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Mark Shields: Character is Destiny

There's much less to Newt Gingrich than meets the eye

Over more than a half-century of superb work, David Broder has earned the title of dean of American political reporters. So I pay attention when Broder writes, as he did, on the eve of the last presidential campaign:

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

“In the years since I first met him in 1974, I have learned to take Newt Gingrich seriously. He has many character flaws, and his language is often exaggerated and imprudent. But if there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label ‘visionary,’ it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House.”

To me, Gingrich has instead always been the living, breathing example of what the great novelist Walker Percy warned against: “Do not be the kind of person who gets all A’s and flunks ordinary living.” If Heraclitus was right that “character is destiny,” then the presidential plans of Gingrich — brimming with bold, new ideas about harnessing medical technology and dinosaurs and space colonies (honest) — will turn to sawdust.

When I — and many others in this city — first met him more than 30 years ago, Gingrich introduced himself as a “Rockefeller Republican” with a deep concern about the environment. That concern may have been fueled by the fact that his opponent, Rep. John Flynt, D-Ga., had been targeted as one of Congress’ “Dirty Dozen” by environmental groups.

Let me tell you two Gingrich stories. More than 20 years ago, when he was still a rising star in the House, he and I had a conversation about national security and military service. Like so many tough-talking armchair commandos of his generation, Gingrich had managed to avoid serving in uniform. But he spoke knowingly and confidently about war and warfare. I asked him if he had ever visited the Vietnam Memorial. No, he had not. I asked him if he knew anyone who had lost his life in Vietnam. No, he did not.

Later that week, I talked to then-Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., and asked him if he had been to the Vietnam Memorial. Yes, he had. I asked Gore, the Harvard graduate who had volunteered to go, why he had gone. He told me that because, if he had not gone, he knew personally the boys in his Tennessee hometown who would go in his place. I asked him if he knew personally anyone who had died in Vietnam, and Gore gave me a half-dozen names from Smith County who had never come home. I checked the names, and Gore had been right on every one.

Character is destiny.

During the 1994 election that would result in Gingrich’s being elected House speaker, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., a 23-year-old single mother, reported to police that her car — with her two sons, 3-year-old Michael and 1-year-old Alexander, in it — had been carjacked by a black man. She made tearful, televised pleas for the safe return of her boys. The case received national attention. Then Smith confessed that she had in fact let her car — with her sons in their car seats — roll into Long Lake, where the boys drowned.

For most Americans, this was an incomprehensible, personal tragedy. For Gingrich, on the eve of a national election, it was an irresistible political opportunity.

Here is what he said: “I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way to change things is to vote Republican.”

Character is destiny. We may finally have encountered the man who “got all A’s and flunked ordinary living.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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