Matt Bai of the New York Times claims in this brief piece that “Gingrich Run Reflects His Sense of History.” Don’t laugh America–Bai says this isn’t a vanity run for president to get his own teevee deal:
[H]aving spent a fair amount of time with Mr. Gingrich for a cover story I wrote for The New York Times Magazine two years ago, I never had much doubt that he was serious this time around. The thing you have to understand about Newt is that he is, by training and temperament, an avid historian, and he is as true a believer as you will ever find in the concept of destiny.
An Army brat growing up, flat-footed and near-sighted, Mr. Gingrich was the perpetual new kid in school who wasn’t going to star on the football team. But he found an outlet for his passion in the histories he read, especially those concerning great heroes. He imagined himself — and, reasonably or not, still does — as a lead protagonist in the history of his own time, a consequential character in the grand American narrative.
In particular, Mr. Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of “departure and return” — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes. One of Newt’s heroes, the French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle, embodies just this kind of romantic narrative, having spent 12 years out of power before returning to lead his country. So does Ronald Reagan, who traveled the country after losing his bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, then came roaring back to win it all four years later.
Like Mr. de Gaulle, Mr. Gingrich has been out of power for about 12 years. And if elected president, Mr. Gingrich, like Mr. Reagan, would be 69 when taking the oath of office. (Mr. de Gaulle was 68.) Coincidence? It might seem that way, but I’m guessing he sees something more portentous in the parallels.
Ugh. This is not serious historical analysis, either by Bai or Gingrich. This is history as a comic book/decoder ring gimmick. (H/t to Roxie at Roxie’s World for the photoshopped beauty above.) First of all, because real historians do nuance and complexity and resist simple answers to complex questions, I know of no actual historians who are of the personality or temperament of Newt Gingrich. This is not a slam on Gingrich–there’s a darn good reason why there haven’t been a lot of good historians-turned-politicians in the last century. (OK–that was a slam on Gingrich.) The job descriptions, and the temperaments of those who gravitate towards these different fields, are almost diametrically opposed.
Secondly–and this is another slam on Gingrich–how many professional historians reference the histories of Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) any more, unless they’re writing about his colonialist policy work? Outside of surveys of British History, I’m guessing that he really doesn’t come up in conversations among professionals much these days, because his brand of history has been pretty thoroughly discredited over the past fifty years or so as colonialist, unapologetically imperialist, and cyclical rather than linear. Toynbee peddled a kind of history that I’m sure was very soothing while the sun set on the British Empire, but his work is roundly viewed as reactionary in the extreme these days. (At least, that’s my impression–you British historians step up and let me know if I’ve got it wrong here.)
But by the decoder-ring logic of “Great Men and Famous Deeds”-style history, I suppose it makes perfect sense to think that the person who will be 68 or 69 in January of 2013 will of course be elected President of the U.S. in 2012. A real historian would probably point out that as a former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been elected by a much larger constituency than Gingrich’s Georgia house district. A real historian would also probably point out that although Regan was divorced, he only divorced once (not twice), wasn’t a notorious adulterer, and never converted to Catholicism, all of which might be something of a deal-breaker among the Protestant God Squad wing of the modern Republican party. You modern European historians can take on the Gingrich self-comparison to De Gaulle. I don’t have enough background or context on De Gaulle to really grok that one, but somehow I don’t see the failed impeachment of Bill Clinton as comparable to having been the leader of the Free French Forces during World War II. (Just my professional instincts, I guess.)
Finally–where in the brilliantly predictive “cycles of history” theories did it say that an African American man with a distinctly non-Anglo-American name would be elected President in 2008? Just askin’. History isn’t random, but there are no “laws of History” that guide it or the study of history.
So, in sum: this bit of fluff makes both Gingrich and Bai look pretty silly. (Kind of like that “The Flash” costume on Joe Biden. And I get the logic of Obama as Captain America, but why couldn’t they make him one of the marquee names of the Marvel Comics’ series? After all, he is the President.)
UPDATE, 8:15 MDT: This “Gingrich is inspired by history” is clearly a meme being trolled by his campaign pretty hard. Brian Naylor at NPR filed a report on Morning Edition today whose lede is that Gingrich was inspired to go into public service by a visit to Verdun as a teenager in the 1950s. Oy. It’s very strange, because neither Gingrich, nor his biographer (a former colleague), nor Naylor explain exactly what about Verdun was so inspiring other than the awesome carnage and environmental destruction. And because Gingrich is hardly an anti-war candidate, I don’t really get the connection that seems so self-evident. (Judge for yourself.)
One would hope that reporters would be a bit more skeptical about grandiose historical hero-worship like this crapola, but then again, his background as a history professor is one of the quirky facts about Gingrich that they like to trot out in the service of their narratives. Hey–can we FOIA all of his official correspondance while he taught at West Georgia College? After all, he launched three campaigns for Congress from that job!
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