The Newtiness of Newt

A newt -- aka a hellbender or mud puppy -- is a slimy amphibian with an uncanny ability to reinvent itself by regenerating limbs, eyes, jaws, a spinal cord, even its heart. Many of these creatures carry deadly toxins, though we humans are in danger only if we let the poison get under our skin.

Living up to his name, Newt Gingrich has metamorphosed from disgraced former House Speaker to a preeminent position on the Right with a serious shot at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. As reporter John H. Richardson puts it in his stunning Esquire Magazine profile, Newt has become The Indispensable Republican.

Alas, Newt's bilious public statements, along with damning quotes in the Esquire piece from his second wife (out of three, so far) Marianne and from former long-time Republican congressman Mickey Edwards, suggest that Newt's regeneration does not appear to have included a new heart.

Apologists may dismiss Marianne as a woman scorned, but what she says rings true. A tea party conservative, Marianne has many nice things to say about her ex and still believes in what he says he stands for. She was dumped in 2000 for Callista Bisek, a young congressional aide with whom Newt had been conducting an affair. It wasn't Newt's first time: he'd abandoned his first wife Jackie for the younger Marianne while Jackie was in the hospital recuperating from cancer surgery.

Marianne recalls that after giving her the heave-ho, Newt delivered a powerful public speech about compassion and family values. "How do you give that speech and do what you're doing?" she asked. His reply? "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live."

One minute Newt is telling a rapt audience, "When you speak from the heart, you don't need a teleprompter," and the next he's weighing in on the proposed Mosque-in-lower-Manhattan by suggesting an equivalence between Muslims and Nazis. He opined to Fox and Friends Monday that "Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington," a comment right wing firebrand Pat Buchanan found "absurd" and Joe Scarborough, conservative host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, labeled "sick politics."

Marianne attempts to explain the contradiction: Newt "believes that what he says in public and how he lives don't have to be connected." Mickey Edwards adds: "I've known Newt now for thirty years almost, but...I never felt that he had any sort of a real compass about what he believed except for the pursuit of power."

All politicians lie and most can be mean, but Gingrich goes the extra mile, hurling sophomoric insults -- "Obama couldn't care less what the individual citizen thinks" -- and shamelessly contradicting his own contradictions -- "I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty." More surreal Newtisms are collected here. He also alchemizes an obviously troubled childhood -- divorce, alcoholism, drug addiction -- into a "fabulous" one, "the kind Norman Rockwell captures in his pictures." If you believe that...

How does a person live with such incongruities? Perhaps by dehumanizing those closest to him. Newt explained to Marianne that he traded her in for a newer model because, "I can't handle a Jaguar right now. All I want is a Chevrolet." This time, he converted to Catholicism, and it's fair to wonder if he's now trying to anchor his brand in the oldest of the Christian faiths -- as if to declare his previous marriages (and his past) null. Indeed, according to Richardson, he sought an annulment of one or both previous marriages.

It's hard to believe the Republican party would nominate an over-the-top hypocrite like Newt or Sarah Palin. (Yes, Palin got the VP nod in '08, but that was a demonstration of one individual -- John McCain -- selling his soul.) But Gingrich has joined Palin as a star fund-raiser, publicity-getter and heat-generator. He's a man who puts "base" in the Republican base. And he's got the ego and the relentlessness: In a moment of grandiosity even for Newt, he tells Richardson, "The underlying thematics are beginning to be universalizable in a way that has taken years of work." In these panicky times, anything's possible.

In the same issue of Esquire, an essay on America's sudden obsession with the hidden life -- Mad Men, Twilight, Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom, etc. -- the writer comes up with the wonderful German word "Geheimlebensroman" to describe people who reinvent themselves. The cognitive dissonance of leading a double life takes these fictional characters to some very dark places, and one can imagine the same for real-world shape-shifters like Gingrich.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins," he was cautioning us to take note of our own hypocrisies before judging others. Fair enough. We needn't pass judgment, but let's not allow this Newt to get under our skin.