Deconstructing Newt


John McWhorter deconstructs the verbal tsunami that is Newt Gingrich:

Gingrich’s patterns of speech are largely analytically acute, and sometimes aesthetically interesting, but substantively, they are very often lacking. Language is supposed to be a package that carries substance, but Gingrich is sometimes so pleased with his uninterrupted stream of words, that he mistakes it for an actual flow of ideas.

Fair enough. But I’d put it a little differently: Gingrich’s favorite debate ploy is to avoid answering tough questions by immediately zooming out to a million-foot level and explaining imperiously how enormously complex everything is. It’s all so impressive sounding that he seldom has to bother telling us just what he’d do about any of this enormously complex stuff. Here are a few examples from the most recent debate:

On negotiating with the Taliban:

Look, I think this is so much bigger and deeper a problem than we’ve talked about as a country that we don’t have a clue how hard this is going to be. First of all, the Taliban survives for the very same reason that historically we said guerillas always survive, which is they have a sanctuary….So I think this has to be a much larger strategic discussion that starts with, frankly, Pakistan on the one end and Iran on the other, because Afghanistan is in between the two countries and is the least important of the three countries.

On cutting government:

There are four interlocking national security problems. Debt and the deficit’s one. Energy is a second one. Manufacturing is a third one. And science and technology’s a fourth. And you need to have solutions that fit all four.

On dealing with a loose nuke in Pakistan:

Well, look. This is a good example of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into since the Church Committee so-called reforms in 1970s. We don’t have a reliable intelligence service. We don’t have independent intelligence in places like Pakistan….This is a very good example of scenarios people ought to look at seriously and say, “We had better overhaul everything from rules of engagement to how we run the intelligence community, because we are in a very dangerous world.”

Gingrich is hardly the first blowhard in history to routinely talk this way, but he’s certainly made it into a political art form. It all sounds very erudite, but mostly it just allows him to avoid concrete answers. And even when he does get concrete, he most often just ends up spouting buzz phrases like “Lean Six Sigma” and “human capital” and “Agenda 21.”

This isn’t because he has no concrete answers. When he wants to, he can be perfectly concrete. But when he doesn’t feel like getting himself into a jam, he puts on his best world-weary expression, retreats to the million-foot level beloved of management consultants and tweedy professors, and then finishes off with a couple of trendy buzzwords. I often wonder just who he thinks he’s kidding with this act, but it does have the virtue of baffling the masses with bullshit so that he can plausibly claim to be the most conservative guy on the stage without ever giving anyone an opening to prove otherwise.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.