Brain dead

Marc Cooper is director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Journalism.

At this point in the recession, you’ve probably become familiar with the term “zombie bank,” a financial institution that can continue operating, thanks to government support, even though its debts outweigh its assets. Now it’s time to add a related descriptor to our public discourse: “zombie politician.” The term describes a political figure whose electoral worth is less than zero and whose ideas are totally bankrupt, but who can continue to offer up political guidance because he’s kept on life-support by media-generated oxygen.

Or if you prefer a shorter definition of a zombie pol, try this one: Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich’s political career flat-lined a decade ago when he resigned as speaker of the House under a cloud of dishonor, disgrace and corruption. Yet the dead man again walks among us. Flip on a cable news show, a Sunday talkfest or C-SPAN, or crack open the national section of a major newspaper, and Gingrich is seemingly everywhere, positioned as no less than the leading opposition figure to President Obama.

Strange, because the Republican Party certainly didn’t elect him to this position. Indeed, some of today’s top GOP leaders -- among them Sen. Lindsey Graham and House Minority Leader John Boehner -- were among the Republicans whose disillusionment with Gingrich’s speakership in the fall of 1998 left him little choice but to resign his post.


That’s right. Gingrich was swept off the scene not by Democrats but by the very same GOP he now would love to lead. By overplaying the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Gingrich so mismanaged the political moment that his party actually lost five House seats in the 1998 election -- the worst midterm outcome in nearly a century for a party not holding the White House. This catastrophe came in the wake of a tsunami of national disgust after Gingrich effectively shut down the federal government in a budget dispute, telling reporters that he was playing hardball with President Clinton in part because of having been “snubbed” on Air Force One, where he was assigned a seat at the rear of the plane.

Gingrich had to pay a $300,000 fine after his colleagues in the House voted to reprimand him for ethics violations. And then there was the small matter of the congressman’s $4.5-million book advance from Rupert Murdoch, whose corporation had several pieces of business pending before the House over which Gingrich presided.

As speaker, he railed against Clinton’s immoral behavior, but then it became public that Gingrich had handed his wife a divorce ultimatum in 1981 while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery (an illness Gingrich shamelessly exploited during his 1978 House campaign). Published reports at the time said his ex-wife had to depend on church donations because Gingrich wouldn’t provide adequate support for her and his daughters.

Six months after that first divorce, he remarried and stayed married until an affair he was having with an aide 23 years his junior led to yet another divorce. Gingrich was carrying on with his aide, he later confessed, at the same time he was pushing for Clinton’s impeachment because of his dalliance with Lewinsky.

After his forced resignation in November 1998, Gingrich disappeared into a little-noticed think tank he founded for himself.

But now, like the living dead, he is back. And his deeply polarizing and frankly fringe rhetoric is unchanged. Sonia Sotomayor is a “racist.” Non-Christians are “pagans.” The evil federal government should outsource national ID cards and medical registration cards to FedEx, Visa or MasterCard.

The good news: Gingrich is never again, I’d bet cash money, going to hold elected national office, let alone become president. He is a dead man talking.

The bad news (at least for Republicans): He’s acting like he’s already been elected.


It’s not really surprising that the leadership vacuum in the battered, rudderless Republican Party should be filled so quickly by a professional blowhard like Gingrich. Pompous self-promotion is his specialty -- even in his political afterlife.

Nor can we really blame the media for his untimely resurrection. Which news director in his or her right mind wouldn’t focus the cameras on a walking, talking zombie? What a show!