Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So Long, Jerry


Me: You seem to view this as some kind of good versus evil thing.
Newt Gingrich: Yes.

That exchange took place in 1978 in a suite at the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Atlanta. Gingrich was in the midst of his first successful campaign for congress (against the late Virginia Shapard). I wish I could say that I was a fifteen-year-old kingmaker in a smoke-filled room, interrogating a would-be cog in my political machine, but the truth is I was one of two-dozen or so high school social studies geeks who had won places in a program that allowed us to visit Atlanta periodically, stay in a hotel, and learn about state government. Part of the deal was that we had visits from guest speakers, including political candidates like Newt, who was then 16 years away from the pinnacle of his success, the 1994 Republican “Revolution,” another four years from his fall from grace, and still a few more years from his mystifying comeback. Back then he was just trying to win an election. His visit is still vague in my memory – in my mind’s eye I see him speaking from a couch, with most of us teens gathered around him on the carpet. I remember none of what he said, and I would certainly have been too limited in my knowledge and rhetorical skills to make a challenge to any of it, but if Newt said it I must have disagreed with it, and you don’t have to be scholar of oratory to recognize scary zealotry when you hear it. So when Q & A time came up I made my observation and he made his reply. I’m sure he must have elaborated, but, as I said, I don’t recall any specifics of his comments. Just the “yes.” I would pride myself on recognizing early his particular brand of opponent-demonizing political obnoxiousness, but that would be like priding myself on recognizing that Red Skelton wasn’t funny. Too obvious.

I’ve been remembering my one and only encounter with Newt Gingrich during our vacation week here in Grand Rapids as it mourns the loss of its favorite son, Gerald R. Ford, who preceded Gingrich as a Republican leader in congress. I’m going back to Georgia before the big show starts locally, but the rest of my family will still be in town jockeying for position on the funeral route and soaking up the memories and reflections. I’m sorry to miss that, but there has been something cool about watching hometown pride in action as the preparations are made. In just a few days the Easttown coffee house I’m sitting in will be on the route between the Presidential Museum downtown and the church where his local memorial service will take place, in his old congressional district. The other night several of us dined at a downtown riverfront hotel and then took advantage of the freakishly pleasant December weather to cross the river on a pedestrian bridge to the Ford Museum to sign the book and see the impromptu memorials that have been set up – the usual heartfelt mélange of candles, flowers, and handmade signs. My favorites signs were ones that said, “Thank you Mr. President, honesty is still the best policy,” and “From the Big House to the White House,” a reference to Ford’s days as a U of M Wolverine.

Some of the Ford memorializing in G.R. has been hyperbolic (see the pictured newspaper headline), but doesn’t that go with the territory when a famous local boy passes on? In the days before Ford’s death we Atlantans grew accustomed to that sort of thing: It seems that James Brown was the most important musical figure since Beethoven. Hyperbole aside, there is much to admire in Ford. It goes without saying that he entered office like one of those pinch hitters who is sent up to the plate already two strikes down. It wasn’t just Watergate – South Vietnam was falling, inflation and gas prices were up, seemingly for good. We were already feeling Carter’s malaise. Most of the national commentary about Ford has revolved around his decision to pardon Nixon. Put me in the “I was pissed off at the time, but it makes sense in retrospect” column on that one. As a child of the seventies, I liked George Will’s appreciation of the good timing of Ford’s solid, Midwestern normalcy. He was so mild, so inoffensively the former Eagle Scout, that it continues to astonish that anyone could work up enough hatred of him to attempt an assassination.

There has also been much emphasis on Ford’s long service in congress. For many this has been another occasion to mourn the passing of bipartisan Washington, of which Ford was a high priest, back when Republicans and Democrats were more inclined to cooperate, before the ascendancy of scorched-earth types like Gingrich, DeLay, et. al. Maybe, but I can’t imagine many Republicans are eager to return to the days of permanent minority status that Ford’s conciliatory style seemed to get them. That style is probably a relic anyway, done in by talk radio and blogs and 24 hour news and ideological litmus tests of special interest groups. Too bad. Politics without conflict is not politics at all, of course, but our suffering national political life could really use some more above-the-fray grownups in the Gerald Ford mode.

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