For nearly a half-century, I have been slowly, surely, inexorably making my way through the entire Dickens literary corpus; all twenty novels, four short story collections, plus nine additional works of non-fiction, poetry and plays. Some, like Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, I have already read five or six times. Others, like Dombey and Sons, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, I have read only once. I've yet to crack the cover of The Uncommercial Traveller, Mugby Junction or The Frozen Deep, Dickens one and only play. But I'll get to these any day now . . .
Besides being hands down the greatest prose writer in the history of the English language, Charles Dickens was an activist who used his novels as vehicles for underscoring some of English society's most egregious wrongs. Along the way, he also managed to imbue hundreds upon hundreds of characters with the most delightfully whimsical and telling names. Among my all-time favorites are:
- Serjeant Buzfuz, a barrister in The Pickwick Papers.
- Mr. M'Choakumchild, the nasty teacher in Hard Times.
- Thomas Gradgrind, a retired mill owner, also in Hard Times.
- Abel Magwitch, the convict who was Pip's benefactor in Great Expectations.
- Newman Noggs, the impoverished clerk in Nicholas Nickleby
- Seth Pecksniff, the architect who "never built anything" in Martin Chuzzlewit.
- Wackford Squeers, the proprietor of Dothboy's Hall in Nicholas Nickelby.
- Prince Turveydrop, the dance school proprietor in Bleak House, and
- Alfred and Sophronia Laemlle, the deluded society couple in Our Mutual Friend.
You just don't run across such fantastic names in novels -- let alone everyday life -- anymore, and for one obvious reason: Charles Dickens has been dead for more than 140 years.
But wait: What about Newton Leroy Gingrich? Although the name was obviously not dreamed up by Dickens, it nonetheless does carry the onomatopoetic whimsicality for which "Boz" was famous. And if the name Newton Gingrich is purely Dickensian in sound, so too, in many ways is the man in reality. Who but a Dickens character would come up with the idea of repealing child labor laws and making 9-year olds clean toilets in public schools, or resurrecting orphanages for the purpose of housing the children of welfare recipients? (It is somewhat ironic that the one fellow who is offering the loudest, most resounding defense of Gingrich's these days has an even more Dickensian-sounding name and persona than he: Rush Limbaugh.)
Who but a creature of Dickens could be so pompously self-important or motivated by the all-mighty dollar? How about Hard Times' Josiah Bounderby and Martin Chuzzlewit's Tigg Montague? Then there is the monumental hypocrisy of the man: Gingrich is the fellow who actually sought to convict President Bill Clinton for lying about a sexual dalliance with a White House intern at the precise moment that he -- Gingrich -- was cheating on his second wife with a junior member of his House office staff . . . who would become his third wife. How reminiscent of Dickens' most hypocritical creation, Seth Pecksniff, whom Boz likened to ". . . a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there."
Then too, Gingrich is the fellow, who when asked last month about precisely what advice he gave to Freddie Mac back in 2006-07 in his role as a "historian" that was worth more than $1.6 million, responded:
"My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, "We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do," as I said to them at the time, this is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible."
A nd yet, in the best Pecksniffian tradition, in an April 2007, interview promoting the virtues of Freddie Mac, Gingrich said:
"I think it is telling that there is strong bipartisan support for maintaining the GSE (Government-Sponsored Enterprise) model in housing. There is not much support for the idea of removing the GSE charters from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And I think it's clear why. The housing GSEs have made an important contribution to home ownership and the housing finance system . . . . Millions of people have entered the middle class through building wealth in their homes, and there is a lot of evidence that home ownership contributes to stable families and communities. These are results I think conservatives should embrace and want to extend as widely as possible. So while we need to improve the regulation of the GSEs, I would be very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself."
In this, the former Speaker reminds one of Dickens' Professor Redlaw (The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain), who, visited by a phantom on Christmas Eve, is given the "gift" of forgetting the past. The gift turns out to be a curse as it is passed on to all those Redlaw touches. For Gingrich, this would be nirvana -- if everyone he touched were to forget what he did or said in the past. Fortunately, Professor Redlaw -- and his curse are pure fiction. Oh that Newt were so.
Newt Gingrich has been in the media crosshairs for so many decades that, as one pundit noted, " . . . even his baggage has baggage." Most believe that his initial impetus for getting into the race was not becoming president, but rather extending the reach -- not to mention the profitability -- of "Gingrich, Inc." Now that he is experiencing the phenomenon that goes variously by the name "Flavor-of-the-Moment," and "Anybody But Mitt," he is taking his candidacy seriously. And that is why he is spewing even more "transformational ideas" than normal; it keeps him in the headlines. Gingrich has just enough political smarts to know that in the event he actually manages to capture the Republican nomination, many of his current statements are going to come back to bite him on the rear. Statements like:
- " Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of "I do this and you give me cash' unless it's illegal."
- "I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure . . ."
- "I was not a presider, I was the leader . . . . I think Henry Clay's probably the only other speaker to have been a national leader and a speaker of the House simultaneously."
Gingrich, like Dickens' most infamous candidate for political office -- Horatio Fizkin of Pickwick Papers fame -- is never going to be elected. As the New Republic's Jonathan Bernstein notes, "He's still the same candidate with all the same baggage. He's still got his history of deviations from party orthodoxy on practically every issue, and the ethics violations, and the marital problems. He's still the same guy who wound up not being trusted at all by those who worked with him when he was in office. And he's still got a long history of just not being very popular with anyone outside of the most intense of intense partisans . . ."
I would recommend that if Newt Gingrich -- who seems to believe that he is the equal of history's great men and women -- wants to do something truly transformational, he should memorize the fictional Sidney Carton's exit line from A Tale of Two Cities, and then simply fade away .
-2011 Kurt F. Stone