Newt Gingrich appears to have a split personality -- one half is a coolly rational, calculating pragmatist and the other is a maniac with a political messiah who is the only one who can oversee the radical transformations Western Civilization must undertake to survive. He might be both or neither, but in the coverage of his presidential campaign, the side his critics (and there are many) emphasize seems to depend on their history with him.
Gingrich's calculating side is explored by The New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg Wednesday. Though Gingrich campaigned against Richard Nixon in 1968, he sought out the former president's advice when he was a freshman congressman in 1979. Nixon's advice -- to create a group and make some noise -- is how Gingrich eventually helped Republicans win a majority in the House in 1994. But along the way, Gingrich did a lot of things that still make conservatives cringe: He voted to create the Department of Education, a wildlife reserve in Alaska, and called for more government investment in science and transportation. The culture wars didn't interest him much. Fellow Republicans like Sen. Tom Coburn complained that Gingrich was uninterested in conservative ideas once he gained power. MSNBC host and former Rep. Joe Scarborough calls him not a conservative, but "an opportunist." Gingrich himself hinted at that in 1983, Stolberg writes, when his staffers wanted him to take a position on abortion. He told them, "I would never vote against my conscience... On the other hand, I also make it a habit to have relatively few things I feel bitterly moral about."
A bit of that pragmatism or opportunism or whatever you want to call it was on display Tuesday, when Scott Arnold, a gay Iowan, asked Gingrich how he could expect gay Americans to support him, the Des Moines Register's Jason Clayworth reports. Gingrich "told me to support Obama," Arnold said. "When you ask somebody a question and you expect them to support all Americans... It’s a little bit frustrating and disheartening when you're told to support the other side. That he doesn't need your support." But that was probably exactly Gingrich's calculation. The population of gay voters is relatively small, and besides, as Politico's Joseph Williams reported Monday, President Obama has pretty much locked down the gay vote for 2012. You can see why Gingrich would think there's no point in trying to compete for Arnold's vote, especially if it means alienating already wary social conservatives.
But one principle he does hold dear -- only radical transformation can halt the decline of the West -- is why so many people see the other side of Gingrich: the possibly bipolar "sociopath" with "megalomaniac tendencies." The Atlantic's Conor Friedersrdorf argued this month that Gingrich could never reform anything because he thinks every reform requires a radical transformation of the entire federal bureaucracy. (Sample Gingrich editorial headline: "To Fight the Flu, Change How Government Works.") Friedersdorf noted that Gingrich has always been like this -- when, as a professor, he was put in charge of reorganizing West Georgia College, his assistant was soon overwhelmed: "It couldn't have been more than a few days before we were talking about what he thought he needed to do to save Western civilization."
Slate's Jacob Weisberg wrote that it was impossible to notice a lot of Gingrich's personality traits sound a lot like symptoms: "bouts of grandiosity, megalomania, irritability, racing thoughts, spending sprees." Gingrich even once said, on the record, "I want to shift the entire planet. And I'm doing it." He's said he had to consult Alcoholics Anonymous books in order to save himself -- even though he wasn't an alcoholic. So which is it? Is Gingrich a cool operator or a someone who's touched in the head? That seems to depend on whether he's beaten you or not. It's the conservatives he's burned that think he's a Nixonian evil genius.