You may have heard that Mitt Romney called Newt Gingrich "zany" in an interview with the New York Times -- a rather incendiary charge that's now burning its way through the political Web. A quick sampling:
- "A sharper knife came out Wednesday, with Romney expanding his personal attacks on Gingrich. He started with the New York Times, saying of Gingrich,'zany is not what we need in a president.'" (Politico)
- "Mitt Romney escalated his criticism of Newt Gingrich's temperament Wednesday, calling the former House speaker 'zany' in an interview with the New York Times." (CNN.com)
- "During a series of interviews while fundraising in New York, Romney told one media outlet that 'zany is not what we need in a president' and another that Gingrich had 'an extraordinary lack of understanding of how the economy works.'" (Associated Press) And there's plenty more where that came from. So would it surprise you to learn that claiming Romney called Gingrich "zany" is barely half-true?
In fact, this is a media-created controversy. The Times put the word in Romney's mouth, and Romney, as maladroit a candidate as I've seen in my lifetime, repeated it. If this little incident backfires on Romney, he surely deserves some of the blame. But, anyway, let's roll the tape. If you would like to watch, start at about the 3:00 mark. Times reporter Jeff Zeleny is asking Romney about Gingrich:
Zeleny: He has big ideas sometimes, and it seems that he is sort of rapid fire with his thought. Do you think that the American voters are getting enough of a sense of what he might do? Or is there some worry that as president, should he win, that there might be some zany things coming from the Oval Office?
Romney: Well, zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It's great on talk radio, it's great in the print. It makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader. And a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability.
So there you have it. Zeleny, not Romney, called Gingrich "zany," and Romney went with the flow rather than disagree. If you keep watching, you'll see Zeleny ask Romney whether he considers Gingrich "unstable," a reference to Romney's use of the word "stability." Romney does not rise to the bait.
Despite what actually happened, the Times story, on which Zeleny takes the lead byline, begins like this:
Mitt Romney, his presidential aspirations suddenly endangered by Newt Gingrich's rapid resurgence, is employing aggressive new arguments in an effort to disqualify Mr. Gingrich as a credible choice to Republicans, calling him "zany" in an interview on Wednesday and questioning his commitment to free enterprise.
Nor is there any further clarification deeper in the story. And it gets worse, as columnist Gail Collins says of Romney, "Zany really is a pretty unusual word. Why do you think he chose it?" Well, gee, Gail -- he didn't. You only write two columns a week. Would it be too much to ask that you at least watch the edited version of your own paper's interview?
At this hour, there's no way of knowing how the "zany" matter is going to play. Will Romney be characterized as looking strong or desperate? I don't want to make excuses for Romney. He should have sensed danger, he failed to do so and now he may pay a price for it.
But he didn't really call Gingrich "zany."