Cover Story: Newt Gingrich as political chameleon

To get elected, Newt is transforming into his new BFF, Bill Clinton. And that's OK.

If Newt Gingrich was reincarnated as a superhero, he'd most certainly be a Transformer. Whether an Autobot or Decepticon, that depends on your politics. What is clear is that he morphs, he reconfigures. He is Janus, not just with two faces but many. He is a chameleon with a high IQ.

With clockwork regularity, Gingrich transforms himself as an ever-changing Jack-in-the-Box. Say "pop goes the weasel," and he's an anti-business environmentalist. "Pop" again and he's an anti-environmentalist ultra-capitalist. Crank the box a turn and he is Bill Clinton's arch nemesis. Another turn, and Gingrich is Clinton's indispensable policy confederate (a bond that includes common ground as serial philanderers). Gingrich is a health reform visionary when he explodes out of the box one day; the next he dances a puppet's jig as a shill for Big Medicine and Big Pharma.

It's exhausting to keep track of where he'll land next, but the show is always prime-time material. Gingrich's trademark, scorched-earth bomb throwing, blisters both the predictable (Democrats, media) and the sacrosanct (Ronald Reagan). His bombastic rhetorical napalm attacks often are mere misdirection to avoid his own excesses and calumnies — yet they portray Gingrich as a street fighter and, in this era of two-dimensional intellectually anemic politicians, a real man.

Today, the Jack-in-the-Box is in the hands of the hard, hard, hard right wing of the Republican Party. Thus, Gingrich's persona is that of the consummate conservative. Surprising even himself, Gingrich has emerged as the GOP presidential front-runner. True, his opponents are akin to a carnival freak show. By comparison to the political midgets at the Republican debates, Gingrich is smarter and meaner, a wickedly potent combination. The question is: What would he transform into if he became the president?

Two Georgians — former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and former GOP congressman (and Libertarian presidential contender) Bob Barr — have radically different politics but come to an interesting convergence on Gingrich. Both perspectives are conditioned by the former Speaker's relationship with Clinton.

"Today's political environment," says Barr, "is not that different than 1994," when Gingrich, the l'enfant terrible of Republicans, helped end 40 years of Democratic domination of the House as he became Speaker, and Barr won his first Congressional term. "You had to work the political extremes while at the same time working the political middle. Newt worked both, and he made a steady progression of steps." Such progress was hardly an era of good feelings — Barr, after all, was one of the GOP congressmen who led the impeachment of Clinton. Still, while the Republican House leadership and Clinton "didn't agree," Barr recalls, "we were adults and we made government work."

Barnes observes that the two smartest politicians he has known are Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. "Like Clinton, Gingrich learns from his mistakes," Barnes says. During the 1990s, major national agendas moved forward — welfare reform, a balanced budget, the capital gains tax rate was cut. "Yes," Barnes says, "they were collaborators. But before they were collaborators, they weren't. First, there was the government shutdown," orchestrated by Gingrich and his upstart Republican majority in the House.

Clinton in 1992 was one of a cattle call of Democratic wannabes for president challenging an incumbent in the White House. That Democratic herd had no clear frontrunner until Clinton, with brilliance and a centrist strategy, pulled into the lead. Gingrich faces a similar scenario in 2012.

Also similar, Clinton and Gingrich have baggage, lots and lots of baggage. That may work in Gingrich's favor, Barnes notes. "Everything we are likely to know about Newt, we already know. Unlike Herman Cain, there aren't a lot of surprises. Newt knows how to handle negatives, he's been through so many, nothing is shocking."

There is one difference, however. Clinton was the Elvis of politics. The electorate swooned when he did political gyrations. Gingrich isn't lovable and cuddly. His rock star metaphor would be that of a death metal screamer. "Newt brought the nation the modern type of mean politics," Barnes says. "He has been a very polarizing ..."

Barnes pauses, and then adds: "He's a softer, gentler Newt Gingrich today. That's important."

Whatever else, do not write Gingrich off as a flip-flopper. We all change with time. George Washington at one point was a loyal subject of the British Crown, some time later he rebelled against King George. One day Barack Obama declared he would close Guantanamo, a few months later he demurred. Gingrich is brandishing ultra-right rhetoric today, he may build a big tent of moderate policies in the future. So, let's be charitable to Newt Gingrich, not as a spineless politician but as a man who understands the dynamics of history. The Transformer named Politicon.

John F. Sugg is the former group senior editor of Creative Loafing. He is a consultant and an educator, and is working on a book on Atlanta history.

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