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.


  1. Thoughtful, well-crafted, and genuinely insightful read, Mark. Thank you for thinking and writing.

  2. Thanks, Ken. That's very kind. Help me spread the word!

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