Nixon in Space: The Familiar Political Personality of Newt Gingrich

Newton Leroy Gingrich will surely win a place in our forthcoming sequel, The American Political Tradition 2: The Revenge. The original Richard Hofstadter classic profiles the giants of American political history, showing how each man’s life story captured the political zeitgeist of the day in its own, idiosyncratic ways. Herbert Hoover, for instance, represented the crisis of American individualism, and Abraham Lincoln the nineteenth century myth of the self-made man.

I often like to ask students who they think would appear in an updated version of the 1948 book. Barack Hussein Obama is a ready answer. “He’s like a fictional character, but real,” Bob Dylan once said of the President. His remarkable life—the mother from Kansas, the father from Kenya, the extraordinary rise through the upper echelons of American education and politics—tells a story not just about African American political leadership in the late twentieth century but the broad sweep of civil rights, multiculturalism, the culture war, and so much more. One assumes Ronald Reagan would find a place in such a volume as well, not only for what he did as president but for all he has symbolized since leaving office.

But Gingrich—ah, Gingrich. The amphibian first name, the Seussian surname. On one level there seems to be no one quite like him. Only one of our presidents has ever held a PhD, and most successful politicians do not make a point of showing off their erudition, yet Gingrich flaunts his status as a historian and litters his grandiose pronouncements with a range of historical allusions that have been known to raise eyebrows. He privately describes himself as a “definer of civilization” on an epic mission, and he publically portrays himself at war with a vicious, secular, socialist Left that is determined not only to destroy him personally but to consign America to the dustbin of history. No other candidate, no matter how incompetent or deranged, has won the honor of having two distinct personalities recognized by journalists, who are always prepared for Good Newt or Bad Newt to show up. Yet Newt Gingrich’s trademark combination of manichean political warfare and boundless ambition does remind us of someone in American political history: Richard Milhous Nixon. The most immediate parallel is undoubtedly the Southern Strategy, which Nixon invented and Gingrich appears to have revived with his smashing primary victory in South Carolina. Nixon sought to win over the formerly Democratic South with talk of “law and order” that would appeal to white voters who were unsettled by busing, riots, and the growing assertion of black political power. Keep in mind these weren’t the rough stereotypes of massive resisters but rather the metropolitan white collar middle classes of the New South (see Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority or Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland).

Republicans have been bashing “welfare queens” and blowing racial “dog whistles” ever since to win the hearts of Southerners. While Mitt Romney has attempted to exploit racial tensions occasionally—with attacks on “sanctuary cities” sheltering immigrants, for instance—the robotic frontrunner has never really adopted the pugnacious style that many conservatives desire, especially after living under the tyranny of a militant black nationalist dictatorship for the last three years. (Whether Romney’s “deficiency” in this area is a matter of temperament or merely a prudent decision not to make inflammatory statements that could hurt him in the general election is hard to say.).

Newt, on the other hand, cut his teeth as part of the generation of ambitious Republicans who took out old-school Democrats across the South, winning election to a district in suburban Atlanta during the 1970s. He knows his race-baiting backwards and forwards, and he has a knack for forming memes that burrow into the brain, capturing a whole complex of racist assumptions and anxieties in one pithy phrase. His “food stamp president” line would undoubtedly make Lee Atwater and Sarah Palin proud. His victory suggests that South Carolina Republicans, at least, want someone who can voice their rage toward the President and his parasitic supporters more than the technocratic expertise and business skill that Romney has for sale.

The other trait Newt shares with Nixon is a fondness for bruising, scorched earth tactics distinguished by a willingness to demonize the enemy in any way possible. Just as Newt’s political rise began in the heyday of the Southern Strategy, Nixon rode to power on the coattails of Joseph McCarthy. While shamelessly denying his own dubious ethics, Nixon was ready to impugn the character and patriotism of his opponents, wielding the twin cudgels of Communism and Anti-Americanism against all comers. His 1950 Senate opponent in the 1950s was “the Pink Lady,” while Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern became the standard-bearer of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion” in 1972.

