles with an endorsement of those lifestyles."

In Perry's mind, treating people whose conduct you personally find to be contrary to your own morality as equals in the public sphere is an endorsement--it is saying that who they are and how they act is right and good. In his mind, there is no room for saying "that's none of my (or the government's) business."

In effect, he is saying that there is a moral standard (one that is set by his own view of Christianity) to qualify for equal citizenship. It is hard to imagine anything more contrary to a foundational principle of American government, expressed in the words engraved in the Supreme Court building: "equal justice under law."

Perry then makes a comparison between open service and not allowing schools to endorse Christianity via prayers and Christmas celebrations. That's why they are connected in his mind, and in the minds of those to whom he is appealing. Government, he says, is endorsing homosexuality (which it should not do), and is not endorsing Christianity, which it should do.

The common element is the idea that government has a role to play in endorsing some moral principles and condemning others. Government should not, Perry is suggesting, treat all people equally: it should endorse some and condemn others. That is a theocratic mindset.

Perry looks at the inclusiveness that a pluralistic society demands (everyone is treated equally under the law) and the refusal to endorse one religious vision (which a pluralistic society also demands) and wants us to see a contradiction. In fact, the two things are perfectly consistent with each other--if one believes (as the Founders did) that there should be no religious test for citizenship.

Perry's problem is that he either does not understand that, or does not believe in it. He thinks government should discriminate against those whose private behavior he abhors and should publicly advance his particular religious beliefs even though they are not universally held. He is saying that failing to give Christians a superior position in American society is effectively discrimination against Christians.

In this worldview, there is no room for equal protection under the law. This is truly 1984 territory: failing to discriminate against minorities is discriminating against the majority.

It is disturbing enough that an allegedly serious candidate for the presidency in 2012 could espouse such views. It is even more disturbing that he seems to think it will appeal large number of Republican primary voters. It would be most disturbing were it to turn out that he's right.