What Is Tim Tebow Asking of God?

So much is interesting about Tim Tebow, or more precisely, what he exposes about our wildly conflicted culture.

For those who do not follow professional football, and do not manage to stumble into it via culture wars, I’m talking about the young Denver Broncos quarterback who prays on his knee before every game, and wears his Christianity on his sleeve.

Now there’s an image that sets fire to secular comfort. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “prayer is not supposed to be a public event, designed to display your holiness in front of the maximum number of people.” And Sullivan, to his maximum credit, followed up by posting several defenders of Mr. Tebow.

Tim Tebow, apart from being a now-winning quarterback with many now-quieter converts (irony note), is an evangelical Christian. That is, he ardently wants souls saved for Jesus. That’s his schtick. In the 2009 BCS Championship Game, he wore John 3:16 on his eye paint, and 92 million people searched “John 3:16” on Google during or shortly after the game. The NFL doesn’t allow eye paint.

Before he became a winning quarterback (and still, in some quarters), the ugliness directed at his public prayer was astounding. You’d have thought the man flashed his penis. And this is truly a marvel.

Public displays of one’s religion, orientation and sensibility are common. Muslims are defended for engaging in their requisite prayer in public, gays are defended for being themselves in public, and Occupy Wall Street has been a massive, and massively defended, public display of in-your-face politics.

So what if Tim Tebow kneels to pray? Why the hate? Is it just that easy to hate Christians — while we defend pretty much everything else people wish to express in public? At this bizarre juncture in human history, with routine public splattering of social networking strangeness, is it really fair to criticize Tim Tebow? I’ve seen Christians and Atheists do vastly more disturbing things on Facebook.

And what is it, after all, that Tim is saying to God? Too many people imagine he’s seeking to put God on his side in a football game. I don’t think so. I think he’s saying, thank you God for this blessing and this opportunity, thank you for being you and being with me, whatever happens.

I don’t share Tim’s faith. But I respect his sincerity, his humility, and not least, his goodness. The man contributed his signing bonus to his charity, works with the W15S Foundation for children with life-threatening diseases, partners with Cure International to build a hospital in the Philippines, and works with “Drive for Education” to give back in the Denver community.

It’s easy these days to get worked up about people who make a lot of money. I’d like a lot of them to be more like Tim Tebow. And I’ve got no problem with the fact that he prays in public.


“No, not that movement,” he wrote cleverly.

What a remarkable gem from the New York Times Sunday Book Review — in this case reviewing two books about the Ku Klux Klan:

Imagine a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety, its origins shrouded in a peculiar combination of manipulation and grass-roots mobilization, its ranks dominated by Christian conservatives and self-proclaimed patriots, its agenda driven by its members’ fervent embrace of nationalism, nativism and moral regeneration, with more than a whiff of racism wafting through it.

No, not that movement. The one from the 1920s, with the sheets and the flaming crosses and the ludicrous name meant to evoke a heroic past. The Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, they called it. And for a few years it burned across the nation, a fearsome thing to behold.

No, not that movement“? To what, exactly, is the good liberal professor Boyle referring with his overwrought, massively condescending and faux-cryptic allusion?

My best guess is the Know-Nothings, started in 1854 in reaction to the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants to America. They were nearly all poor, Catholic, uneducated, hungry (they were escaping a horrible famine in Ireland) and spoke with a barely intelligible brogue. It was America’s first experience with mass immigration — and America’s almost exclusively Protestant stock, at the time, wasn’t pleased. Riots, burnings and lootings erupted across the Northeast and Midwest. Opponents of immigration formed the Know-Nothing Party, which swept the Massachusetts elections and polled well across the north. Their platform promised strict limitations on immigration from Catholic countries and the teaching of Protestantism in public schools.

The Civil War was a bit of a burp in the northern hate, what with the hordes of immigrants pressed into war service immediately after their arrival at Ellis Island. The Know-Nothing Party (so called because they began as a secret society and were instructed to say, “I know nothing” when asked about their secret meetings) dwindled, immigration from other Catholic countries surged, and “nativism” settled into local disputes.

