I spent last weekend absorbed in The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel about three Brown students in the early 1980s. The most captivating character in the book is the manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead and its most compelling passages depict the ravages of his illness. When he doesn’t take his proper dose of lithium, Leonard becomes a superhero in his own mind, overflowing with self-confidence and charisma, before he inevitably crashes. Eugenides has protested, rather unconvincingly, that his portrait of Leonard is not drawn from David Foster Wallace, who suffered from depression and killed himself in 2008. But the real-life character I kept thinking about while I was reading wasn’t Wallace. It was Newt Gingrich.
A couple months ago, I received an email from my ex-girlfriend. Presenting what I interpreted as something vaguely resembling concern for my state of mind, she reached out to me in an effort to remind me just how thoroughly screwed up she believes me to be. Evidently, reading WWJD had left her believing that I’m the proud owner of a textbook case of borderline personality disorder. Once I recovered from my astonishment at the presumptuous and inappropriateness of her missive (Pot…meet Kettle), I fired off a response in which I (as kindly as I was able under the circumstances) informed her where she could deposit her faux concern for my mental state.
Thankfully, Erin, a nurse practitioner who, if memory serves, majored in psychology as an undergrad, assures me that BPD isn’t one of my problems. I found that…oddly reassuring. Hmm….
My ex’ “concern” for my state of mind was something I moved past without too much difficulty. The more I think about, listen to, and read about Newt Gingrich, though, the more I find myself thinking about that email and wondering about how we perceive and define the spectrum from sanity to incoherently unbalanced. We all define sanity in certain ways, and one person’s sanity can be another’s frightening dance with psychosis. Sanity/psychosis lies in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, and while my ex- may think I need to be strapped to a gurney and forced-fed heavy doses of Thorazine, others consider my battle with depression to be part of my “artistic process.” I’m a writer, which some would argue isn’t exactly an advertisement for sanity under the best of circumstances (see Hemingway, Ernest).
You say “toh-may-toh”….
All that being said, things have gotten so out of whack in the race for the 2012 GOP Presidential nomination that Slate’s Jacob Weisberg is asking
Laugh if you must, but I think that Weisberg’s question is a legitimate one. Gingrich is prone to discussing himself in messianic terms, he possesses an over-developed sense of self-worth, and yes, there’s the “grandiosity, megalomania, irritability, impulsiveness, spending sprees.” His tenure as Speaker of the House was characteristic someone shooting to power and then flaming out through his own hubris and inability to control his impulses. His marital history could be interpreted as supporting doubts about Gingrich’s sanity (and certainly his morality)…as fuzzy as any definition of “sanity” is.
Interestingly enough, Mitt Romney, finally recognizing that Gingrich poses a clear a present danger, has loosed his surrogates, evidently with the instructions to raise questions about Gingrich’s stability. Romney can’t afford to drop these bombs himself, but he’s not above having others do that dirty work for him. Peggy Noonan, for instance, used an op-ed in this morning’s Wall Street Journal to call Gingrich a “human hand grenade.”
The biggest fear of those who’ve known Mr. Gingrich? He has gone through his political life making huge strides, rising in influence and achievement, and then been destabilized by success, or just after it. Maybe he’s made dizzy by the thin air at the top, maybe he has an inner urge to be tragic, to always be unrealized and misunderstood. But he goes too far, his rhetoric becomes too slashing, the musings he shares—when he rose to the speakership, in 1995, it was that women shouldn’t serve in combat because they’re prone to infections—are too strange. And he starts to write in his notes what Kirsten Powers, in the Daily Beast, remembered: he described himself as “definer of civilization … leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.”
Those who know him fear—or hope—that he will be true to form in one respect: He will continue to lose to his No. 1 longtime foe, Newt Gingrich. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, “Watch this!”
What they fear is that he will show just enough discipline over the next few months, just enough focus, to win the nomination. And then, in the fall of 2012, once party leaders have come around and the GOP is fully behind him, he will begin baying at the moon. He will start saying wild things and promising that he may bomb Iran but he may send a special SEAL team in at night to secretly dig Iran up, and fly it to Detroit, where we can keep it under guard, and Detroiters can all get jobs as guards, “solving two problems at once.” They’re afraid he’ll start saying, “John Paul was great, but most of that happened after I explained the Gospels to him,” and “Sure, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize, but only after I explained how people can think fast, slow and at warp speed. He owes me everything.”
Don’tcha just love watching Republicans eat their young? Especially when they’re asking some of the same questions (and providing what they think to be answers) that people on the Left are?
I do want to be careful here, because describing someone as “nuts” is as subjective as it is insulting (and I’ll leave that to Mitt Romney’s surrogates). Gingrich clearly has some significant issues…which only means that he, like any of us, is a thoroughly fallible human being. Does (or should) concerns for Gingrich’s state of mind rise to the level of questioning his fitness to serve as President? That might seem a dangerous leap to make, but it’s not as if we’ve haven’t witnessed the damage that can be done by a President possessed of a precarious state of mind (Richard Nixon).
I don’t know how to go about raising the issue of Gingrich’s sanity or lack of same (Though Republicans evidently do). It might just be that Gingrich is merely a flamboyant personality with boundary issues and an over-cooked sense of self-worth. Or, if you believe Peggy Noonan, he could be a megalomaniac with a messiah complex and impulse control issues. Combine that with a questionable sense of ethics and an apparent unwillingness to hold himself to the same standards he demands others adhere to, and a reasonable person is going to have questions.
One obvious reason for not supporting Gingrich is the undeniable reality that his primary allegiance is to himself and his own self-aggrandizement. I don’t know if Gingrich is “nuts” (I’ll leave that question to Romney’s whisper brigade), but I do know that this country can’t afford a President possessed of a messiah complex and an inability to control his impulses. That, and his pledge to nominate John Bolton as his Secretary of
War State, should be more than enough to raise serious questions about his judgment and perhaps his fitness to serve as President.
Perhaps Americans should be asking themselves a very simple question: Do we want a President possessed of Gingrich’s mercurial personality to be making decisions about whether or not America goes to war?
I rest my case.