By Anthony Pignataro
In the overcast late afternoon hours of Saturday, Aug. 20, there were easily 150 people packed into the small but mercifully air-conditioned room at the Door of Faith Church in Wailuku (“out by Sack n’ Save,” the press release had helpfully noted). They were mostly TEA Party Maui members, and their blood was up. Clad in “We the People” and “Party like its [sic] 1773” t-shirts, they were there to see former Speaker of the House (and perennial presidential contender) Newt Gingrich on his fourth trip to the Valley Isle since 2007.
Pastor Barbara Tengan set the tone during her introduction. Twice she referred to “our [Hawaii’s] rich Christian heritage” and then, just to make sure no one misunderstood her, said, “No matter what you hear, the Christian missionaries did a lot of good.”
When I first saw Gingrich in 2007, he spoke at the now-shuttered Borders Books in Kahului (his trip was part of a book tour plugging Pearl Harbor, a fantasy/history novel he penned of the famous 1941 Japanese Attack). There, the crowd was a mix of fans and skeptics. This time, as I drove into the Door of Faith parking lot a 30 minutes before Gingrich’s 5:30 appearance and saw that I was behind an SUV showing off both an “I miss Reagan” and an “I really miss Reagan” bumper sticker, I figured the crowd would be distinctly more Gingrichista.
Gingrich said his visit to Hawaii was part of his presidential campaign, but given the state’s low electoral numbers and near-total Democratic Party control, others, like Politico’s Kendra Marr, have speculated the reason might have more to do with Gingrich’s 11th wedding anniversary. (Gingrich also spoke before students at Seabury Hall in Olinda on Monday, Aug. 22.)
His wife, the former Callista Bisek, was indeed present at the Door of Faith Church. Twenty-three years his junior, Bisek had been a young congressional aide when Gingrich asked her to marry him 11 years ago.
The problem, as has now been reported in depth by others, is that Gingrich was not only still married to Mrs. Marianne Gingrich at the time he asked Callista to be his wife, but that he hadn’t (according to Marianne) even asked for a divorce yet. But in John H. Richardson’s September 2010 Esquire profile “Newt Gingrich: The Indispensible Republican,” Marianne says she wasn’t surprised, since that’s how he handled his proposal to her (Jackie Battley, Gingrich’s first wife, who had been his high school geometry teacher, was in the hospital suffering from uterine cancer when Gingrich informed her that he was getting a divorce to marry Marianne).
Given that a considerable portion of the Republican Party sees fit to tell people how to behave in the bedroom, and who they can and cannot marry, Gingrich’s marital life has always presented something of a problem to him—as it would any life-long “family values” man going on his third marriage. It didn’t surprise me in the least that Gingrich only briefly referred to his wife a couple times during his talk, and never brought her up to the lectern with him.
Considering the twin auras of love and hate that still surround Gingrich, it’s hard to believe he spent just five years as Speaker of the House (1995-1999). Or that he hasn’t held a government job since Bill Clinton was in the White House. Or that he’s already run for president numerous times since his 1999 resignation, all of them wildly unsuccessful. Or that his current campaign has been marked by an absence of big donors, fleeing political aides and abysmal poll numbers (as Gingrich was working the room at 5:30, I noticed that various feeds on Twitter were reporting he had just scored five percent in something called the Barrow County Straw Poll and a mere one percent in a New Hampshire Straw Poll).
Presidential campaign shambles aside, Gingrich can still prove his mastery of rhetoric in 30 seconds to even the most hardened politico. “We are very interested in looking at the original intent of the founding fathers,” were some of the first words he told the crowd, and they brought the house down. “We need to begin to resurround [sic] the conversation with the intent of the founding fathers.”
Who can argue with any of that? Of course, debating such statements requires understanding them in the first place, and that was questionable. Then again, isn’t good political rhetoric merely the art of making yourself as vague as possible? If so, then Gingrich achieved master status with the following:
“There is a very profound problem with this country… that requires a totally different approach… We are the only country in history that says power comes from God to each of you… There is no provision for a federal Department of Happiness. The idea that some politician is going to take from the overly happy and give to the under-happy would have struck the founding fathers as crazy… You can’t create jobs with class warfare and bureaucratic socialism… Bureaucratic socialism is you get to keep your company but we’ll tell you what to do with it… We have to have political leadership that actually favors creating jobs… The first executive order I would sign abolishes all White House czars as of that morning… I want a fundamental replacement of the civil service system… Controlling the border is merely a matter of will power and focus…”
But these people, mostly but not all seniors, some wearing American Flag shirts and toting business cards emblazoned with American flags on both sides and boasting of titles like “Patriot for Less Government,” weren’t doing a lot of critical thinking. They were applauding too much: at Gingrich’s calling of the congressional budget “supercommittee” “a really bad idea” that will lead to a “highly political ideological discussion;” his call to audit the Federal Reserve; and especially his promises to “eliminate the capital gains tax,” “cut the corporate tax rate to 12 and a half percent” and “abolish permanently the death tax.”
The fact that Gingrich had once supported the now-infamous federal bank bailout wasn’t mentioned (Gingrich certainly didn’t bring it up). Nor was the fact that though Gingrich repeatedly spoke of Washington as some place foreign and foolish (“They don’t like learning fundamentally new things”), he maintains a firm called Gingrich Group, staffed with dozens of Washington insiders and located on K Street—the so-called “Lobbyists’ Row” in Washington. Nor was his early support for mandating individual health insurance.
Then again, Gingrich did admit to being wrong on Iraq and Afghanistan, though only when prompted by a question from the audience. “I think we should leave as early as we can,” he said. “I was a hawk after 9/11. [But] we’re not going to change things.”
Of course, Gingrich is still Gingrich. His assertion, without a shred of sourcing, that “Korean civilization is actually a much easier civilization than Afghanistan” is curious and insulting and seems more appropriate to the Victorian colonial buffoonery of Kipling than a modern history professor. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of an actual pedigreed conservative scholar, James Q. Wilson, who in the late 1990s reviewed (for the Congressional Ethics Committee) the history course Gingrich was then teaching:
“It is bland, vague, hortatory, and lacking in substance,” Wilson wrote, according to Richardson’s Esquire profile. “Scientifically, it is filled with questionable or unsupported generalizations.”
But who cares? Gingrich was on Maui! And he shook everyone’s hand who saw him at Door of Faith Church (including mine!). No one in attendance seemed to mind any of the things Gingrich said, including his endless self-promotion. He repeatedly mentioned his own campaign website (newt.org) and numerous books he’s written (consult your local library, if spending cuts haven’t closed its doors).
Gingrich knew his crowd, people who love America, right or wrong. These were true-believers; no pesky kids asking about corporate campaign donations like at Borders four years ago.
Gingrich promised to “totally control the border” (to keep out undocumented immigrants) and to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq “as early as we can”—both statements brought sustained applause. And the crowd laughed merrily when he derided President Barack Obama as “the best food stamp president in American history” and cheered vigorously when he promised to be “the best paycheck president” in history.
Message received: Democrats are for lazy illegal immigrants, while Republicans are for hard-working Americans who work hard for America.
Gingrich kept it simple, and it was effective. Though apparently, not simple enough.
“Keep up the good work,” one old guy who identified himself as being from Newport Beach told Gingrich near the end of the evening. “When are you going to run for president again?”