While I believe I’ve teased out Professor Boyle’s clever allusion, I’m a bit troubled by this fact. Most Americans know nothing about the Know-Nothings. You have to be a pretty geeky student of history to pick up on the Know-Nothings with nothing but “No, not that movement” as a hint.

True, the good professor is writing for the New York Times, which fairly presumes ideologically selective omniscience of its readers, but the style-book would have then dictated this cleverness: “No, not that movement, you know-nothing, I mean the Ku Klux Klan.” That is, the less (excruciatingly) obvious choice. Yeah, no, it’s not adding up.

There is another possibility. Less plausible — but at least a bit later in time, and therefore not requiring readers to pick up on a fairly obscure mid-19th century allusion with no clues. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 — a mind-boggling bigoted enactment intended not only to block Chinese immigration, but to prevent existing Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens.

Chinese immigrants built the first transcontinental railroad (and about 1,000 died in avalanches and accidents). America responded with hatred of the “yellow peril.” San Francisco created segregated schools for Asian children and western states enacted laws making it illegal for Asian immigrants to own property or open businesses.

The Immigration Act of 1924 made clear that the exclusion of 1882 applied to all Asians (and incidentally limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe, i.e., Italian and Polish Catholics and Jews).

And again, a big war was a bit of a burp in the Northern hate. China was our ally in World War II, and so Congress eased the exclusion nastiness — and simply set the quota for Chinese immigrants way low. (Japanese-Americans were huddled into internment camps around this time.)

Now that’s got the makings of “nationalism and nativism” — but I’m not sure I see any “movement” here — much less “a political movement created in a moment of terrible anxiety.” While helpfully later in time, I just don’t see the good Professor Boyle’s allusion pointing fruitfully to the horrible racism against Asians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So whatever could he mean by “No, not that movement?

“Is the black church the answer to liberal prayers?”

That’s the Washington Post headline of an interesting and somewhat disturbing Thanksgiving Day piece by Lisa Miller. The column follows with pronouncements from African-American theologians and academicians who focus on “justice,” and Jesus as a class warrior, and this provocative gem from Obery Hendricks, a Bible professor at Union Theological Seminary: political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

Miller first cites James Cone of the Union Theological Seminary, who authored Black Theology and Black Power (1969) with inspiration from Malcolm X, and who in turn inspired Rev. Jeremiah Wright — conspicuously without supplying anything Cone said or thought (so let me): “Whether the American system is beyond redemption we will have to wait and see. But we can be certain that black patience has run out, and unless white America responds positively to the theory and activity of Black Power, then a bloody, protracted civil war is inevitable.” [Black Theology and Black Power, p.143.]

Now there’s a plan, and certainly an answer to (someone’s) prayer: marry the left to ninja super-liberal class-warfare Jesus, hint at civil war, and for good measure, call some conservative Christians not really Christians at all. That should trigger a gush of electoral success.

This shallow pastiche of Black Liberation Theology, coupled with the suggestion that it offers political guidance to the 21st century left, misunderstands religion and politics at many levels.

First, the sweeping use of “black church” should give pause — as though “black church” means something ideologically uniform (or uniform in any other way for that matter), as opposed to churches attended predominantly by African-Americans. This is precisely the religious and political stereotype of African-Americans to which so many African-Americans and others deeply objected when Rev. Jeremiah Wright was portrayed as typical of the “black church.”

There is a political contingent on the right and a political contingent on the left who want very much, for separate reasons, to pigeon-hole the “black church” as angry black-Jesus-warriors against “oppression” and “rich people.” And that’s simply not the reality of the range of black churches in America.

The right contingent and the left contingent are equally vapid, using African-Americans as a uniform political symbol — at a moment in history when African-Americans are emerging in mainstream American perception as diverse in the same ways as Americans are diverse (thanks in no small measure to the emergence of credible black conservatives who successfully weather the storm of opprobrium from disgusted liberals and their own communities).

Second, the facile equation of historical African-American oppression with the modern grievances of the left should give pause. The horrible history of slavery, racism, lynching, ghettoism and oppression in America confers upon African-Americans a unique narrative. Similarly, the Holocaust — the genocidal slaughter, ghettoism, and oppression of mid-20th-century Europe and elsewhere — confers upon Jews a unique narrative. African-Americans and Jews are understandably resistant to lots of piggy-backing on these narratives — particularly when the piggy-backing comes from loud political groups that suffered nothing even remotely approaching slavery or genocide.

