WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich’s standing ovation last Thursday night, when he attacked CNN moderator John King for asking about allegations that Gingrich wanted an “open marriage” with his second wife, told us little about South Carolina, but much about human nature.
The query, for which King has been exhaustively critiqued, was both necessary and inevitable. Forget the elephant in the living room; it was the herd in the powder room.
Marianne Gingrich, to whom Gingrich was married when he began an affair with his current wife, Callista, had been in the news all day as excerpts of a then soon-to-be-released interview with ABC News were replayed dozens of times.
Just as King had no choice but to ask, Gingrich answered in the only way he could — by attacking the questioner. Shooting the messenger is a time-honored method of spin control among royals and their imitators. Gingrich’s bilious reproach was an oratorical defenestration. King’s audacity was “despicable,” he intoned, and the crowd roared.
Suddenly, Gingrich’s questionable past was forgotten, and whatever ire his record might have inspired was redirected at The Media — that monolithic target of communal contempt. Not only did Gingrich deflect attention from his immediate problem, but he managed to win the public’s heart. He may not have shifted the entire planet, as he described the object of his ambition in 1985, but he managed to secure his rising momentum.
People who know Gingrich, and certainly those enemies who convinced Marianne Gingrich that she should step forward for the good of the country, must have wondered how things could go so wrong. They did not, as one might first suppose, underestimate the public’s disdain for the media. Very likely they share it. What they forgot were the lessons wrought by Kenneth Starr in the case of Bill Clinton and the power of projection.
In a nutshell: The more you pick on a person for human failings with which all can identify, the more likely you will create sympathy rather than antipathy, especially if that individual has been forthright in his confession and penitent for his transgression, as Gingrich has been. He was ahead of the curveball this time, with nothing left to tell or for his aggrieved former wife to expose. Thus, her interview and the King question had the feel not of revelation, but of a political hit aided and abetted by a salacious press.
But a moment is just that, and projection of the sort experienced by the Charleston audience can be fraught with peril. Over-identification clouds judgment and, though we are all sinners, we are not all running for president of the United States. Gingrich’s sins of the flesh ultimately are of less importance than the narcissism and grandiosity that compel his actions.
Voters would do well to think less of what they would do in his shoes than what Gingrich will do should he win the prize. As the reality of his astonishing self-regard sinks in and one imagines where his unflagging certitude might lead, it is less easy to identify with the weeds in his garden. As projection falters, empathy finds no place to land.