I spent last weekend absorbed in The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’ new novel about three Brown students in the early 1980s. The most captivating character in the book is the manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead and its most compelling passages depict the ravages of his illness. When he doesn’t take his proper dose of lithium, Leonard becomes a superhero in his own mind, overflowing with self-confidence and charisma, before he inevitably crashes. Eugenides has protested, rather unconvincingly, that his portrait of Leonard is not drawn from David Foster Wallace, who suffered from depression and killed himself in 2008. But the real-life character I kept thinking about while I was reading wasn’t Wallace. It was Newt Gingrich.
We’re quick to describe politicians whose views we find extreme or whose behavior seems odd as “crazy,” and perhaps anyone who runs for president in some sense is. But I’ve long wondered whether Newt Gingrich merits that designation in a more clinical sense. I’m not a psychiatrist, of course, and it’s impossible to diagnose someone at a distance. Without medical records that he hasn’t released, we can’t know whether Gingrich may have inherited his mother’s manic depression. Nevertheless, one observes in the former House Speaker certain symptoms—bouts of grandiosity, megalomania, irritability, racing thoughts, spending sprees—that go beyond the ordinary politician’s normal narcissism.
One possibility is that Newt suffers, and benefits from, the milder affliction of hypomania. In his 2005 book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America, John D. Gartner, a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, argues that this form of extreme optimism explains the achievements of everyone from Christopher Columbus to Andrew Carnegie. Gartner writes: “Hypomanics are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas. They think, talk, move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions 'just doesn't get it.’” Hypomanics lack discipline, act on impulse, suffer from over-confidence, and often lack judgment.
Sound like anyone you’ve seen on Fox News recently? Several years ago, Gartner himself described Gingrich as “our last great hypomanic figure.” There is, however, no clear boundary between the productive state of hypomania and Charlie Sheen. Often, Gingrich sounds closer to the latter. When in an ebullient mood, he grabs the nearest microphone and begins propounding the theory that only he can save the world from imminent destruction. Sometimes Gingrich is leading a revolution. Sometimes he’s preventing one. It doesn’t matter. Only he can do it.
This messianism has been the one constant refrain in Newt’s shifting intellectual and ideological repertoire of Toffler futurism, values conservatism, Six Sigma, big government conservatism, Total Quality Management, American exceptionalism, small government conservatism, and so on. “I want to shift the entire planet,” he told the Washington Post as a Republican backbencher in 1985. "And I'm doing it.” Or, in another example from 1994: "I think I am a transformational figure. I think I am trying to effect a change so large that the people who would be hurt by the change, the liberal machine, have a natural reaction ... I think because I'm so systematically purposeful about changing our world.” Another comment from that same year: "People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz."
The most vivid image of Newt’s Messiah complex came out of the GOPAC scandal. For those too young to remember, Gingrich gained control of this murky non-profit in 1986 and turned it into a promotional vehicle-cum-political slush fund. It was an earlier incarnation of Newt Inc. GOPAC ran into trouble raising tax-deductible money to fund a nominally academic course called “Renewing American Civilization,” which Gingrich taught at the School of Business Administration at Kennesaw State College, in Kennesaw, Georgia. The House Ethics Committee investigated and criticized Gingrich for, more or less, lack of discipline, acting on impulse, and lack of judgment. He was fined $300,000 for lying to Congress about various matters. In its final report, the Ethics Committee appended internal GOPAC documents, including some of Newt’s handwritten notes from the period leading up to his big 1994 victory.
These notes were written by someone who appears to be, not to put too fine a point on it, completely bonkers-bananas-barking-batshit loony tunes. (Click here for a slide show of some of the best pages with the warning that Gingrich’s handwriting is difficult to read.) There are cosmological renderings, with Newt, as the central “System Designer,” warming the radiating orbits of his staff, supporters, constituents, and the public. There are crazed lists of things to do, like get more exercise, watch his diet, and "articulate the vision of civilizing humanity and recivilizing all Americans." There are megalomaniacal mission statements like: “In order to renew American civilization we need new language to explain our new vision to arouse new human and financial resources to create a new party system so we can defeat the Democratic machine and transform American society into a more productive responsible, safe country …”
On one legal pad, Gingrich scribbled out his own "primary Mission."
—Advocate of civilization
—definer of civilization
—Teacher of the rules of civilization
—arouser of those who form civilization
—Organizer of the pro-civilization activists
—leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.
Nearly two decades on, Gingrich is still prone to lapse into this kind of egomaniacal spree. A few days ago, he told Sean Hannity, “I helped Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp develop supply-side economics. I helped lead the effort to defeat communism in the Congress.” In this self-regarding state, the new Republican front-runner benefits from immunity to contradiction—gliding effortlessly from advocate to opponent of health insurance mandates, amnesty for illegal immigrants, or action on climate change. Gingrich is every bit the flip-flopper Romney is, but so confident in his views at any given moment that he comes off as steadfast instead of malleable. Bullets-can’t-hurt-me Newt can depict his work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as his warning that they would destroy the financial system. He can lobby without being a lobbyist, divorce multiple wives while advocating traditional values, and denounce political corruption while epitomizing it.
Is Newt bipolar or unipolar? Does he ever crash? In fact, he has described what sound like episodes of depression, though it’s hard to say for sure. Describing the dissolution of his first marriage, he told the Washington Post in 1989, "You talk about crying! The spring of 1988, I spent a fair length of time trying to come to grips with who I was and the habits I had, and what they did to people that I truly loved. I really spent a period of time where, I suspect, I cried three or four times a week.” Every so often he is glimpsed in full sulk, such as in 1995 when he blamed the government shutdown on his rage at being given a bad seat on Air Force One. Overthrown by his own caucus in 1998, he said he had no interest in presiding over a bunch of “cannibals.” The extra-marital affairs, the Tiffany bills, his disappearance at key moments—all are possible hints about Newt’s darker side.
I don’t mean to make light of mental illness, which is a tragic thing and more effectively treated today than in the era depicted in The Marriage Plot. But if the Republicans nominate Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney, they really do need their heads examined.