Even the African-Americans and Jews who are themselves part of loud political groups advocating for some modern notion of “justice,” I would surmise, privately wince at specious conscriptions of their narratives. Thus, for example, have many African-Americans (and others) chafed at the blithe comparison of the modern gay rights movement to the 1960s civil rights movement. Gays “may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community,” says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C. area.

And there’s no better example than the deep blue state of Maryland, controlled by a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature, and poised in early 2011 to become the sixth state to sanction gay marriage. The measure passed the Maryland Senate 25 to 21, and moved on to the House of Delegates, traditionally even more liberal on social policy. And there it floundered. A significant factor was the vocal opposition of African-American pastors — that “black church” that Lisa Miller sees as a wellspring of solace, validation and justice narration for the modern left.

My point is not to plunge into the complicated and on-going politics of gay marriage in Maryland (Maryland will likely approve gay marriage, and with support from some African-American pastors, and my support as well) — but more narrowly to highlight the error of marrying “the black church” to any current liberal “justice” agenda.

Third, any marriage of religious doctrine, left or right, to current political disputes should give pause. It is perfectly appropriate for people of faith — or even cynical admirers of the political possibilities of faith — to ask, “what would Jesus do?” in the grip of a personal moral choice. It is not appropriate to ask “how would Jesus vote?” on the stimulus package, bank bail-outs, auto industry bailouts and labor union windfalls, deficit reduction measures, and tax policy.

The historical Jesus didn’t take a single “political” position (in the sense we are discussing) except arguably the brilliant and much-debated answer to Pharisees seeking to trap him on tax obligations: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And they were amazed and went away (Matthew 22:22).

To be sure, Jesus was a radical Jew — but his radicalism was religious and personal, not political or statist. Indeed, the notion that Jesus was some sort of justice warrior on behalf of the poor and downtrodden — and that government welfare programs are therefore “what Jesus would want” — precisely misunderstands the difference between the religious and the political, and between the personal and the public/governmental. Jesus felt enormous compassion for the poor and the oppressed, and acted personally on that compassion — as, it is fair to say, he would urge all of us to do. But he never advocated a power-structure program or any governmental redistribution initiative — not because he opposed or supported such statist programs, but because they were utterly irrelevant to his religious and personal message.

Do politics to your heart’s content, he might have said, but first do right in your personal life. Jesus had nothing to say about our politics — and much to say about how we treat other actual human beings in our life and whether we thereby honor God.

And thus we come full circle to Black Liberation Theology — its deep resonance in the 1960s and its inaptness as an “answer” for liberals in the 2010s.

When Rosa Parks was ordered to give up her bus seat solely because she was black, that was an immediate and deeply personal offense, a direct and shameful disrespect. African-Americans and their allies very naturally put Jesus on their side against such steady personal mistreatment. Using power arbitrarily to humiliate a human being would send Jesus into orbit — and law and politics conspired at the time to institutionalize precisely that repetitious personal humiliation.

Black Liberation Theology was one (among several) responses to that repetitious personal humiliation — and black theologian Cone’s threat of a “protracted civil war” — in the context I have now described — against that repetitious humiliation was a fair and angry response to human beings horribly misbehaving — directly and personally — toward other human beings. Indeed, Black Liberation Theology at the time was an honest conditional, a noble plea to white America to do the right thing — with “right” cast in sincerely Christian terms — or else. And “or else” simply meant the last resort of a people directly oppressed and personally humiliated several times a day.

The mistake, the disconnect between 1960s Black Liberation Theology and Lisa Miller’s wistful and overreaching resurrection of Black Liberation Theology fifty years later, is precisely captured in Obery Hendricks’ insistence that political conservatives who call themselves Christians but oppose government programs that help the poor are not, in any meaningful way, Christians.

That insistence isn’t tethered to any defensible solidarity with Jesus. Jesus did not make, and would not have made, any pronouncements about “government programs” — much less the religious credentials of those who debate the merits of “government programs.” Government programs have nothing whatever to do with the personal righteousness with which Jesus passionately concerned himself.

