The Myth of the Stature Gap: Could Newt Be the Next FDR?

Highly unlikely, but let's remember today's dwarf is sometimes tomorrow's giant

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On January 4, 1988 — it was, hard to believe, a quarter century ago — The New Yorker ran a Donald Reilly cartoon that has stuck with me all these years. A man and his wife are in bed watching a news report on the ’88 campaign, and the man says, “F.D.R. wore a cloak. I can’t see any of these guys wearing a cloak.”

It is a perennial lament, one we are hearing anew as the Republican nomination race closes in on the actual casting of votes, and every candidate appears small if not fatally flawed. The past always seems somehow more golden, more serious, than the present. We tend to forget the partisanship of yesteryear, preferring to re-imagine our history as a sure and steady march toward greatness.

(MORE: Jon Meacham: A Birthday for Modern Politics)

The problem with such narratives is that they are in fact ahistorical. Franklin Roosevelt was hated by a large number of Americans in real time; some people actually celebrated when word came of his death in April 1945. From Jefferson to Jackson to Lincoln to FDR to Reagan, every great president inspires enormous affection and enormous hostility. We’ll all be much saner, I think, if we remember that history is full of surprises (both good and bad) and things that seemed absolutely certain one day are often unimaginable the next. (Remember President Palin?)

The latest surprise in American politics is Newt Gingrich’s surge. At Random House, we just published an e-book on the 2012 campaign in conjunction with Politico. The authors, Mike Allen and Evan Thomas, describe Gingrich’s prospects seemed poor as recently as the summertime:

The former Speaker‘s campaign had nearly collapsed over the summer amidst the stories about Callista and the Tiffany charge account as well as the mass exodus of his staff. Gingrich still had no ground operation to speak of, no armies of volunteers to knock on doors, and he had not raised much money for ad buys. He was regarded by the political pros as a hapless manager. (“From a policy perspective, I would probably agree with Newt on more things than any other person in the field,” said a former Haley Barbour adviser. “But, look, Newt would f— up a two-car funeral procession.”) At his Iowa appearances, he sometimes seemed to be chattering in a different language than his workaday supporters.

But by the September-October debates, Newt had grown impressive “by standing back and offering a Wise Man’s view of the political shenanigans onstage and in Washington generally. “Gingrich is the only person — if you watch the dial groups [voters recruited by pollsters to turn up a dial to express enthusiasm while watching a debate] and you look at the polling and you look at the focus groups and you look at the audience analysis that’s out there after the debates, Gingrich is the only guy up there who looks like a president other than Mitt,” said a Romney adviser. “The rest of them look like comedians.”

(MORE: Newt Gingrich: Potential President or Skilled Showman?)

Is Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney a terrific president-in-waiting, or can Barack Obama regain control of events to a degree sufficient to master the presidency and right the nation’s course? If we are being honest about things, we will acknowledge that we just don’t know.

Back to that New Yorker cartoon: it seemed pitch-perfect at the time. Yet one of those unimpressive “guys” running in 1988 who didn’t seem to measure up to cloak status has actually emerged as a strong historical figure. If not quite F.D.R. — and who is? — George H.W. Bush proved a fine president, and he looks better and better as the years pass. It’s more than possible that one of the men provoking such chattering-class disdain today may wind up a figure of veneration in coming decades. I wouldn’t call the tailor to get a cloak in the works, but stranger things have happened.