by Joe Shea
January 22, 2011
THE GINGRICH TURN
BRADENTON, Fla., Jan. 22, 2012 -- It is one thing when a revelation stirs the electorate against (or for) certain presidential candidates, but it is another when voters give their very impressive imprimatur - their sovereign approval - to a change in political strategy, which is what they did in South Carolina today.
South Carolina has said to the world that one way to capture the hearts and minds of the people is to attack, rebuke, chastise and belittle the reporters, editors and anchors who are collectively known as the media. That would be me. That would be all of us on this side of the copy desk.
Like a racehorse pounding down the backstretch, Gingrich has moved to the front at the turn and onward to homestretch Florida. He may well stay there until the convention, where his peccadilloes might get him tossed out on his ear, as he was in Congress.
His act of calling the questions at the GOP primary debate late Thursday night about his relationship with his second wife "despicable" and their content "trash" - in a loud, angry, ripping attack against the mild and honorable John King, chief political reporter for CNN - changed the tides for Gingrich.
Anyone with ears to hear and a memory of the earlier debates will recall that Anderson Cooper of CNN opened one debate with three quick questions to Herman Cain about what are still unproven allegations, mostly by nameless women. Cain was forced to quit shortly afterwards after he saw his first-place standing in the polls erode to almost nothing.
Why did John King and Anderson Cooper bring tabloid questions to the supposedly elevated broadcasts of live presidential debates? Both knew that the salacious details of these questions might appeal to the lowest-common-denominator viewers, and might even have been of some significance in reality, where the moral decisions and moral principles of candidates are ultimately significant in the decisions of a president. In a Gingrich world where such questions are out of line, ex-Rep. Anthony Weiner could run for President.
As journalists, we ask those questions within the limits of our own understanding of the human psyche, which is often somewhat jaded. That candidates may lie to their wives and children may indicate, we think, that they will lie to the American people.
In truth, however, being unfaithful in a marriage does not mean a President will be unfaithful to his or her country; too many people put up a wall between what they do in their private lives and what they do in private. One, they feel, is personal and not to be held up to public scrutiny; what they do in public, however, is what they are willing to have the people judge. That allows for a multitude of sins on the private side.
They usually draw the same distinction with respect to business; as Jack Nicholson's character was told in the great movie, "Chinatown," which became a metaphor for a moral jungle, "It's Chinatown." There are no values there. Chinatown was the wilderness of Wall Street mortgage securities described so well in "Margin Call." It was the single principle of survival that drove everyone. Chinatown is also where political primaries are fought.
Truth, integrity, character, values - all of these intangibles - are merely roles, merely character aspirations in a seedy play. None of the people competing for those properties are in fact courageous, devoted, dedicated, loyal, true blue, honest and morally well-endowed. They live in the same prisons of conscience and the same shadows of doubt that all of us do.
Knowing that 200 Members of Congress are millionaires and that a majority of them won't vote to bar each other from insider trading that would send Wall Streeters to jail, most of us also know that they didn't earn their millions en route to beatification and sainthood, except as spiritual icons of their respective parties.
What Newt Gingrich did was to turn the anger all of us feel about the exploitation of our darkest sins and deepest wrongs by those who know of them into a powerful weapon against the media, which is seen as the filter of all that diabolical ill and the arbiter of our guilt.
It is a rejection of the murky values of Chinatown to question whether Newt Gingrich asked his second wife (while he was having an affair with his current wife) to participate in an "open marriage" where both could freely have sex with other people.
Chinatown doesn't ask politicians how much they earn or where they get it, or what they did for it; it asks, instead, how much does the other guy have, and how can it be leveraged by us against him? It doesn't care about any moral values beyond the slander equity to be earned with it by their soaring political rhetoric. Chinatown values are a morass where the goals of the nation and the people sink out of sight, where the rhetoric of artifice rules, and the drive, character and realistic motives of the nation are undone.
Newt Gingrich, in introducing outrage as a response to settled questions - meaning it was settled that he is on his third wife due to affairs he had, and was drummed out of Congress for misbehavior - has persuaded every guilt-soaked politician it's better to attack the media, not the facts. Killing the messenger is a very old and time-honored strategy, and one that the public will gladly applaud.
For Gingrich, it worked out very well in South Carolina, where a supposedly Christian, moral and self-respecting majority took his side against Rep. Ron Paul, who is widely recognized as a man of actual integrity and real character, and delivered a major victory to a serial adulterer that will haunt primaries of the future for generations to come.
CNN is largely responsible for destroying the candidacy of Herman Cain, who absorbed Anderson Cooper's questions without attacking Anderson, and for making the candidacy of Newt Gingrich, who gutted a solemn and honest John King with the same material. CNN made the mistake of playing to a salacious interest that is their own, not Chinatown's. Chinatown doesn't think that's fair: It's Chinatown.
AR Correspondent Joe Shea is based in Bradenton, Fla., a lovely, small community on Florida's balmy southern Gulf Coast. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.