In his 1972 re-election campaign, Nixon may have employed a bevy of dirty tactics that included break ins and sabotage, but he also eschewed “traditional party labels” and touted “his connections to Democrats… downplaying his own Republican affiliation,” according to Bruce Schulman. Nixon wanted his campaign to promote “the new American Majority … not [the] Republican majority.” This is the same Nixon who with one side of mouth promoted black capitalism and through the other approved COINTELPRO, a program of domestic surveillance and espionage that targeted civil rights groups and many have claimed contributed to the assassination of Black Power leaders like Fred Hampton.Like any good Republican of the New Right, Nixon played upon the politics of symbolism. When Mayor Lindsay lowered the American flag to half staff, to mark the number of dead from Vietnam and again later to acknowledge the tragedy at Kent State, New York construction workers and Wall Street financiers joined together in patriotic rage. On May 8, 1970, the Hard Hat Riot began when 200 construction workers, all dressed in brown overalls carrying with them American flags, assembled near Federal Hall to protest Lindsay’s decision. The workers began targeting boys with long hair and beating them with their red and orange hard hats, and Wall Street’s warriors soon appeared in support, chanting slogans like “Lindsay’s a Red!” and “Raise our flag.” For Nixon, this was the not so silent majority he coveted. Though the President did offer loopholes for unions in his wage and price controls, which left many on Wall Street uneasy, he didn’t have to give union hard hats any real benefits—just symbolic ones or a strident but economically meaningless cultural recognition. In the end, the New York Times provided the very image that symbolized Nixon’s ambitions, argues Perlstein, “the stockbroker and the pipe fitter joined in solidarity in the act of clobbering a hippie—their common weapon the American flag.”

The defining feature of such attacks is their emptiness. They target intangibles such as patriotism, Americanness, and values, not on differences of policy or, really, even ideology. Anyone can say their opponents are against America. Historians have noted that Nixon was notoriously flexible and even endorsed a number of policies that would be considered “liberal” today. Can you imagine a Republican courting organized labor? What he wanted was power, not to raise or lower the tax rate by so many percentage points. Newt, too, has chagrined activists on the right by claiming to be the one true conservative in the race (as signaled by the efforts of National Review, evangelicals and others to coalesce support around other candidates). He has been blasted for his opportunistic willingness to sit down with Nancy Pelosi and endorse action against climate change; another heretical act was his acceptance of the idea of a federal mandate to buy health insurance, a position that many other conservatives have abandoned since it became part of Obama’s hated healthcare reform legislation. Nixon also considered a health reform plan that was not terribly different from the one Democrats passed in 2010. Like Newt, his true allegiance was never to conservative ideology but to himself.

Many readers might say, “So what?” It’s not exactly news that politicians care more about seeking power than enacting policy. Or that most will do or say whatever it takes to win an election. Few elected officials get into politics to pursue a coherent ideological plan, save for the occasional Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders.

However, the similarities between Nixon and Newt remain salient. They both premise most of their attacks on allegations of anti-Americanism, they both see themselves as under constant attack, and they identify the source of their persecution in an East Coast elite in academia, government, and the press. Nixon took advantage of anti-Communist hysteria in the late 1940s and early 1950s, while Newt seized on the reaction to civil rights, black power, and the Great Society to write his political ticket. The former Speaker of the House’s unlikely and stunning political rebirth may owe to the convergence of both sources of conservative anxiety—race and leftism—in one figure, Barack Obama.

To the Tea Party, 2012 might look a lot like 1968. America recently abandoned one questionable military conflict, while it remains entangled in another. Of course, 1968 witnessed the Democratic National Convention, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, a visible cohort of young Americans openly protesting on campuses and cities, and series of urban riots that taken together convinced many Americans that the nation stood on the precipice. So while thankfully we lack the violence of urban uprisings and political assassinations, we’ve swapped them for 9/11 and the throbbing existential threat of terrorism. Debates about the debt ceiling and the aforementioned economic meltdown highlight one thing 1968 didn’t have: widespread economic distress. The only thing that could ruin the economies of the mid-1960s was Vietnam, while the wars of the twenty first century consumed federal money at perhaps the most inopportune time. Culturally, the Occupy Movement serves as evidence for many conservative Americans that the Left functions as little more than a thinly veiled fifth column of radical boogeymen. An unwashed twenty first century SDS? A burgeoning Weathermen for the new millennium? Unlikely, but from the perspective of many a Tea Partier, many of whom remember the 1960s, the whole scene looks frighteningly familiar.

It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate … sent all the way from Texas. Black-and-white-spotted. And our little girl – Tricia, the six-year old – named it Checkers. And you know the kids love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.

– Richard Nixon, “Checkers Speech,” Sept 23, 1952

A trip back to the 1950s reminds us of one last parallel between the two men: both Nixon and Gingrich proved capable of adroitly manipulating “the media” even while they complained about being persecuted by it. In September 1952, then-Senator from California stood before the American public and media fighting for his political life. Accused of improperly accepting gifts and funding, Nixon delivered his Checkers speech to a national audience. For Nixon supporters, an unscrupulous media sucker-punched the beleaguered Vice-President. As Rich Perlstein says, they “interpreted the puppy story just as Nixon intended it: as a jab at a bunch of bastards who were piling on, kicking a man when he was down, a regular guy, just they could do it and he couldn’t fight back.”

