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As one of the most polarizing figures in modern American politics, Newt Gingrich has racked up a huge inventory of pungent criticism of both his ideas and his character — much of it from his fellow conservatives. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, for example, notes Newt’s “erratic behavior, lack of discipline and self-absorption” and “need to justify his every petty move by reference to some grand theory.”
But before becoming prime minister, Winston Churchill was often dismissed in similar terms by members of his own party, who complained that “his planning is all wishing and guessing,” that he was “a genius without judgment,” and that he had been “on every side of every question.” His many non-fiction books were even characterized as “autobiographies disguised as history of the universe.” This is not to suggest that Newt is the next Churchill, which would indeed feed Newt’s grandiosity. Rather, it is to prompt us to recognize one important fact and to ask two questions that have heretofore not been asked.
"The example of Churchill (and also Reagan to some extent) shows that we cannot prospectively identify those whom we will later come to laud as great statesmen." The important fact is this: The example of Churchill (and also Reagan to some extent) shows that we cannot prospectively identify those whom we will later come to laud as great statesmen. Very few leading Republicans thought Reagan would be Reagan, even after the 1980 election, just as Churchill was not a popular choice of his own party in 1940. One of the best studies of Churchill’s pre-1940 career could almost be adapted for Newt, Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure.
Two questions must be asked in order to judge whether Newt might have Churchillian qualities (both good and bad) once in office, or whether Romney’s predictable managerial qualities are more suited to the present moment.
The first question is whether we require someone utterly unconventional to match up to the circumstances of the moment. The same negative qualities that kept Churchill from high office in the 1930s — his resolute stubbornness, his unconstrained and unpredictable imagination and occasional recklessness — paradoxically made him the best person to lead the nation when it reached the point of extreme crisis in May 1940. But the crisis had to reach the extreme before the Churchill option became thinkable.
Even the outbreak of war in 1939 didn’t immediately lead to the thought that Churchill should become prime minister. And even after the invasion of France, it wasn’t clear that his mixed qualities would prove a source of reassurance to the nation, or a formula for success in the war. Is Newt’s long-time embrace of “radical change” what is necessary to address the fiscal crisis of our time? One reason a large portion of the Tea Party has embraced Newt, his mixed record notwithstanding, is that he appears to be the only candidate who will both argue for and attempt to implement the large changes necessary to right our listing ship of state.
“The Conservatives have never liked nor trusted me,” Churchill wrote in the 1920s. According to King George VI’s biographer biographer, the king was “bitterly opposed” to Churchill’s becoming prime minister. He remained a figure of suspicion within his own party even after he became prime minister in 1940. The description of cabinet secretary John Colville sounds like much of the Newt-angst of conservatives right now: “In May 1940 the mere thought of Churchill as Prime Minister send a cold chill down the spines of the staff working at 10 Downing Street. . . . Seldom can a Prime Minister have taken office with the Establishment . . . so dubious of the choice and so prepared to find its doubts justified.” “This is not the last war administration by a long way,” a leading member of Churchill’s own party remarked. Another Tory MP, Peter Eckersley, wrote: “Winston won’t last five months! Opposition from Tories is already beginning.” MP David Kier wrote in his diary a month after Churchill took office: “The more I think of the position, the more uncertain the future of Winston’s present Government is.” One Conservative-party grandee wrote that “I regard this [Churchill as PM] as a greater disaster than the invasion of the Low Countries.”
"Newt has a chance to prove conservative skeptics wrong about his constancy — the chance to win over skeptics in the face of so much evidence against him." This leads to the second question. While Churchill never shed his weaknesses and defects, he did bring with him to office important lessons of his earlier failures in World War I, along with his serious study of history during his wilderness years. Though Newt wrote a book called “Lessons Learned the Hard Way,” it is not clear whether he’s matured in the necessary ways. Newt once told me an instructive story about Reagan, involving an Oval Office meeting he attended late in Reagan’s second term. Newt was among many conservatives who were unhappy with Reagan at the time, and Newt said he complained about things that had been left undone, or that had been done badly. Displaying the patience that was crucial to Reagan’s success, Reagan put his arm around Newt as he walked him out of the Oval Office and said, “Newt — there are some things you all are going to have to do after I’m gone.”
Does Newt understand the lesson of this story, or would he as president attempt to fix every problem at once, chair every meeting and working group in the White House, and move on to the next shiny thing that pops into the idea quadrant of his hyper-driven cerebral cortex? Does he have the patience to focus at length on the two or three most important things to the exclusion of all others, and the discipline to persuade Americans by giving the same speech over and over again?
The next couple of months may well prove out the unplanned logic of our long campaign process. The debates, Newt’s strong suit so far, are about to give way to real voting, and to the week-by-week ground game that requires focus and consistency. Newt has a chance to prove conservative skeptics wrong about his constancy — the chance to win over skeptics in the face of so much evidence against him. The course of John Colville’s evolving assessment of Churchill in the 1940s is suggestive. Colville wrote in his diary the night Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940: “He may, of course, be the man of drive and energy the country believes him to be and he may be able to speed up our creaking military and industrial machinery; but it is a terrible risk, it involves the danger of rash and spectacular exploits, and I cannot help fearing that this country may be maneuvered into the most dangerous position it has ever been in.”
Over the next decade, the skeptical Colville was completely won over. He left one other judgment of Churchill that is worth recalling in connection with Newt: “Finally, in politics and indeed all his life, he was as strange a mixture of radical and traditionalist as could anywhere be found. He was certainly not a conservative by temperament, nor indeed by conviction a supporter of the Conservative Party.”
There may be more to Newt’s fascination with Churchill than just grandiosity.