“Government programs” operate in the political realm, and their merits are fairly debated in political terms — chief among such terms being the extent and duration of public assistance, whether the assistance includes a work incentive (or disincentive), and whether the assistance encourages the superfluity of fathers and the disintegration of families. Take whichever position you wish, but do not invoke Jesus — from the left or the right.

Our politics are pointed and sullied enough without misappropriating the Gospels and excommunicating Christians of different political orientations.


On Occupyosity and Making Real versus Illusory Differences

I got sucked into Occupyosity by a Facebook friend’s posting of a particularly obnoxious article entitled, “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” To read the article is to reminisce fondly about those days when we were 14 and 15 and 20 and absolutely certain, so abundantly clear in our early mushy work-in-progress brains, that we grasped the core truth, and that our doddering misdirected contemptibly careful and uncommitted elders didn’t even have rudimentary sense, much less our vision!

Mmmm, yes. It was a feeling so fine I would wish it for everyone, momentarily. “Getting it.” That’s the fascinating power trope of youth speaking to entrenchment — all manner of entrenchment, politicians pursuing naked self-interest, parents stuck in their eye-rolling, pathology-perpetuating ways, bosses being intractably stupid — oppressors all! And the poor Masses, swooning to the insidious fiddles of nefarious Power Elites — oh my the pitiable Masses, those dim-witted enablers of oppression who let this vast stupidity avalanche over their own interests, well, they’re almost as bad as the oppressors. They almost forgivably just don’t get it. Like we do. Mmmm, yes…

Back when I Got It, I was liberal, supremely confident, and certain my Dark Foes lacked the basic synapse that connected thinking and Compassion. And by Compassion, I meant, you know, Caring Deeply about a set of politically significant Abstractions. And by thinking, I meant that thing I did in abundance that set me apart from the dunderheads who couldn’t see the abject stupidity of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. I was teaching in Kenya during Reagan’s reelection campaign, and swaggeringly bet my possessions with a transient American tourist that America would never reelect that buffoon.

Which is to say, I was a wincingly ridiculous liberal — and I know that none of my liberal readers here is that kind of liberal (except for the three in my sidebar survey who say they are so extremely liberal they almost come full circle to fascist, unless they were kidding). Do not feel obliged to defend yourselves. But I do see a bit of my old self in Occupyosity. But just a bit, as I will explain.

First I hasten to add, I see intermittently much to admire in Occupyosity. I see individuals dedicated to mediating conflict. I see individuals articulately decrying their comrades’ anti-Semitic outbursts and other hate rants. I see surges of sincerity, genuine appeals to economic fairness and focus on jobs. I see capable fundraisers (a war chest of several hundred thousand dollars). I see individuals focused on cleanliness and spontaneous sanitation departments. I see individuals focused on feeding — their own and the surrounding homeless. I see individuals dedicated to literacy, and even a “people’s library.”

I admire each of the foregoing individuals, and would have much to learn from them in riveting individual conversation. I just wonder why they’re not simply doing what they do so well — why these talented individuals aren’t very busy raising money, cleansing and ordering, feeding, and teaching in their own communities — and making a measurable difference they cannot possibly make as simpleton trespassers? Why are they finally doing what they do well in consort with a rag-tag aggregation of petty (and occasionally felonious) criminality and political vapidness?

Bias and serious personal deficit alert: I don’t do groups. I love professional football but will never, ever, actually go to a stadium and endure my species behaving that way. I like it slickly mediated on television, thank you — and even then, the crowd noise vexes me. I believe, with faux-mathematical precision, that people gathered in numbers greater than seven behave exponentially more mindlessly and recklessly with each additional person. I believe, with faux-sociological precision that groups, over individuals, are inclined in predictable relation to their numbers to the greatest atrocities — including the atrocity of embracing massive injustice, which they would never do as individuals — for the sake of silly solidarity with their makeshift identity-pumping group.

“Mob,” the very word, makes me shiver. From the Latin mobile vulgus, meaning vulgar hand-held devices and the spectacularly brazen rudeness committed millions of times a day by owners of these diabolical grace-suckers… oh wait, another subject, I digress. Mobile vulgus, the “gathered transient commoners,” the “mob,” as our language, with its gift for Anglo-Saxon grunts, shortened the Latin phrase. Which makes me scurry to Edmund Burke for solace, for a measure of relief against the Jacobin fury and orgy of self-righteous slaughter. Mindless anger and literal carnage acquire lethal force in numbers. Genocide — the ultimate human horror — germinates and cannot gather force without mobile vulgus.

