He won with a glower. After Newt Gingrich in the Jan. 19 Republican debate fought off a totally reasonable question about an ex-wife’s account of his acknowledged adultery with an attack on “the elite media,” there was little doubt about what would happen. South Carolina is the rawest of GOP states, the political embodiment of the legacy of the man Gingrich was channeling with that stare and orchestrated outrage onstage: Richard Nixon.
Like every other living Republican (and more than a few living Democrats), Gingrich longs to be seen as the heir to Ronald Reagan. That’s understandable. Reagan is the Republican FDR, an exemplar of presidential greatness. You could play a rather serious drinking game during GOP debates if you took a shot at every evocation of Reagan. Beginning with his ads in New Hampshire contrasting himself as a “bold Reagan conservative” and Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich has taken the Reagan strategy the furthest.
For all of this, though, Gingrich has much more in common with the 37th President than with the 40th. His language and even some of his mannerisms (remember the glower) directly descend from the Nixon of 1968.
The analogous elements are obvious. Like Nixon, Gingrich is smart, with a wide-ranging and entrepreneurial mind. Like Nixon, Gingrich is a striver who seems insecure around traditional establishment figures even though he has achieved much more than nearly all the politicians, editors and reporters he seems to at once loathe and fear. Like Nixon, Gingrich is fluent in the vernacular of cultural populism, brilliantly casting contemporary American life in terms of an overarching conflict between “real” people and distant “elites” bent on the destruction of all that is good and noble about the U.S.
His win in South Carolina on Saturday, Gingrich said, was about “something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media will take seriously: the American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system.”
Nixon was a genius at this kind of politics, speaking up, as he put it in accepting the Republican nomination in Miami in 1968, for “the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” In his epochal memorandum on “Middle America and the Emerging Republican Majority,” Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips spoke of the resentments “the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americans from Maine to Hawaii” felt against the liberal elites who “make their money out of plans, ideas, communication, social upheaval, happenings, excitement,” according to Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. In recently released grand-jury testimony from 1975, Nixon told prosecutors that attacking him “is going to make you much more popular with the Washington press corps, with the Georgetown social set, if you ever go to Georgetown, with the power elite in this country.”
What is interesting about Gingrich is that his instincts for cultural division are leavened with a futuristic sense of possibility and progress that has something in common with Bill Clinton’s cheery politics of tomorrow. These marbled elements, I think, help account for Gingrich’s unevenness as a candidate and as an incumbent back in the day.
The question now is how far the Nixonian strategy can take Gingrich, who will doubtless continue to invoke the sunnier Reagan while using tactics learned from the darker Nixon. For most candidates, the kind of anger Gingrich is stirring is a good starter but not a good finisher — yet there is another element of the 2012 story with antecedents in 1968 that has yet to play out. “Watching George Romney [father of Mitt Romney] run for the presidency,” said Governor James Rhodes of Ohio, “was like watching a duck try to make love to a football.” I’m not entirely sure what that means, except that the bid was an undertaking that did not work. We’ll soon see whether there is anything new under the (Florida) sun.