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Newt Gingrich: The Ed Wood of the GOP Primary

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Back in February, during an appearance on the Rich Stevens Show, Newt Gingrich had a typically modest suggestion for who could play him in the story of his life: "Brad Pitt ... why not?" Why not indeed. However, a cursory glance at his campaign thus far -- particularly the past week -- suggests a more appropriate silver screen dreamboat for the role: Johnny Depp. As Ed Wood.

Wood, of course, was the notoriously terrible Z-movie auteur behind such "classics" as Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, played to perfection by Depp in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic. What made Wood such an endearing figure, and such a memorable protagonist for Depp to sink his teeth into, was his boundless optimism -- and, out of necessity to maintain that optimism, a total sense of delusion as to his actual skill and the quality of his work. That same sense of delusion seems a key component of the current Gingrich campaign; it might very well be all the gas that's left in its engine.

Depp's Wood is so over the moon that he's actually making a movie, he has no idea that what he's capturing is swill; every take, no matter how badly botched, prompts an enthusiastic "That was perfect!" If a crew member objects that, say, they might want to do another take, since the lumbering sidekick bumped into the doorway and made the fake wall shake, Wood has an immediate response: "No, it's fine. It's real. You know, in actuality, Lobo would have to struggle with this problem every day." Gingrich, likewise thrilled to fulfill his lifelong destiny to lead a nation, always has a reply as well; his campaign's decision this week to cut a third of their staff and sit out most of the remaining primaries isn't an admission of failure, but a recalibration to focus on a "big choice convention" in Tampa. "And at that point," Gingrich insisted Wednesday, "I think most Republicans agree that I would probably do a better job debating Obama than any other candidate. And I think it becomes a very viable, very lively campaign." Lobo's clumsiness isn't a mistake, it's reality! Gingrich's campaign isn't a failure, it's a distraction we'll all forget about after he wins the convention!

When Gingrich's first formal week of campaigning was dominated by snickers over his criticism (and subsequent retraction of said criticism) of Paul Ryan's proposed Medicare overhaul, his response was positively Woodian: "It's going to take a while for the news media to realize that you're covering something that happens once or twice in a century, a genuine grass-roots campaign of very big ideas. I expect it to take a while for it to sink in." Very big ideas! No room for the little fumbles the news media gets all hung up on! Kids as janitors, organizational snafus, lobbying accusations -- all as inconsequential to his extraordinary, ideas-based campaign as the obviously cardboard headstones in Plan 9's cemetery. "Nobody will ever notice that," Depp's Wood protests. "Filmmaking is not about the tiny details. It's about the big picture."

Throughout its run, the Gingrich campaign has been hard to get a handle on; at first, it seemed primarily a business venture, a way to get more people to turn out for book signings and DVD sales, which are where the money is. But after Gingrich got his "turn" as the front-runner (say what you will about its endless duration and soul-crushing messages, the GOP presidential primary has been very polite), his megalomania took over -- never forget, this is the man who considers himself "a mythical person," who once declared, "People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz." Why, yes, he realized, I would be the greatest president of all time, and that certainty became his operating principle (no matter what the voters, pundits, and delegate counts said to the contrary). Gingrich is a human being capable of rational and intelligent thought (albeit primarily when not trying to get elected for anything), so it's tempting to think that he knows the campaign is in the toilet, and is simply choosing to put on a brave face and ride this gravy train as long as he can. I don't think this is the case. I think he really believes that he's gonna pull this thing out, just as Ed Wood looked at Plan 9 with glee and pride and said, "This is the one. This is the one I'll be remembered for." And when Gingrich's Tampa-centered "big choice convention" strategy fails, he'll probably take the loss much as Wood took a distributor's reaction to one of his films: "Really? Worst film you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better."

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