CNN, Jan. 19, 8:10 p.m. ET
The televised presidential debate is glitz on the outside and tedium within. After I got to Charleston, S.C. for the CNN-hosted GOP primary debate, I spent my downtime vouching for reporters who'd been accidentally cut off the press list. My chivalry won them some cramped seating and dodgy Wi-Fi in front of a screen that was playing the debate, which was happening a few yards away. I remember that the failed Americans Elect campaign, which had raised $35 million to run a third party candidate, had two seats in the hall, and that this was ludicrous.
And then the debate began. John King's first question to Newt Gingrich concerned an interview Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne—his second, the one he had while speaker—had given to ABC News. Gingrich blew up, but masterfully. It was like watching a controlled demolition bring down a creaking skyscraper.
"Everybody here has known personal pain," said Gingrich. He walked all over the meek King, who semi-apologized and said he was asking about another network's story. "They're attacking the governor,” said Gingrich, referring to Mitt Romney, “they're attacking me. I'm sure they'll probably get around to Sen. Santorum and Congressman Paul. I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
To those of us in the press room, this was pure buncombe—and clearly, a debate-ending masterpiece of an answer. "This is over," said a confident reporter at the table behind me, and he was right. We media hacks had never taken Gingrich seriously when he bashed us. This was a guy who'd reinvented himself, post-Congress, as an all-purpose pundit who made a point of living just 20 minutes from the Sunday show studios. Now he was leading a crusade against the media?
He was. The Gingrich debate presaged his South Carolina victory. For the first time, the state's Republicans had rejected the establishment candidate for the one who yelled the loudest. Gingrich faltered after this, but the conservative base's anger at the media would spike again and again all year. Its final surge came right before the general election, when Republican pundits inaccurately claimed that the media was skewing polls against Mitt Romney. The Gingrich surge was just the first and feistiest burst of id.