McFeatters: Newt out of his era in 2012

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reporters covering the Republican presidential campaign note that Mitt Romney’s every move is scripted and that Newt Gingrich’s top aides frequently don’t know where he is.
Early in his campaign, Gingrich abruptly took off on a luxury cruise of the Greek Islands. When he returned, his then-top aides were gone.
Had he waited until January, he might have been aboard the Carnival liner Costa Concordia and scored points by helping women and children aboard the lifeboats and then stayed on the bridge until the Italian coast guard rowed out and got him. But politics, as they say, is a matter of timing.
Like his staff, the news media is curious about what the former House speaker will do next. What he would like to do is more debates, and with 19 of them so far, the Republican Party is doing its best to accommodate him and exhaust the public’s patience.
But Gingrich has become increasingly finicky about the kind of debates he’ll attend. (No one in politics seriously believes he’ll skip one if he can’t get his way.)
First, a member of the press can’t be the moderator, even though in South Carolina Fox’s Juan Williams and CNN’s John King fed him his best lines. Gingrich says rather mysteriously, “We don’t need a second Obama person at the debate.” If the first Obama person quietly slipped into the back row at these debates, King, Williams and indeed the whole press corps fell down rather badly on the job. Not wanting to unfairly characterize the audience at the South Carolina debates, a black person would have been hard to overlook, especially if he was president of the United States.
Secondly, Gingrich wants an audience that will whoop and holler, but in a friendly venue where the crowd will whoop and holler for him. Do not expect to see him debating in Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y on the Upper West Side.
Thirdly, his debating partners have to be honest. He does not think Romney is honest. “You cannot debate somebody who is dishonest. You just can’t,” said the first speaker of the House ever censured for, among other things, providing the ethics committee “false information.”
Gingrich gets his next chance to debate Feb. 22, in Arizona, and assuming he hasn’t been busted on a perjury rap for an offense we don’t know about, Romney will be on the stage.
What strategy for the fall campaign Gingrich has articulated is a plan to follow Barack Obama, challenging him to a series of three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. It’s a curious choice.
Perhaps in his role as historian at Freddie Mac, no executive ever called and said, “Hey, Newt, were those Abe Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates for the presidency?”
And Gingrich, being an actual historian, replied, “No, they were for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.”
Gingrich, who undoubtedly identifies with Lincoln, surely knows that the great rail-splitter lost the election. Moreover, the debates were hardly high points of American oratory.
Re-creating those 1858 debates would be an interesting exercise in American history. There were no microphones or loudspeakers, so Gingrich and Obama would have to shout for the whole three hours.
Moreover, the huge audiences that turned out for political debates in those entertainment-starved days quite often arrived at the venue drunk and got drunker as the debate wore on. The spectators shouted, whooped, interrupted, heckled, talked over the speakers and generally carried on in a roughhewn, frontier-style way, descriptions no one would apply to Gingrich — or, for that matter, Obama.
Before that happy day arrives, Gingrich first has to win the Republican nomination. After his damaging Florida loss, his supporters held up signs saying, “46 States To Go.” That’s not a plan, a strategy or even a morale booster — more like a dire warning.
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Dale McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service.