While Newt Gingrich's victory in South Carolina was predicted, the extent of it is astonishing. He received even the evangelical vote and did so in the immediate aftermath of the scandal that his ex-wife and the American Broadcasting Company initiated. Land of Goshen!

It seems only a short time ago that Senator Gary Hart's extra-marital dalliance with Donna Rice wreaked havoc upon his own  presidential aspirations. Some now ask with a straight face, "Who is Gary Hart?" The same too with South Carolina's recent governor, Mark Sanford, who wrote his own political obituary when he decided to spend "quality time" with an Argentinian beauty named María Belén Chapur.

Forget about these sad and apparently "irrelevant" precedents. They are inapplicable to Newt. He has artfully dodged social stigmatization for his indiscretions. Far from being on a political road to nowhere, he is entering the Florida Republican primary with the momentum of a locomotive! Why is this, when his crimes against the marital estate are arguably more severe than Hart's (who is still married) and more recidivist than Sanford's (who has divorced only once amid allegations of infidelity)? Of course, not to be ignored is also the fact that Gingrich left his position as Speaker of the House under a pall of shame.  What gives?

Gingrich, being the inveterate political warrior he is, has stepped into the breach between the "elitist media" and the American citizenry. What a shrewd move! He's tapped into the vast reservoir of alienated feelings between us and the airheads who attempt to frame public issues and to shape our opinions. Every chance he receives he gives some media personality a kick in the butt. For the time being, it's pretty darn satisfying to watch too!

Yet Americans haven't typically elected anti-establishment types to the Oval Office. There's a certain almost royal decorum that accompanies the office and that does not accord well with roguish politics. Gingrich is certainly cognizant of this fact. If he wins the nomination, he will have to look less like an angry street fighter and more like the wise and magnanimous leader of the free world the President of the United States must be. If you will remember, Richard Nixon's political reputation was firmly established as that of a hatchet man, but as the Oval Office came within his grasp, he attempted more than once (often unsuccessfully) to ratchet down the rhetoric and to appear "presidential." Look for Newt at some carefully chosen juncture to do the same.

But don't expect the man's pugnacious personality to be forever under wraps. A leopard doesn't change its spots. Oh, to be sure, Gingrich will, if given the opportunity, do his best to execute the ceremonial functions of the office in an impressive manner, but the task won't be altogether easy for him. He enjoys scrapping and mixing it up with adversaries. It's in his life's blood. He's defined by it.  He may be an accomplished intellectual, but don't be fooled by that. The man is aggressive.  Nothing about him is meek, mild, or conciliatory. 

Gingrich speaks glowingly of Ronald Reagan, but he is hardly the reincarnation of the Gipper.  In fact, of all American presidents, Gingrich's personality reminds me most of Andrew Jackson's. Old Hickory, like Newt, even had his share of family problems. He fought tooth and nail to defend the sanctity of his marriage against public accusations that his beloved Rachel was an adulteress.

His marriage was only a single tumultuous chapter in his life.  He was forever dueling or otherwise fighting with someone. His greatest source of pride was the deep scar, head to hand, he received as a lad during the American Revolution. He had found himself at the south end of a British saber for his defiant refusal to scrape the mud off a Brit's boots.

Jackson warred against Indians as well. His transplantation of the Sac and Fox, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee was a bitter reminder of his free-flowing animosities toward these people.

At one time or another, he came to blows with Thomas Hart Benton, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and especially banker Nicholas Biddle, to mention but a few of his famous tiffs. His entire life was a study in conflict -- not "conflict management" mind you, but raw, gutsy, unbridled conflict. One of his historians has described him, when aroused, as "an accomplished and unforgiving killer."  That he was!

In 1833, after his first election, Harvard University granted him an honorary doctor of laws degree. He appreciated the gesture and was delighted by his enthusiastic reception in New England. But he was in poor health and an old man before his time. One of his ancient dueling wounds was causing bleeding in his lungs. Jackson collapsed at one point and, afterward, decided to return to Washington, D.C. on a steamboat. An extremely choppy tide knocked the passengers about the vessel, to the point that one of them became alarmed. "You are uneasy," Jackson said to him, "you never sailed with me before, I see."

Yes, sailing with Old Hickory was an unsettling experience. Be assured that, if Newt Gingrich is elected to the exalted office, navigating with him will mean turbulent waters too.

But maybe Gingrich's taste for toughness will be a good tonic for us all.  I don't think that the other candidates are nearly as mean or as ruthless as Gingrich. Herman Melville once wrote of the seventh president that God "didst pick [him] up . . . from the pebbles" and "didst hurl him upon a war-horse" and "thunder [him] from higher than a throne!" Maybe one day this Jacksonian tribute will be paid to Newt Gingrich as well.  God knows, the country is in dire need of a leader, and a strong one.  There's a tad of optimism in my heart regarding this man's gifts.  We'll see what verdict emerges from Florida.

January 23, 2012