Nixon exploited this perception for decades afterward, but what’s more important was the combative response. After all, Gingrich’s performance at the opening of the last South Carolina Republican debate defined him for many South Carolina voters as a sort of “anti-politician.” Yes, that’s right—a Washington outsider who was once Speaker of the House and has long owned a home in Maclean, Virginia, a tony suburban town just outside DC. Gingrich laid into CNN’s John King when he dared ask about his ex-wife’s claims of infidelity. “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign,” Gingrich boomed, “is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.” As David Brooks recently noted, Gingrich’s rise in South Carolina depended heavily on his debate performances, a strength of the former Georgia Congressmen. When he “attacked” Juan Williams and John King last week, he epitomized the kind of aggressive unapologetic conservatism the GOP thirsts for. The New York Timesquoted one supporter describing Newt as “real … he answers the questions, he has good ideas… Mitt is kind of a flip flopper, more of a politician.” The idea of Newt as the anti-politician—well, if you can pull if off, genius.

Ironically, Barack Obama also has positioned himself as anti-politics—performing a maneuver that parallels Newt’s own attempt at taking a high-minded stance above the normal political free-for-all. Obama’s trademark rhetorical strategy during 2008 was all about rising above the sort of baby-boomer culture wars that defined the Clinton-Gingrich struggle of the 1990s, heralding a new era of rational political debate and compromise. We all know that post-partisan Shangri-la never materialized, given Democrats’ determination to push through with a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a liberal agenda and Republicans’ equivalent decision to obstruct Democratic progresss at every step of the legislative process. But Obama also chose to position himself above the democratic fray, in a way that was not too different from Newt’s posturing against the media, which he accused of trying to foster petty discord whenever they asked him a tough question. Any of the candidates on the debate stage would be better than Barack Obama, Gingrich said, and he was tired of the liberal media trying to turn them all against each other. Newt thus presented himself as the team player who cared more about conservative principles and beating Obama than naked self-interest—not unlike the liberal Democratic President who claims to be sick of he-said-she-said political bickering but is still fully prepared to fight a knock-down, drag-out political battle for power.

Ultimately, Newt is not quite the same as Nixon, and certainly not the same as Obama, even if both might indulge in anti-political fantasies. Both Newt and Nixon bring a deep-seated resentment to the liberal establishment in the arts, education, and media—a middle class kid who went to Whittier College and Duke, instead of Harvard and Yale, Nixon hated the superiority of the Northeastern cultural elite, not unlike Gingrich, who came from modest circumstances to earn a PhD in history but was ultimately turned down for tenure. His never-ending tirades against the left-wing academic elite definitely seem to smack of one who has nursed a decades-long bitterness about the liberal establishment that denied him professional approval. Both Nixon and Newt possessed a deep animus to the haughty men and women who enjoyed the privilege of greater cultural capital.

In the end, though, the forever-persecuted Newt somehow holds onto an innate sunniness that bolsters his appeal. Despite Newt’s apocalyptic rhetoric about American decline, he remains steeped in an optimism than Nixon could never match. It is part of what makes his rollicking, egomaniacal id so fun to watch. Newt came of age in the time of Sputnik and Star Trek, and he adds a uniquely Newtonian sci-fi spin to the dark morass of Nixonian paranoia. He remains deeply invested in an enthusiasm for technological and managerial solutions to everyday problems, reflected in his sloganeering endorsement of Lean Six Sigma as a cure-all for American governmental bureaucracy. Jude Webre aptly described the current GOP divide as Rand vs. Toffler: a split between the bleak worldview of libertarians and business conservatives who bemoan the strength-sapping spread of the welfare state and a rather different yearning for technocratic, gee-whiz, high-tech solutions that Newt Gingrich embraces, despite his culture-warrior bonafides. His opponents may laugh at ideas like colonies on the moon, but Gingrich simply pooh-poohs their small-mindednes. He marries McCarthyite and Nixonian paranoia to a bottomless reserve of assurance in not only his own abilities but the possibilties of solutions and “big ideas,” as he never tires of putting it.

In this weird combination of optimism for the future and bleak pessimism about the relentless onslaught on Western civilization, Newt Gingrich is quite unlike the pit of neuroses that was Richard Nixon. Both men may have perceived threats and attacks from all sides, but Newt takes the battle to the enemy with a kamikaze zest that is entertaining and fundamentally distinct from Nixon’s insecure and paranoid persona. Then again, one of these men was twice elected to the presidency—a fact that says a lot about America as a democratic society in 1968 and 1972, when it saw fit to elevate a man like Richard Nixon to its pinnacle of power—while Newt Gingrich’s fate remains untold and, at the moment, far less propitious. He may be the snarling white id of the South, back to exact its vengeance against Rockefeller Republicanism, but most observers still discount his chances of winning the GOP nomination, much less the presidency. Whether Newt’s fortunes today say more about us as a people or him as a candidate remains to be seen.

Alex Sayf Cummings and Ryan Reft