The great entertainers of our time turn out to be presidents and the men who would be president, and this week most of them are in Florida. This is as good as vaudeville ever was.
Newt Gingrich, under siege by ex-wives and trying hard to keep track of the various versions of an autobiography-in-progress, nevertheless soldiers on in his mission to restore family values and “morality” to the nation.
Ever the deep thinker of big thoughts, Newt may be looking for a getaway as critics retrieve highlights of his checkered past. He recalled this week in Cocoa Beach how he had once introduced something called the Northwest Ordinance for Space, the “weirdest thing” he had ever done. But he stands by what it called for, though accounts of his remarks sound like satire. With Newt, you never know.
“I think the number is 13,000 - when we have 13,000 Americans living on the moon, they can petition to become a state. … By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American. We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing.
“I accept the charge that I am an American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future. … I want you to help me both in Florida and across the country so that you can someday say you were here the day it was announced that of course we’d have commercial space and near-space. Of course we’d have a manned colony on the moon that flew an American flag.”
Back on the ground in Florida, Newt continues to try to put to bed his reputation with his wives, if not the wives themselves. Just when he thought he was in a friendly forum in Miami, another pesky television correspondent asked him why he led the Republican campaign to impeach Bill Clinton for zipper disease when he was losing a struggle with his own zipper. Soon he and the interviewer, Jorge Ramos of Univision, were sparring over something that sounded a lot like what the meaning of “is” is.
“No, I criticized President Clinton for lying under oath in front of a federal judge,” Newt said, “[for] committing perjury, which is a felony for which normal people go to jail.”
The interviewer cut him off, never easy for someone talking to Newt: “However, at the same time you were doing the same thing.”
“No, I wasn’t. You didn’t hear my answer. Look, I have been through two divorces - “
“I understand,” the interviewer said. “But people think that’s hypocritical to criticize President Clinton for doing the same thing that you were doing at the same time.”
That was then, and Newt would rather talk about how he and Ronald Reagan worked miracles of statecraft. Reprising in Florida his earlier remarks at the Reagan Library in California - in a digression from a boast that he had helped the Gipper “create millions of jobs while he was president” - he bragged that he also “helped defeat the Soviet empire.”
“I’ve done a movie on Ronald Reagan … Callista and I did. We’ve done a book on Ronald Reagan. You know, I campaigned with Reagan. I first met Reagan in ‘74. I’ve been very happy to talk about Ronald Reagan.”
But Newt’s war stories about soldiering with the Gipper are more romantic fiction than remembered actual fact. On the eve of the Gipper’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, Newt called it “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with [Neville] Chamberlain at Munich in 1938,” and he later said the Reagan administration had failed to meet the Soviet challenge and “the burden of failure frankly must be placed first upon President Reagan.” Newt was not, as the record demonstrates, someone a president could “go to the wall with.”
Newt, like Ron Paul, is most popular with young voters. They have no personal remembrance of his history, of his performance in the events that shaped his reputation. He has a sharp tongue that delivers clever one-liners, a talent never prized in presidents. Newt does not wear well. Two years after he was Time magazine’s Man of the Year, one public-opinion poll found that only 14 percent of the voters still liked him. Columnist Mark Shields tells of an exchange - perhaps apocryphal, like so much of Newt - between Newt and Bob Dole, who had the sharpest tongue in town. “Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?” Newt asked. The senator replied: “It saves them time.”