In an interview with ABC News, Newt Gingrich complained about the negative ads being used against him.
“Politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business and I think it’s disgusting and I think it’s dishonest,” according to Gingrich. “And I think the people who are running the ads know they are dishonest and I think a person who will do that to try to get to be president offers you no hope that they will be any good as president,” he said. Gingrich added, “We’re gradually going to have to figure out how to essentially take apart the negative ads.”
In responding to Gingrich’s statement, let’s start with the most obvious point first: Newt Gingrich is probably not the ideal messenger when it comes to complaining that politics is too negative. This is a man, after all, who in 1987 said, “After the first five months of this Congress, I must report to my fellow citizens that this 100th Congress may be the most irresponsible, destructive, corrupt, and unrepresentative Congress of the modern era… In future weeks, I will make a series of speeches outlining the threats of corruption, of communism, and of the left-wing machine which runs the House.”
Two years later, Gingrich put things this way: “The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose.”
In 1992, Gingrich said this: “Woody Allen had non-incest with his non-daughter because they were a non-family.” He added, “It fits the Democratic Party platform perfectly.” And in 1994, after a South Carolina woman, Susan Smith, murdered her two sons, Gingrich summarized things this way: “I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way you get change is to vote Republican.”
I could go on (for more, see this compilation), but by now you get the point. It’s fair to say, I think, that Gingrich has not been an antidote to incivility during his years in public life.
In addition, Gingrich –who refers to himself as a historian — should recognize that politics has always involved passionate collisions that sometimes devolve into ad hominem attacks. Indeed, the election of 1800, which pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams, is regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns in American history and nearly tore apart our young nation. For a variety of reasons, politics tends to be less ugly and dishonest than it has been in the past –and it certainly hasn’t become significantly more brutal or disgusting in the last 25 days (which is roughly when Gingrich’s opponents began to target him with negative ads).
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that politics is pristine, elevated, and uplifting; it simply means Gingrich’s characterization is being distorted by the pounding he’s absorbed. As recently as a month ago, when he was leading by double digits in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, politics was characterized in very different, and far more positive, terms by Gingrich. He’s now universalizing his own recent, unhappy experiences. He speaks as if he’s been the victim of an unprecedented smear campaign (he has not). This, in turn, is creating in Gingrich something of a martyr complex. When asked on Sunday what he perceives to be his biggest weakness , Gingrich answered, “Probably that I’m too reasonable and that I should have responded to the negative ads two weeks earlier.” (My guess is that being too reasonable is not Gingrich’s greatest weakness.)
What we’re hearing from the former Speaker is typical. He perceives every moment in which he’s involved in epic, grandiose, and world-historic terms. It’s always the Children of Light v. the Children of Darkness. There are no gradations, no shades of gray, no medium moments. In that respect, Gingrich’s disposition is profoundly unconservative. The collapse he’s experiencing isn’t due to politics suddenly becoming “disgusting and dishonest.” It’s because Gingrich has always been a target-rich environment for his opponents and during the last four weeks, the missiles fired by the other candidates have hit their targets, with fairly devastating effect.
I can understand Gingrich being upset about that. He believes his record is being unfairly portrayed, putting Gingrich in the company of virtually every person who has ever run for president. Even if you were inclined to grant Gingrich all of that and more, no one has yet done to Gingrich what Gingrich has done to others.