Trouble for "Big Men" of a certain age

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks to local party activists, Thursday, May 19, 2011, in Waterloo, Iowa. Gingrich says his campaign is alive and well despite an angry response by some Republicans to earlier comments he made about a House Republican plan to dramatically change Medicare. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Newt is old. That's one way to explain why Gingrich fell so hard so fast. Chris Matthews was struck by Newt's Nixon-era dog whistles, like "food stamps, Detroit, all the codes," saying they reminded him of his grandfather's "language of yesteryear."

"You know, my grand pop used to call Connie Mack Stadium 'Shibe Park' 30 years after they changed the name," Matthews said Wednesday. "I don't know, who is the last politician you heard ragging on food stamps? Last time you heard somebody talking about food stamps? A while ago. Reagan, maybe?"

Of course, it's really Republican policy itself that's caught in a time warp again—in addition to calling for the end of Medicare, the House-passed Paul Ryan budget would cut the food stamp program by almost 20 percent, as Katrina vanden Heuvel discusses here

Just seeing Newt on the stage tells you the GOP has slipped over the event horizon. Gingrich hasn't run for office since 1998, so he doesn't get, as John Heilemann told Matthews, that in "the age of blogs and twitters and tweets and Facebook… you can't play some of the kinds of games that you could play as recently as 10 years ago. You get called out now."  

All that's true of course, and zinging pols for their outdated technological and pop cultural knowledge has been an American indoor sport for half a century. (Talking about stale references, can the news media please stop repeating the long-since disproven "Newt is smart" meme? "We know he'd bring intellectual rigor[!] to the debate," said No Labels' Mark McKinnon this week. "He's smart, and he has ideas, serious ideas," observed NBC's Nora O'Donnell. Didn’t Newt lose his few remaining pointy-head points when he deemed the “idea” that Obama is a Mau Mau-loving Kenyan anti-colonialist "the most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama"?)

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Yet as we all know, Newt has problems beyond being pickled in aspic. And they are problems he shares with a whole line-up of other Big Men of a certain age (between 62 and 67) who, within days of each other, have fallen steeply and suddenly from their former glory. I mean, what a couple weeks it’s been: Newt, Trump, Schwarzenegger, and (now former) IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn—did somebody send around a chain letter demanding self-immolation from vain Boomer Bad Boys of the 1990s?

In each case, the tragic flaw that led to the pol’s quick demise had been obvious for a long time: All four suffered from an outsized ego that made them feel bulletproof. Trump's extreme narcissism was played as polo field hijinks by the tabloids for decades; Gingrich's self-aggrandizing recklessness has destroyed his political career twice already; in France, DSK’s well-known womanizing even earned him a chapter in a bestselling book, Sexus Politicus (Albin Michel, 2006); and Arnold's penchant for groping women erupted into headlines during the final days of his first campaign for governor in 2003.

With 10 marriages among them, all four Bad Grandpas apparently felt they could woo women and the press at the same time. I can’t pretend to plumb the French media’s notions about l’amour fou—Strauss-Kahn appeared to be sailing towards the French presidency until he tried his charms on a maid in a fancy New York hotel room. But the three Americans weren’t bulletproof just because they filled their mirrors frame-to-frame.

Each thought he had a lock on the media in some way, a lock developed over years of mutual appreciation. In Trump’s case, the link was an obvious one, an ad buyer who often got favorable coverage, eventually becoming a popular Richy Rich character for the big city tabs and a national figure with his own TV show (and, starting with his birther blather, a regular Monday guest spot on Fox & Friends). Similarly, financial arrangements that Arnold struck with American Media, Inc. before he became governor helped keep the gossip at bay. Publisher of The National Enquirer and Star, AMI aquired some body-building magazines for which Arnold signed on as “executive editor.”   

And Newt? Newt’s been buried in the oyster of right-wing media so long he’s one of their pearls—with a half-million-dollar tab at Tiffany’s to boot. It was during his time as Speaker of the House that Republicans helped engineer the forest of exemptions and deregulations that made Rupert Murdoch’s Fox possible in the first place.

So do these last few weeks suggest that the media have rediscovered their sense of power and propriety? Or is there simply a point at which men cease to be roguishly charming and become embarrassingly buffoonish instead? 

Bio: Leslie Savan blogs for The Nation about media and politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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