Mark Twain is credited with the remark that history doesn’t repeat itself–but it rhymes.* Over the last 48 hours I think we’ve seen an ironic rhyme of an old career-killing incident: Newt Gingrich has had his Romney Moment. No–not the Romney moment you’re thinking; not Newt’s tentative embrace of an individual mandate for health care, which is the 8,000-pound millstone sinking Mitt Romney’s prospects. I think Newt’s problem is his alignment with another Romney–Mitt’s dad, George Romney.
Cast your mind back to late 1967, when Michigan Governor George Romney, according to several polls, was neck-and-neck with Nixon as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Then, with one ill-chosen sentence, Romney self-destructed. If you’re too young to recall this, here’s my account of it in the first volume of The Age of Reagan (with a comment added in brackets):
Throughout 1967 Michigan Governor George Romney had been regarded as the strongest potential GOP nominee, though Nixon held a slight lead in polls of the GOP rank and file. Then, in late August, the often platitudinous and noticeably ineloquent Romney committed a suicidal gaffe. Romney had gone back and forth on the Vietnam War, hawkish and supportive of Johnson’s policy one day, dovish and critical the next. [Sounds like Newt on Libya right now, doesn’t it?] He had gone to Vietnam in an effort to burnish his foreign policy credentials in 1965, and had said upon his return that the U.S. commitment to the war was “morally necessary and right.” Had he changed his mind about that trip?, he was asked on a Detroit television show. Romney replied: “I just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get when you go over to Vietnam, not only by the generals but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.”
Romney’s plausibility as a presidential candidate imploded instantaneously. “In a matter of hours,” James Jackson Kilpatrick wrote, “commentators across the country were remarking acidulously that it certainly took a long time for George to get his brain back from the laundry.” Goldwater, whom Romney had pointedly refused to endorse even after Goldwater had captured the nomination in 1964, now got his revenge: “When you admit that you can be brainwashed, you’re in trouble.” Democrats piled on, too. Eugene McCarthy displayed the wit that was shortly to become more widely known to Americans: “There was no need to brainwash the Governor. All he required was a light rinse.” Romney lamely tried to reverse the damage: “I wasn’t talking about Russian-type brainwashing; I was talking about LBJ brainwashing.” But it didn’t wash. He dropped ten points in the polls, and never recovered. The Detroit News, which had long supported Romney, urged him to get out of the presidential race with a brutal editorial. Taking note of Romney’s “inexplicable blurt-and-retreat habit,” the Detroit News said the brainwashing comment illustrated Romney’s “unfortunate incapacity to achieve stability and constancy in Presidential politics.”
Swap out “radical” (Newt’s term for the Ryan plan) for “brainwashing,” and you have a pretty good parallel. This morning the Wall Street Journal is playing the role of the Detroit News, with an editorial entitled “Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead.” Sample: “The episode reveals the Georgian’s weakness as a candidate, and especially as a potential President–to wit, his odd combination of partisan, divisive rhetoric and poll-driven policy timidity.” (See also Pete Wehner’s observations on Newt’s poor word choices.) The GOP grassroots–that is, the people who vote in primaries–are outraged. Fox News last night ran a devastating video clip of an Iowan lighting into Gingrich in savage terms. I don’t think this is going away.
Like Romney in 1968 (and Mitt Romney today), Newt is backpeddling furiously, claiming that his remarks are being taken “out of context,” and that we should understand that the mainstream media is trying to lay traps for people like him. This won’t (brain)wash, to recur to the previous example. For one thing, it is inexplicable that someone as experienced in politics and media as Newt would do a face plant on Meet the Press unless there wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with him. Maybe it is a lack of rhetorical discipline–wow, there’s an unoriginal observation. He’s had way too many interactions with the media, going back 30 years now, for the “out of context/MSM set-up” excuse to be plausible.
*No one can locate this remark in any of Twain’s writings, so it is probably apocryphal, like several of Churchill’s most often repeated quips of dubious origin.