Newt Gingrich is no longer the “not-Romney” flavor of the week.
Now the pundits are assessing his rise and decline. However, when all is said and done, what may be most interesting about the Gingrich candidacy for the Republican nomination is that there was one. And there was one because Newt was able to revert to what he was before he became a politician — a Baby Booming, teaching, rock-throwing professor.
Newt and I are cut from much the same generational cloth. We were both born in 1943 and graduated from high school in 1961. We were both buffeted by the same Cold War winds and by the enormous energy unleashed by Baby Boomers in the 1960s. But rather than be part of that restless generation, we taught them.
In this campaign, Newt started teaching them again.
They were his core constituency. Mitt Romney had the “establishment.” Rick Santorum had the social conservatives. Ron Paul had the angry, disaffected young. Newt captured the Baby Boomers.
This should come as no surprise. Although those Baby Boomers today are in their 50s and 60s, they still have something in common with their younger selves. They are not happy with the way things are going, and they want someone to shake things up.
Newt offered himself as that someone. To convince folks that he was the one to do it, he fell back on the skills he developed before his political career began, skills that he fine-turned during those years between 1970, when he joined the faculty at West Georgia College, and 1978, when he was elected to Congress.
Today, Newt likes to downplay that experience. When someone suggested recently that President Obama might not want to spend time in the series of debates Gingrich envisioned, Newt wondered how a Harvard Law Review star could “look in the mirror and say he’s afraid to debate some guy who taught at West Georgia College.”
However, it was that very West Georgia experience that made Newt Gingrich into someone his opponents do not want to debate — especially if the audience is full of Baby Boomers.
In the early 1970s, young teachers like he and I discovered that the way to get our students interested in learning something new was to challenge something old — particularly the comfortable beliefs of those in authority.
People who knew Newt report that he was good at this. Students and colleagues tell of a teacher who threw out ideas that made people pause and made them consider that there was more than one way of looking at things.
That is how he revived a presidential campaign that everyone thought was dead in the water. When someone got the bright idea that those Republican candidates should get together and discuss the issues, Newt jumped on it. He was in his element. He was quick with a quip, fast with a fact, creative, slippery and, above all, entertaining. It was like he was back in a West Georgia classroom 40 years ago.
His students loved him then. Aging Baby Boomers who are among the most disaffected of the disaffected Republicans love him now.
On Meet the Press a few Sundays ago, a panelist observed that it was this in-your-face, shake-’em-up approach to politics that makes Newt so popular, especially with the wing of the party that not only is unhappy with Democrats and President Obama, but also is none-too-pleased with candidates endorsed by establishment Republicans. Newt is getting under the skin of both.
Here is where I think critics miss the point with Gingrich. Although they criticize him for lacking discipline and focus, his off-the-wall style and throw-out-the-idea-and-see-where-it-lands approach fit the mood of campus and students when he was a teacher, and it fits the mood of his followers today.
You could see it in his description of Paul Ryan’s entitlement-reform plans as “right-wing social engineering,” and in his observation that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” Those were just the sort of “what do you have to say about that” remarks that young professors loved to pitch to students to get things stirred up.
Unfortunately for Candidate Gingrich, he is not in the classroom anymore. There are those who are not interested in provocative ideas. They are nuts-and-bolts folks who want to know where the ideas will lead them.
Newt ran into the same sort of people at West Georgia. That should have prepared him for this, but apparently it didn’t.
Though Newt was engaging and popular as a teacher, he did not pay attention to the things young faculty members are expected to do to rise through the ranks. Not long after he arrived in Carrollton, Newt began testing the political waters. Soon, he was spending so much time running for office that it little left for the scholarly and professional activities expected of professors. So when time came for the university to decide if it wanted to keep him, his resume was thin. Published accounts say Newt applied for tenure and was denied. For my part, I recall one of his colleagues telling me that if he had not been elected to Congress in 1978, he would have been out of a job.
This seems to run counter to a widely held view, especially among his supporters, that Newt brings intellectual credibility to Republican debates. Well, he does, though it may be more in comparison to his opponents than anything else.
Joe Scarborough, who hosts “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and served with Newt in the U.S. House of Representatives, has his doubts. “If Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room,” Scarborough quipped, “leave the room.” However, it is unlikely his BabyBoomer supporters will head for the door, because even if he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, he has a knack for convincing an audience that he is.
Post-West Georgia efforts by Newt to establish his intellectual credentials bear this out. Among the many books he has co-authored are a number that fall into the category of “alternative history,” “counter-factual,” speculative accounts based on “what if.” Not to belittle this sort of historical recreation, because it might be fun to consider what would have happened if, for example, the Germans had won the Battle of the Bulge. But scholarship it is not.
If aspiring-professor Gingrich had used these books to pad his resume, it’s likely he still would have been denied tenure at West Georgia.
None of this matters to the Baby Boomers who are Newt’s political bread and butter. What matters is that he is goading the powers that be, just as their professors did back in those heady days of the ’60s and ’70s.
Because he is so good at it, it may still be too soon to count him out.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.