opinion web
Conservative Opinion General Opinion
Mark Shields
Mark Shields
6 Feb 2016
Cracking the Code of Campaign-Speak

"Do you ever get the feeling," asked humorist Robert Orben, "that the only reason we have elections is to … Read More.

30 Jan 2016
Is There Only One True Progressive?

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. In our polarized politics, the … Read More.

23 Jan 2016
The Man Who Drowned Democracy With 'Sewer Money'

Mark Shields is off this week. The following is a column by Joe Conason. This week marked the anniversary of … Read More.

Newt Gingrich -- Character Is Destiny


Over more than half a century of superb work, David Broder has earned the title of dean of American political reporters. So I pay attention when David Broder writes, as he did, on the eve of the last presidential campaign:

"In the years since I first met him in 1974, I have learned to take Newt Gingrich seriously. He has many character flaws, and his language is often exaggerated and imprudent. But if there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label 'visionary,' it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House."

To me, Newt Gingrich has instead always been the living, breathing example of what the great novelist Walker Percy warned against: "Do not be the kind of person who gets all A's and flunks ordinary living." If Heraclitus was right that "character is destiny," then the presidential plans of Newt Gingrich — brimming with bold, new ideas about harnessing medical technology and dinosaurs and space colonies (honest) — will turn to sawdust.

When I — and many others in this city — first met him more than 30 years ago, Gingrich introduced himself as a "Rockefeller Republican" with a deep concern about the environment. That concern may have been fueled by the fact that his opponent, Democratic incumbent John Flynt, had been targeted as one of Congress' "Dirty Dozen" by environmental groups.

Let me tell you two Newt Gingrich stories. More than 20 years ago, when Gingrich was still a rising star in the House, he and I had a conversation about national security and military service. Like so many tough-talking armchair commandos of his generation, Gingrich had managed to avoid serving in uniform.

But he spoke knowingly and confidently about war and warfare. I asked Gingrich if he had ever visited the Vietnam Memorial. No, he had not. I asked him if he knew anyone who had lost his life in Vietnam. No, he did not.

Later that week, I talked to Al Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, and asked him if he had been to the Vietnam Memorial. Yes, he had. I asked Gore, the Harvard graduate who had volunteered to go, why he had gone. He told me that because, if he had not gone, he knew personally the boys in his Tennessee hometown who would go in his place. I asked him if he knew personally anyone who had died in Vietnam, and Gore gave me half a dozen names from Smith County who had never come home. I checked the names, and Gore had been right on every one.

Character is destiny.

During the 1994 election that would result in Gingrich's being elected House speaker, Susan Smith of Union, S.C., a 23-year-old single mother, reported to police that her car — with her two sons, 3-year-old Michael and 1-year-old Alexander, in it — had been carjacked by a black man. She made tearful, televised pleas for the safe return of her boys. The case received national attention. Then Susan Smith confessed that she had in fact let her car — with her sons in their car seats — roll into Long Lake, where the boys drowned.

For most Americans, this was an incomprehensible, personal tragedy. For Newt Gingrich, on the eve of a national election, it was an irresistible political opportunity.

Here is what he said: "I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things. The only way to change things is to vote Republican."

Character is destiny. We may finally have encountered the man who "got all A's and flunked ordinary living."

