Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Genius: Not all it's cracked up to be

Long-time p3 correspondent Doctor Beyond recently shared his puzzlement about Newt Gingrich, whose presidential candidacy streaked oh-so-brightly across the sky for three weeks -- before hitting the ground with a moist thud this week.

Since Gingrich lost his position as Speaker and left his seat in the House (in what would be, for anyone not a Republican, disgrace) over a decade ago, he's served as something between the party's Professor Farnsworth and its Ozzie Nelson -- combining bizarre, futuristic schemes with a mysterious ability to hang out and live comfortably without having any obvious means of support.

But he's always been able to find someone to pick up the lunch check (and book him for the Sunday chat shows), largely because of his reputation as the GOP's "idea man."

This is what puzzles Doctor Beyond.

And, as a matter of fact, it puzzles me, too. His signature campaign strategy in 1994, the ten-point "Contract With America" was a dud. Only one of the ten measures was actually passed (no one remembers which one), leading Speaker Gingrich to explain he'd never promised they'd all be enacted, only that they'd all get a vote (no matter how soundly they would then be defeated).

Seriously? Is that all you have to do to be an "idea man?"

It's good that Gingrich got his walking-it-back chops early. He's needed them.

Just in the last several weeks, as the TPM article notes, he's had to backtrack on calling the GOP budget proposal "right-wing social engineering." He's flip-flopped almost within a single news cycle on the question of intervening in Libya. The Tiffany touches to his lifestyle have attracted unwanted attention. And now, of course, most of his campaign team has deserted him en masse after the final straw: Newt wanted to take a two-week European vacation less than a month into his already-shaky presidential campaign.

But what really got Doctor B were these snatches from that TPM article (emphasis added):
"Newt has a lot of strengths--discipline is not one of them," [GOP strategist John] Feehery said. "He obviously was extraordinarily bright, but I just think he wasn't disciplined enough to lead, disciplined enough to run the House in a way that can be sustained. He lacked message control and the ability to keep his story straight...he made all kinds of promises to people...he was more of a revolutionary but wasn't going to survive over the long haul."

"We need to be in Libya -- we don't need to be in Libya," the former GOP aide complained. "He just seems to live in a world that because he's smarter than everybody else, that normal political rules shouldn't apply to him, but they do."

"Now it seems to me," wrote Doctor Beyond, "that a person smarter than everyone else doesn’t act this way."
A smart person has reasoned out her/his position and stays with it. Changing position usually takes more than a couple of weeks. I’d like to know who first said Newt was smart, and when. Where did this myth come from?
After giving the matter some thought, I wrote back, suggesting that the whole "idea man" mythology came from three factors:

(1) His GOPac rhetoric primer "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control," distributed to the campaigns of Republicans who would eventually form the Class of 1994. Gingrich says it was designed for people who said, "I wish I could speak like Newt!" The Hedley LeMarrs of this world, who can use their tongues purtier than a two-dollar whore, always get the respect of the Taggarts.

(2) Following the 1994 takeover of the House by Gingrich-led GOP insurgents, neither the mainstream media nor the congressional Democrats had any idea what to make of his initial successes or his rise from back-bencher to star. Both groups were buffaloed by him (which only increased his rep), and soon found it was easier to defer to him as a genius than to admit that they were too spooked to call him on his flim-flammery.

(3) The GOP, who haven't had an idea since 1980 and don't like intellectuals but hate to be thought stupid, desperately needed somebody to parade around as a "thinker." Newt didn't show that much promise, but he showed more promise than the rest, basking on his credentials as a professor history somewhere.

I figured that, when Sarah Palin can get Paul Revere and Longfellow completely wrong, and pay no price for it in her own party, surely it's not that hard to set yourself up as a GOP "idea man."

Of course, I was overthinking the whole thing (not the mark of an "idea man," apparently). I left out the most important and obvious factor of all: Everyone thinks Newt is a genius because, like Wile E. Coyote, he tells people, over and over, that he is:
Shortly after disgraced former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) launched his farcical presidential campaign, the candidate said reporters just didn’t understand his genius. Gingrich boasted that presidential campaigns as extraordinary as his are only seen “once or twice in a century,” and the brilliance of his campaign strategy would only be apparent in time.
And, while Bugs Bunny didn't believe Wile E. Coyote, no one ever seems to doubt Newt. The dumber he gets, the more it's pointed to as proof that he's just too smart for the rest of us to relate to.

Postscript: Doctor Beyond likens Newt's self-promotion strategy to that of fellow futurologist Marshall McLuhan: "Just keep throwing stuff against the wall, take credit for the few things that resonate, and count on the other 95% to be forgotten." Perhaps the analogy is not completely unfair; it only took McLuhan 35 years to be the punchline of a joke now retold by countless people who no longer remember exactly who he was; I bet Gingrich can get there in less time.

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