Observations on the Fall of Newt

The amazing story of the staff meltdown of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign continues to fascinate, and prompts the following indirect reflection. I say “indirect” because while it was my privilege to have some extraordinary conversations and e-mail exchanges with Newt about presidential politics when he was two doors away from me at AEI–conversations revealing of certain unique and perhaps problematic aspects of Newt–they were nonetheless private conversations, and I wouldn’t feel right sharing their contents now. (Nothing scandalous or embarrassing, but susceptible of misconstruction or abuse.)
But I can make one point indirectly by telling a story about a whole different person: Arthur “Spud” Melin, who passed way in 2002 at the age of 77. “Spud,” as he was known to all of his friends, was the co-founder of the Wham-O Corporation, and Spud was largely responsible for discovering and marketing to the world the Hula-Hoop, the Frisbee and many other familiar Wham-O sensations. Needless to say, this deservedly made him a very wealthy man.
In his retirement years Spud became a strong conservative, and a substantial donor to the Heritage Foundation and other conservative causes. I got to know him in the mid-1980s when he lived in Newport Beach. It was Spud who invited me to his home for lunch one day to meet the recent left-to-right convert David Horowitz.
Here’s the nub. For a period that lasted several months, Spud was on the phone with me (a mere graduate student then, but camped out part time at the Claremont Institute) repeatedly with an idea that he thought would change America. He wanted to draw up a “statement of principles” about freedom, and circulate the statement in the form of a petition through churches, hoping to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures. He hoped that I and or Larry Arnn or someone would help write the statement. But the capper was his marketing angle: the statement would be called “Re-EValuating Universal Principles of Morality and Economics,” which, you see, yields (sort of) the handy acronym REV-UP-ME. (It would also be a bumper sticker.)*
Catchy, no? As you can imagine, we young and probably too serious graduate students and would-be Aristotles thought this idea more than a little fanciful, if not more than slightly bonkers. On the other hand, exactly how would you argue that to the person who conceived the Hula-Hoop and similar products as monster public enthusiasms? It was not self-evident to me then or now that he was obviously wrong about this idea, or that I was right in thinking it ridiculous. After all, Spud sold 25 million Hula-Hoops in the first two months. How many Hula-Hoop-like inventions do I have to my name? REV-UP-ME probably was a crazy idea, but you never know how strange things might catch on. Who could have foreseen that Rick Santelli’s famous rant on CNBC would be the catalyst for the Tea Party?
And a similar point applies to Newt. Whenever I think he is off his rocker, I remind myself that Newt was practically alone in thinking, from the first moment he arrived in Congress in 1979, that Republicans could take a majority in the House if it was sufficiently aggressive. Even as late as the eve of the 1994 election the conventional wisdom among political scientists and most journalists was that Democrats had a permanent majority in the House that the GOP could never break. Newt not only had a strategy for this, but extraordinary, single-minded persistence to pull it off over a 15-year period. Like Spud Melin and REV-UP-ME, how do you tell the extraordinary architect of 1994 that he is nuts? Maybe you don’t. Because maybe he isn’t.
To be sure, circumstances are different now, and it is also true that the same kind of monomaniacal genius that made Newt successful in his crusade to take the House is perhaps the undoing of his presidential ambitions. All fair criticisms. But I think the near-contempt that many people now have for Newt is unjustified. He is still a great man and deserves to be regarded as such, no matter his present difficulties or blunders.
I miss Spud a lot. His infectious spirit, optimism, and deep patriotism were always wonderful to be around. We’re going to miss Newt a lot some day too, no matter how the current campaign plays out.
*(This may not be the most goofy idea ever proposed. A prominent conservative foundation that I won’t name once received a proposal back in the 1980s to fund a project that would attempt to explain the principles of free market economics by having them presented by the San Diego chicken. The grant-seeker was unsuccessful in getting funding, in case you’re wondering.)