WASHINGTON — During his rhetorical bomb-throwing days in the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich once dissected the seemingly innocent movie "Forrest Gump" and turned it into a scathing critique of President Bill Clinton, Democrats and liberals.
"In every scene of the movie in which the counterculture occurs, they're either dirty, nasty, abusive, vindictive, beating a woman or doing something grotesque," Gingrich, then the House minority whip, told a Republican women's group. "It's important to remember that in that period, Bill Clinton was on the side of the counterculture."
That take is vintage Gingrich circa the 1990s: loaded with his favorite vividly demeaning personal-attack adjectives — "grotesque" in particular — and aimed at reducing his opponents to the lowest common denominator.
But with his rise to the top of the 2012 Republican presidential field, Gingrich's campaign insists that was then and this is now. He's matured, they suggest. Gingrich is portraying himself a new Newt, keeping in check the put-downs and the pithy acid tongue that helped him ascend to become speaker of the House from 1995-1998.
"I may be more capable of calm discipline than I would have guessed," Gingrich told Yahoo News last month.
Veteran Gingrich watchers aren't so sure.
Whether it's dismissing Palestinians as "an invented people," blasting his own party's Medicare overhaul plan as "right-wing social engineering," asserting that the nation's first African-American president exhibits "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," or telling Occupy Wall Street demonstrators to "Go get a job after you take a bath," they doubt that Gingrich has really changed his stripes.
"Old habits die hard," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at New Jersey's Rutgers University. "The problem with Gingrich has been his lack of impulse control. You can't take a pill to deal with that."
Joe Scarborough, a former House Republican from Florida who served under Gingrich, said he's seen enough of the past and present Newt to conclude that he hasn't changed.
"He's a bad person when it comes to demonizing opponents," Scarborough said on his MSNBC "Morning Joe" program last week. "When he puts on that political helmet he becomes a very bad actor. When Newt Gingrich calls good people like (Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius, compares her to Josef Stalin, a guy who killed 30 million people, and when that's the norm for Newt, it's not a nice person."
Political history is filled with officials who used sharp tongues and condescension as weapons. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani routinely rhetorically assaulted and belittled rivals. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel became a Washington legend during his time in the Clinton and Obama White Houses and the House of Representatives for his hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, verbal explosions. Some House members from both parties live in fear of a snarky, condescending cut from outgoing Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Gingrich, through his oratory, didn't invent the coarse, dysfunctional strain of politics that currently afflicts Washington, but he may have taken the formula and perfected it, observers say.
"He's made a unique contribution as far as language goes, and he's set the standard for rhetorical excess," said John Pitney Jr., an American politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "He's always had a penchant for overstatement; one of his favorite words is 'radical.' He tends to cast the conflict in apocalyptic terms. Then there's the GOPAC list."
In 1996, Gingrich, with the help of political consultant/pollster Frank Luntz, issued a memo to Republican candidates through the GOP political action committee offering tips on how to "speak like Newt."
The memo offered some of Gingrich's favorite words and phrases to describe opponents: "radical," "bizarre," "sick," "pathetic," "corrupt," "cheat," and "anti" — as in anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child or anti-jobs.
"Newt Gingrich can be mean and nasty and is happy to rip someone's heart out to gain," said Frank Sesno, director of The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN Washington bureau chief. "Newt Gingrich boxes with the gloves off. He's never been out there under the premise that he's here to make friends."
Indeed, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only 35 percent of Americans view Gingrich favorably. His favorability rating in the poll was 13 points lower than Obama's.
But the only polls that matter to Gingrich's campaign right now are the ones in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, which show him leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and the rest of the Republican field.
"He can be condescending, he can be insulting, he can be belittling," Sesno said of Gingrich. "I think that's what's appealing to a lot of people. They are so angry at Washington for what they see as inaction and corruption that they want to blow it up. ... That's what's giving him traction."
It works for Judson Phillips. The founder of Tea Party Nation, a tea party social and political website, likes the sharp jabs that Gingrich takes at opponents and the media.
"I'm looking forward to him going head to head against Obama — you could put that on pay per view," Phillips said. "Obama and his people will have no problem about going after their opponents. I want a candidate who'll bring a gun to a gunfight."
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