There are so many misstatements, distortions, exaggerations, flip-flops, falsehoods and flat out lies in politics, and particularly in political campaigns, that when a politician displays a rare moment of unquestioned honesty and authenticity, it becomes a major news story. (Remember the obsession with Hillary's near tears on the campaign trail in '08?)
After months of the GOP presidential candidates accusing each other of lying about their own records and about the records of one another, we finally experienced one moment of unimpeachable, unadulterated honesty from a candidate. I'm not talking about the moment Newt Gingrich choked up while recalling his mother, or even the moment he let slip his real feelings about black people and food stamps. In fact I'm not talking about what Newt Gingrich said at all, but what he didn't say. When Newt Gingrich refused to call Mitt Romney for the customary congratulatory call following Romney's razor thin victory in Iowa, he said much more about what he thinks of Mitt Romney than he ever has in any debate. For that I applaud him.
Being gracious in defeat is one of those idealized character traits that we all aspire to (you know, like how we're supposed to say something nice or not saying anything at all) but few truly succeed at. We may say the right thing when our co-worker beats us in that pickup basketball game, or when our boss beats us in that "friendly" game of tennis, but how many actually mean the words, "You played a really great game" or "the better man won today" deep down inside?
And if your coworker won with help from a questionable call or two, or your boss called a certain ball out on match point that looked very in to you (and everybody else), you may want to say a lot of things to them once the game is over, but "good game" probably isn't on that list.
Political campaigns are often filled with one bad call, one cheap shot, one sharp elbow and one foul after another. Yet despite often being more bruising than any contact sport (after all, even football players don't go after each others' families on the field), at the end of play, regardless of what happened on the court you are still supposed to pick up the phone, and call the guy who beat you, possibly by lying about you or criticizing your spouse, to say "Congratulations. I wish you the best." Even though we all know you probably wish he would get hit by a bus.
Though they may have little in common politically, former George McGovern and Gingrich do have something in common. According to the New York Times, after being trounced by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election the former Senator also declined to pick up the phone for the standard concession call to his adversary. He sent a telegram instead. (Click here to see a list of some famous sore losers -- from politics, to sports and entertainment.)
(In light of the Watergate break-in, I might have opted for a singing telegram--delivered in the least favorite musical genre of the intended recipient.)
Don't get me wrong. I realize kids need to be taught the value of good sportsmanship. Frankly, that's a lesson we could all use. But another lesson we can use? Learning to play fair. You can say a lot of things about Newt Gingrich (for instance my 90 year-old grandmother who can't always remember his name calls him the one with "all the wives") but one thing you can't say about him is that he lost in Iowa fair and square. The loss may have been legal thanks to Citizens United, but I wouldn't call it fair. He -- and most of the other candidates -- ultimately lost to Mitt Romney because Romney, and those supporting him, massively out spent the others.
Whether or not the ads unleashed by the Romney campaign, and the super PACs supporting him, were inaccurate (a longstanding Gingrich complaint) is really secondary. If someone is flooding the airways with one message, and that message is drowning out all others, that message will get mistaken for fact -- regardless of whether it is or not.
Gingrich may have lost in Iowa, but he could perhaps take some small consolation in coming close to winning an unexpected new role by default: spokesperson for the movement to get rid of super PACs. Of course, then his opponents would have another example for their attack ads already going after him for his brief love fest with Nancy Pelosi over climate change, which supposedly proves that he's occasionally too nice to liberals to be a true conservative. (Yes I laughed just as hard while typing that as you did when reading it.) But it appears that before embracing his new cause with both arms, he used one arm to signal, "Well if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." A super PAC supporting Gingrich will be spending millions of dollars on attack ads aimed at--you guessed it--Mitt Romney in South Carolina.
Since Romney didn't play fair, I must say that I don't have a lot of sympathy for him regarding what's about to come his way. That doesn't mean I applaud Gingrich's super PAC. I don't applaud anyone, or any entity, that uses obscene amounts of money to hijack our political system. But I do find it refreshing that Gingrich actually took a stand in Iowa and essentially told Romney just what he could do with his win.
And he did it without saying anything at all.
Of course, a singing telegram might have worked too. Maybe a certain song by Cee-Lo Green?
Keli Goff is the author of "The GQ Candidate" and a Contributing Editor for Loop21.com, where an earlier version of this post originally appeared.