"Character is fate." — Albert Camus.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's recent rise in Republican presidential preference polls has predictably drawn attention to his prior public record and private life.
Most immediately at issue is the $1.6 million his out-of-office firm received from Freddie Mac for what Gingrich terms "strategic advice" during a period when both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were coming under increasing fire for their mortgage-market policies. In his presidential campaign, Gingrich has been outspoken in denouncing both agencies for their contributions to the 2008 financial collapse.
It might seem strange that Gingrich — one of the highest visibility political figures of the 1990s — is a relative unknown quantity to many voters in 2011. But public memory fades quickly and Gingrich has not served in the Congress in this decade. Thus, in the GOP presidential nominating race, he mainly has been known thus far as the most recent standardbearer of the Anybody But Romney conservative wing of his party. Businessman Herman Cain and Texas Gov. Rick Perry already having risen and fallen in that role.
The public and private characters of American presidents have played major roles in their success or failure in office. All modern-day presidents, in fact, have conducted themselves in office pretty much as could have been predicted by those who had known and worked closely with them beforehand. Voters, though, sometimes have not caught on until much later (subject matter for another day).
The Freddie Mac disclosures about Gingrich have forced to the surface many parts of his prior life. It is good that they are being examined now, well before actual voting begins in GOP primaries and caucuses.
Having observed Gingrich over many years in Washington, D.C., my own bottom line is this: Gingrich is bright and more interested in public issues than most of his colleagues. He is good on his feet and effective in public forums. But he is flaky, volatile, and unpredictable. I would never trust him in the presidency.
The high point of his earlier political career came in 1994, when his several-point Contract With America agenda helped lead to a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. (The failure of the Clinton health plan that same year probably led more greatly to the GOP gains in the House than did Gingrich's Contract. But the Contract nonetheless deserved at least partial credit.) Yet, only four years later, his House GOP colleagues had tired of him and pushed him out of the Speakership. He had been often vindictive and immoderate in what he said and in his conduct toward others. He also was becoming highly unpopular with the voting public and an easy foil for Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Gingrich also had a big problem with his colleagues: He had few political or personal friends who were willing to go to bat for him. His private life was a mess. He now confesses to being a serial adulterer during that period. He says he is completely centered and at home with himself after his most recent change of marriage and religion (Catholicism). Yet his presidential campaign has reflected his earlier established character. He has little formal organization on the ground in primary and caucus states. He has been unable to raise much money. Most of his key staff resigned several months ago in frustration about what they saw as his existential, day-to-day approach to campaigning.
The nationally televised GOP candidate debates have been a Godsend to Gingrich. They have given him exposure he could not otherwise have received. He knows enough history and policy to upstage all of his competitors, except Romney, in the debate format. Hence his rise in the polls as Cain and Perry have fallen.
Down the road, though, it is difficult to imagine Gingrich being anything but a temporary frontrunner. He carries a lot of prior baggage which, day by day, will become publicly known. He has no powerful allies in his party nor has he inspired loyalty among the grassroots organizers who make a difference in primary and caucus states. He is, in fact, a remainderman, presenting himself now as the only practical conservative challenger to Romney's moderate march to the nomination. Just as Cain and Perry, I expect him to falter and fall as voters learn more about him.