Maureen Dowd almost "gets it" – but not quite

In her New York Times op-ed column of December 3 2011, Out of Africa and Into Iowa, Maureen Dowd gets off some great lines and comes close to a moment of political insight before backing away from such dangerous territory.

I am anything but a fan of Newt Gingrich but neither am I impressed with an argument against him that begins with ad hominem attacks.

Newt Gingrich\’s mind is in love with itself

proclaims Dowd as the first line of the piece. Well yes, I suppose that is an accurate statement to say that Gingrich thinks well of his intellectual capabilities. But Dowd should know, as someone who has spent so many years around politicians and politics, that the same statement can be made of a significant percentage of those who run for office (and perhaps an even larger percentage of those who succeed in that endeavor.) Unless people are engaged in politics for purely venal reasons they basically have to believe that their abilities / qualities are, in at least one crucial area, superior to those of their opponents. Even the venal candidates must believe they are better at something (even if is just the belief that they are better at stealing or lying and getting away with it) than than those they are running against.

So, Dowd\’s catchy opening line really reduces to the simple statement, \”Gingrich thinks he is smart,\” or \”Gingrich thinks he is clever\” to which the response of this reader is \”yes, so what? In what way does that make he different from hundreds of other people in Washington today?\”

Dowd goes on to accuse Gingrich of being a \”promiscuous\” thinker without making it clear exactly what a \”promiscuous\” thinker might be. She states he is not a \”serious\” thinker, again without clarifying exactly how one recognizes the seriousness of another\’s thoughts. Perhaps she means he believes things that she doesn\’t take seriously. Perhaps she means that he doesn\’t spend his time talking about the things she thinks a serious person should talk about.

These same charges are made by pundits of the right about politicians on the left and pundits of left about politicians on the right. They have no essential substantive critical value.

Gingrich, Dowd goes on to tell us, \”plays air guitar with ideas\”–another charge that feels witty and cutting and yet reduces to vague meaningless when one examines it closely.

Dowd does attack Gingrich on more specific matters when she discusses his 1971 Ph.D. thesis “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo 1945-1960.” It isn\’t clear from this op-ed whether Dowd herself has read the entire thesis or is responding to it based posts and comments on blogs. Gingrich wrote that thesis forty years ago and it would not be surprising to find that his opinions and conclusions may have evolved over the intervening time. The thesis was written by an academic who had never held a serious electoral or administrative position. It would be interesting to read the thesis in its entirety and then sit down with the former Speaker and ask him just that \”have your opinions or conclusions changed now that you have held high political office?\” I won\’t get a chance to do that and in the middle of campaigning season he would be foolish to offer anyone that opportunity.

What Dowd argues is that the thesis established Gingrich as an anti-anti-colonist and given his statements in the intervening years nothing has happened to suggest he has changed his opinions on colonialism in Africa. It is at this point that she makes the pithy charge

He’s Belgium. The poor are Congo.

And this is where Dowd demonstrates that she doesn\’t really get it.

Gingrich isn\’t Belgium, although he may be analogized as a senior colonial administrator. He is wealthy but he is not a plutocrat. He is a well paid and powerful functionary but he is not the locus of power. The 0.1% of are Belgium.

And while the poor are Congo so are the middle class and the working class and everyone but the 0.1% Congo. The richest of the rich are treating Americans and American resources as King Leopold treated the resources of the Congo.

Dowd, like so many American political pundits is being distracted by the show of partisan campaigning from even looking to see whose hands are actually on the levers of power.


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