‘Character is destiny’

    All the current talk about a “New Newt” – a supposedly calm, mature, disciplined Newt – takes me back to 1968, when voters were successfully suckered into believing there was a “New Nixon.” Perhaps we’d be wise to heed the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who famously warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    Now that Newt Gingrich is “surging” in the Republican race – or, more accurately, stepping over the political corpses of his clownish rivals – there is suddenly buzz about how he has become more statesmanlike, more relaxed, an altogether merrier soul than the divisive, combative, polarizing Old Newt of yesteryear. One classic example is a new article in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, a veritable clinic in credulous naivete:Gingrich is ambling along a street in South Carolina, schmoozing happily with a Washington Post reporter (he’s nice to the enemy!) as the spectators “cheer and point and ooh and ah.” Shortly thereafter, at a town hall event, he’s just a funny cuddly guy, “something of a stand-up comedian,” someone who “mildly pokes fun” at himself. All told, the Weekly Standard scribe gushes: “Who is this gregarious, upbeat candidate and what has he done with Newt Gingrich?”To best answer that question, let’s go back to 1968, when Richard Nixon was making his second presidential bid. His biggest problem was himself – namely, his two-decade reputation as a divisive, combative, polarizing politician. There was no way to erase his past, but his aides came up with a solution. They simply built a whole new image, a New Nixon to supplant the real one.As aide Ray Price argued in a 1967 memo, there was no need to change the objective reality of Nixon – merely the perception of Nixon. Price wrote that victory is “a product of the particular chemistry between the voter and the image of the candidate.” In other words, “the response is to the image, not to the man, since 99 percent of the voters have no contact with the man. It’s not what’s there that counts, it’s what’s projected…it’s not what he projects but rather what the voter receives. It’s not the man we have to change, but rather the received impression.”Sure enough, by early ’68, the press was chatting up this New Nixon who seemed to be disporting himself with none of the old bitter bile (that winter, Time magazine hailed Nixon as “the very model of dignified restraint”). But, of course, as we all know now, the real Nixon resurfaced only after he won the presidency and lost it in historic fashion.So what has the jovial, affable Republican flavor of the month “done with Newt Gingrich?” Nothing, really. The real Newt is merely in mothballs for awhile, presumably until enough Republican voters (and, who knows, maybe a sufficient number of swing voters next autumn) come to believe that what they see before them is a Churchillian statesman of gravitas and wit.The thing is, people don’t really change. We’re all pretty much hard-wired to be who we are. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, “Character is destiny.”And Newt is hardly going to shed his old skin at age 68. It was only recently that he accused President Obama of “Kenyan anti-colonial” behavior, and branded high court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a “racist,” and suggested via sleight of phrase that the Muslim-Americans who wanted to build a community center in Lower Manhattan were akin to Nazis building a shrine near the Holocaust Museum. It strains credulity to believe that a “new” Newt has supplanted the guy who (among other countless incendiary examples) contended in 1994 that Susan Smith drowned her own children because “liberal Democrats had controlled Congress for 40 years.” It’s impossible to imagine that he’s no longer the same guy who assailed Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright for taking $1500 in a questionable book deal – only to ink a $1.5- million questionable book deal for himself after he became speaker.Fortunately, not everyone is so willing to be suckered by Newt’s image tweak, nor eager to deep-six the past. As one commentator wrote last week on a prominent conservative website, “Gingrich is still the condescending, unlikable blowhard, and an odious exemplar of all that’s wrong with modern Washington.”But given the hunger of grassroots conservatives for a not-Romney candidate who (unlike Rick Perry) can speak in complete sentences and who (unlike future trivia contest question Herman Cain) can exhibit at least a passing acquaintance with policy, Newt Gingrich may well succeed in changing what Ray Price called “the received impression.”A successful image is a bit of a magic act, after all. And, as the second of Newt’s three wives remarked last year in Esquire magazine, “He’s always told me that he’s always going to pull the rabbit out of the hat.”——-Speaking of the harmonics between past and present:In my Sunday newspaper column, I listed three oldie-but-goodie speculative story lines that will inevitably resurface in 2012 – none of which is likely to happen.——-I did a Live Chat today, here. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.