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




5 Comments | Post Comment
Sir;...I love nothing better than when people begin to quote Greek philosophers... Not because I have read them all, or all any have written; but we can point to the Greece of Socrates, and Plato, and Aristotle as a time and place as much in decline as our own... I have my favorite: Aristippus, who won hands down at the game of life...He took the spit of Dionysius II in his face, and his money in his purse... He bowed before the tyrant, and said he could not help that his ears were in his feet...He lived a long life, finding nothing worth dying for... And he told his daughter to never put a price on anything she could live without...This was the best child of Socrates, and Plato was the worst...So when you quote Heraclitus, you must understand, that as a moralist that I can see another truth through your words... Character is not just destiny..Character is also ethics... That is how the word ethics is often considered, and as custom, since we get our ethics from the same place as our community, with our identity...And our ethics reflect honor or dishonor back onto our communities... After a thousand years of effort by the Catholic Church and the laws she has spawned, people no longer think of themselves as representing their communities, or of the possibility that the community can be injured by individual action... So we are left trying to teach ethics as Socrates was trying to do, out of context, and out of the milieu where ethical behavior makes sense...When you say fail at life, if I may, what you mean is fail at relationships... Now, we know Mr. Gingrich has failed at marriage... Well, Marriage is a form, and forms often fail; but then, many have the good sense to abandon the form before it ruins the relationship... Do you love the person you are married to??? Then modify the form if it becomes a problem, and keep the love, which is by its nature, Formless...Government too, is a form, and so is party, and these forms structure our behavior and our relationships... We see the world through our forms, and they give us our sense of community and ethics... We see right and wrong through our forms... So if you hear some one like Mr. Gingrich make some outrageous statement in regard to right or wrong it may be that he is seeing things not through the form of humanity, but through the form of party... Clearly, Mr. Gingrich believes form is the cure...I believe form is the illness, and the cure...I believe old forms are the problem and new forms are the fix... Mr. Gingrich, in saying people should vote republican is saying that an old and failed form is the solution that it never was in the past....People are the solution, and people are the problem... We need our forms, and it is because we cannot change who we are, or our basic needs... When we do change, it is through the medium of forms...If the form of our dwelling does not suit us, we move to another form of dwelling...If the form of our government fails us, we change the form of our government...Surely, people must first change their minds at least to change their forms; but our tendency to hang onto failed forms because they are our comfort zones, even while they heap misery upon us, is common... People let their societies be destroyed because they cannot chuck old forms and build new...In fact, their societies die, and take many with them because the people are blind to their forms... All those who thought they could teach virtue, as Socrates said: that Knowledge is Virtue, were wrong...Communities are good, and community is also morality... There is no substitute for relationships in life because ethics spring from the emotional connectedness of people...The great advantage of barbarians at the gates of civilizations is that their relationships are more healthy and genuine, and those of civilization are merely formal... We need genuine relationships...That is how people and societies succeed at life...To this end, forms are as often the problem as the solution... All forms should serve the relationship..Many do not....Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jun 13, 2009 6:29 AM
Thanks for your column, Mark. You can't hit the walk-the-walk theme hard enough with these hypocritical war mongers. They're always sneering at liberals, but when you take the country boy approach and shine a bright light on how they live their own lives while they're barking at us about how to live ours, their snouts start looking a lot like what you see on the front end of a dog in field full of cow manure.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Sat Jun 13, 2009 9:07 AM
Just great as usual;Mark,you mark the mark!
Comment: #3
Posted by: Ed Cool
Sat Jun 13, 2009 9:46 AM
Geez; ....look at how many people hate Newt..I pity the fool, but I hate the voice...I figure only dogs can hear the full range of his thoughts, yet I do not discount the possibility of subliminable messages for the right...He talks and they nod...Whatz he saying??? It hurts my ears....Maybe I should buy a super galatic translationator... Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #4
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Jun 13, 2009 7:59 PM
Re: James A, Sweeney: It's not really about how people hate Newt. It's about how those who risk nothing in their own personal lives exhort others to risk theirs to attack phony targets in a false crusade against a phantom enemy.

And, on a more sinister note, look at how O'Reilly egged on the attacker of Dr. Tillman before he was finally shot down, and how the ultra right is now pretty much openly making its case to go after none other than the President of the United States. Have a look at Frank Rich's recent column, Houston, we've got a problem, and this virus threatens the very soul or our democracy, just as it did in the sixties.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Masako
Mon Jun 15, 2009 8:39 PM
Already have an account? Log in.
New Account  
Your Name:
Your E-mail:
Your Password:
Confirm Your Password:

Please allow a few minutes for your comment to be posted.

Enter the numbers to the right: comments policy
Mark Shields
Feb. `16
Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa
31 1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 1 2 3 4 5
About the author About the author
Write the author Write the author
Printer friendly format Printer friendly format
Email to friend Email to friend
View by Month
Connie Schultz icon
Connie SchultzUpdated 11 Feb 2016
Joe Conason
Joe ConasonUpdated 11 Feb 2016
Froma Harrop
Froma HarropUpdated 11 Feb 2016

13 Jan 2012 Tolerant Americans 2012

28 Jun 2014 The Little Giant

13 Jan 2007 The President and the " S " Word