Joan Didion on Newt Gingrich

Joan Didion on Newt Gingrich

Mark Engler: Joan Didion on Newt Gingrich

It is a testament to the sad state of Republican White House hopefuls that Newt Gingrich can enter the field looking relatively sane and relatively presidential.

The former Speaker of the House, who formally announced his candidacy this past Wednesday, was the Paul Ryan of his day (a day not so long ago), claiming momentum and leading a conservative revolt against a Democratic president. Of course, many of us thought his political future had ended after he resigned both his leadership role and his seat in Congress following a poor showing by Republicans in the 1998 midterms–and after it was later revealed that, at the same time he helped spearhead the effort to impeach Bill Clinton for the Lewinsky affair, he was having an adulterous adventure of his own with a congressional staffer twenty-three years his junior.

At the National Review, Deroy Murdock writes from a conservative perspective about the massive political irresponsibility inherent in this behavior:

Had this dalliance surfaced before the November 1998 midterm elections, the staggering hypocrisy would have triggered America’s gag reflex. Voters would have catapulted the Republicans from the Capitol dome and given the Democrats the House and the Senate. Gingrich’ s lack of self-control jeopardized the entire conservative agenda. Luckily for the Right and its ideas, Gingrich did not get caught with his pants down.

I admit that, as a former John Edwards supporter, I can feel Murdock’s pain.

Like a hapless job applicant trying to turn a question about his greatest weakness into a plus, Gingrich has tied his infidelity to his admittedly over-ardent love of America. He told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

While his personal failings are widely acknowledged, even on the right, to be a problem for his campaign, Gingrich’s plus side is supposed to be his intellectual gravitas. As Ari Melber noted at the Nation, he is often referred to as an “idea factory” by fellow conservatives.

My friend Adam John Waterman recently reminded me that the definitive debunking of the notion of Gingrich as a cogent thinker was provided by Joan Didion in an essay first published in the New York Review of Books and later collected in her Political Fictions. The essay is fun if you like seeing Didion use her strategy of dry, piercing dissection to mercilessly mock both Gingrich’s writing style and the content of his ideas. In a few typical paragraphs (dense but damning), she writes:

To complain that Mr. Gingrich’s thinking is “schematic,” as some have, seems not exactly to describe the problem, which is that the “scheme,” as revealed in his writing and lectures, remains so largely occult. The videotaped “Renewing American Civilization” lecture in which he discusses “The Historic Lessons of American Civilization” (Pillar One of the Five Pillars of American Civilization) offers, for example, clips from several television movies and documentaries about the Civil War, but not much clue about why the lessons of American civilization might be “historic,” and no clue at all why the remaining four Pillars of American Civilization (“Personal Strength,” “Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise,” “The Spirit of Invention and Discovery,” and “Quality as Defined by Deming”) might not be more clearly seen as subsections of Pillar One, or lessons of civilization. Similarly, the attempt to track from one to five in Mr. Gingrich’s “Five Reasons for Studying American History” (“One: History is a collective memory,” “Two: American history is the history of our civilization,” “Three: There is an American exceptionalism that can be best understood through history,” “Four: History is a resource to be learned from and used,” and “Five: There are techniques that can help you learn problem-solving from historic experience”) leaves the tracker fretful, uneasy, uncertain just whose synapses are misfiring.
“Outlining” or “listing” remains a favored analytical technique among the management and motivational professionals whose approach Mr. Gingrich has so messianically adopted….Yet, on examination, few of his own “areas” and “imperatives” and “initiatives,” his “steps” and “options” and “goals,” actually advance the discourse. The seventh of the seven steps necessary to solve the drug problem, as outlined in The Renew America, calls for the government to “intensify our intelligence efforts against drug lords across the planet and help foreign governments to trap them,” in other words exactly what the both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Southern Command have been doing for some years now. No piety can long escape inclusion in one or another of Mr. Gingrich’s five or four or eleven steps; another of the seven steps necessary to solve the drug problem is the reinvigoration of Mrs. Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

The first of the “eight areas of necessary change” in our health care system calls for “focusing on preventive medicine and good health,” which meant, in Window of Opportunity, offering Medicare recipients $500 for not going to the doctor.

Didion also discusses Gingrich’s historical fiction, which has been nicely covered in a photo gallery at Talking Points Memo.

Defenders of Gingrich would no doubt respond that Didion (and Talking Points Memo, too) is merely representative of the embittered bi-coastal liberal elite, unable to accept the ideas of such an iconoclastic thinker. These partisans may be right about Didion’s elitism, but, after the reading the essay, it’s hard to see how Gingrich could recover his image as a bearer of a serious intellectual agenda.

I wrote a review of Political Fictions back in 2002, shortly after it came out. There I argued that Didion’s stance of distanced, if withering, critique limited her role as a political advocate. However, given her otherwise fine contributions, I think she can be forgiven for her reluctance to enter into the grime of political battle.

These essays were originally framed, at least in a general sense, as book reviews. The result is that the work moves away from politics. Instead it becomes a reflection on meta-politics–the rhetoric and self-image of the process, as presented in the memoirs and monographs and scoops published by political insiders. Writing in this mode Didion can brilliantly note that “the number of medals awarded” for the invasion of Grenada “eventually exceeded the number of actual combatants.” But even she does not discuss Grenada as a military reality. Rather it is something more abstract, a “symbolic centerpiece” used by conservatives to define Reagan’s foreign policy. There can be no muckraking here because the author, adopting the role of literary critic, keeps several layers of detachment between herself and the political muck.
Nevertheless, Didion’s anger at political developments that many people, in advanced states of cynicism, have come to take for granted is genuinely refreshing. While she can’t quite pass as a real populist, and while she never quite dares to take up actual advocacy, her incisive criticism provides a valuable guide to a twelve-year period in which smaller and smaller pools of voters mattered in the political process, and “half the nation’s citizens had only a vassal relationship to the government under which they lived.” Whether or not this constitutes a new trend, it is one worth combating. We don’t have to consider ourselves innocent to be outraged.