12/17/2011 04:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 16, 2012

The Glitter of the Ballroom

Perhaps for obvious reasons of predictability, dependability and reliability, we used to expect our leaders to conform to convention. And the boundaries of convention were formed by political society, history, and tradition. Thus, presidents should be sufficiently ambitious to seek office, but not so ambitious as to trample on others. They should be transparent, but be able to harbor dark secrets. They should be colorful enough to entertain but not so colorful as to offend. In former days they were expected to be intelligent, but that expectation has suffered recently.

A journalistic friend recently asked if I thought former Congressman Newt Gingrich could win the Republican nomination, and the answer is yes. Given our traditional expectations of leaders and recent rigid expectations of Republican constituencies, this is somewhat astounding. He writes stories. (So do I, but mine differ a great deal from fantasy.) There are, of course, all those marriages, a steep hurdle for the family values party. The Tiffany charge accounts seem to have been discounted, more easily done in a party of wealth. And he has converted from Southern Baptist to Roman Catholicism. Taken all together, and leaving aside the ambiguous paths he trod in the treacherous groves of high-powered lobbying, any element of this profile would have been sufficient to disqualify him even two or three decades ago. Times have certainly changed.

What entrances some observers of Mr. Gingrich are his many facets and his ability to appear to be so many different things to so many different people. Cameleon analogies are too easy. The resemblance is more to the giant reflector balls in ballrooms, those with so many little mirrors that large crowds can have a brief glimpse of something like themselves as the strobe lights flash and glitter. Surely there must be more to it than that. One writer recently commented that his most recent "surge" (a poll-driven barometer) was attributable to his ability to corner the market on contempt, contempt for liberals, Democrats, Obama, Muslims, mainstream media and of course all those of us in the unwashed multitudes who are not nearly as smart as he is.

For one or two of us, Mr. Gingrich's most troubling characteristics are his attention span of a precocious 3-year-old and his latent tendency toward grandiosity. Perhaps in coming years he will learn to be able to sit down for more than five minutes at a time and concentrate and focus on a single thought. That would certainly be helpful in the White House. At present, President Gingrich would make Bill Clinton look sedate. But a president with a messianic sense of destiny and conviction that he is on earth to fundamentally alter history, with a comparison of himself to Winston Churchill (who never exhibited such a sense), is nothing less than a dangerous thing.

Churn up a mixture of messianic destiny, widespread contempt for those who differ, and an almost manic restlessness and we might soon have a nominee for president who, if elected, would provide many Americans with a sudden interest in a rather long sabbatical in more traditional and predictable democracies, especially those without nuclear arsenal.