Every four years, there is one presidential campaign that is much more fun to watch than the rest, even if it has no realistic chance of success. I loved watching Mike Huckabee four years ago. It was far better than watching John McCain going from the Straight Talk Express (fun four years before) to the cautious conservative.
This time around, Herman Cain started out as the fun one. But seriously, it was never really serious.
So I was rooting for Newt Gingrich, at least to stay in the race, because he made it not only a fun race, but also a better one.
And while it was inevitable that once Rick Santorum went and the numbers started adding up, he would have to pull out, it was still a great run.
Plainly, Newt had too much baggage coming in. He tried to deal with it preemptively; he had his daughters giving interviews and standing behind him. But in retrospect, between his personal history and his professional vulnerabilities, it was more than even a skilled politician could handle.
And then there were his ideas. OK, some of them were more than a little wacky. Mining the moon? Maybe not.
But it is precisely Newt’s tendency to think about big ideas and then talk about them that makes him a breath of fresh air in today’s stilted world of scripted politics. Newt could debate forever. He was worth listening to. He said things that were plainly off-script, sometimes nutty, sometimes stunningly smart.
The problem with politics today is not just that it is corrupted by big money and overwhelmed by nastiness of the sort no parent would allow any child to engage in. It is also, at its very core, boring.
In the old days, before every word was captured on someone’s cellphone recorder, it was bad enough hearing the same lines over and over again. At least there were moments of candor, occasional spontaneity. No more. Spontaneity has become a sin in politics. OK, Mitt Romney has fallen flat a few times — with the trees and the Cadillacs and the NASCAR owners. But at least you gain a little insight — sometimes good, sometimes not so good — in those moments.
Generally, with 99 percent of what you hear, you can literally imagine the page on the briefing book with the lines scripted out. And if you pay attention, all you get is repetition. You hear those lines over and over until you feel you could recite them yourself.
Newt was different. Better. I wouldn’t want to be his speechwriter, because unlike Romney, he didn’t stay on script. He is, and as a candidate was, actually interested in ideas. And it seems pretty clear that they weren’t pre-tested by pollsters, focus groups and language mavens before they were offered out.
Ideas, one of my old friends in politics used to say, are very fragile things. You can stomp most of them out before they’ve had any chance to flower, leaving yourself — as we seem most of the time to be — in the barren land of slime-bucket politics. But if you don’t stomp them out, if you put them out there and give them some time under the sun, some of them might actually turn into something.
I used to do speeches with Newt, and in addition to always being very gracious to me (and believe me, in this business, not everyone is), always going the extra mile to compliment a point or praise my intelligence (very rare from any “opponent”), he always made me think. Every time we did a road show, he had something new to say. You had to listen and think, at least if you wanted to have an interesting debate and not simply an exchange of potshots.
He brought the same daring to the campaign. Of course, it didn’t really work. The baggage caught up with him. Romney and his team came up with some good comebacks, which, frankly, helped Romney look like a better candidate. And Newt was never much at raising money and kissing rear ends — which is a pretty big imperative in today’s politics.
— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.