Human beings are wonderful, ever less so in the aggregate.

Now you know my visceral suspicion of Occupiosity. As it was my visceral suspicion of the Tea Party. Collections, both, of interesting people, squandering their charm in service to their comforting mobs. But then I saw very little of the contempt for common manners in Tea Party gatherings. Quite the contrary. More like PTA gatherings writ large. A very few bad actors to be sure, but by and large well-mannered people, roughly organizing around a coherent grievance about our over-reaching government, who never broke a single ordinance. And then I saw the fury and orgy of leftist contempt for them, the vicious bile and ridicule heaped upon them, and I actually felt sympathy for a group I didn’t particularly like.

I still don’t like the Tea Party and I don’t like Occupiosity, such is my abiding distaste for determined gatherings of too like-minded people. But I am struck by the astounding hypocrisy of people who celebrate Occupiosity while slamming the Tea Party — these twin burps of challenging times. Like, to come full circle, the Seattle-based lad who authored “What Exactly Is It that Occupy Critics Don’t Get About Civil Disobedience?” The Tea Party — or “teabaggers,” as he offensively prefers, waved “their trademark poorly-spelled signs,” and got more media attention than his favored labor-union-driven rally about health care. And then Occupiosity got just as much media attention, simply because the Occupiers committed “civil disobedience” (that is, they “shut down a goddam bridge”), and he’s pissed, whereupon he defends, in Saul Alinsky style, the attention-getting prowess of “shutting down a goddam bridge,” and bludgeons the people who might wish the Occupiers would simply behave a little better.

What exactly is it the lad doesn’t get about “civil disobedience,” as that hallowed term is now commonly understood in our political parlance? Gandhi and Martin Luther King promoted deliberate, non-violent disobedience and violation of manifestly unjust laws, and did so with stupendous honor and self-sacrifice. I am a conservative today with enormous respect for some of the liberals of yesteryear, what they did and how they did it, and how much we owe our modern civil polity to their steadfast courage against entrenched injustice.

But I have little patience for people piggy-backing willy-nilly on that legacy who fundamentally misunderstand it. Occupiosity isn’t protesting any particular unjust law the way Rosa Parks so courageously did. I’ve yet to hear about any specific law the Occupiers are challenging. They’re just protesting “economic injustice,” or “corporate greed,” or “capitalism.” And in the service of that vastly vague objection, some of their numbers are breaking the law — even with substantial latitude to do their thing.

To be sure, police have run the gamut from responding well to badly. Let it be a given that when you “occupy” places that aren’t yours, when you “shut down a goddam bridge,” you tend to invite a bit of push-back, even conflict. When you disrupt neighborhoods, the neighbors can get testy. So instead of critical inquiry into what the Occupiers want, we get a media frenzy of dramatic sub-plots involving rapes, murders, and pepper spray. None of this gets us beyond the level of shallow spectacle. None of this gets us beyond a juvenile celebration of “idealism” and its discontents (or, for the older wistful spectators of the spectacle, a Big Chill-like nostalgia — and by the way, my pseudo-sociological conclusion regarding groups larger than seven comes, entirely arbitrarily, from the seven old friends in The Big Chill).

And I keep coming back to those conversations in my head with the Occupiers, the conversations that remain imagined because of my admittedly idiosyncratic distaste for large gatherings. Okay, if you’re not sure what you specifically want, how about doing what you do so well in your own community? How about making a small but real and meaningful difference instead of wasting your time and abundant community resources thinking you’re making some media-lusty and empty “big” difference by simply Occupying?

Awareness of dying

There is a point in living when you become aware of dying. I don’t mean aware of a disease or any particular ailment. I mean a personal awareness of that dread thing that happens to everyone, an intimacy with the fact of decay that God graciously spares us for most of our lives, despite the fragility of all life always, a grace that gives us the blessed giddiness of imagined immortality — or at least a vomitously happy stretch of time with only blurriness on the other end.

And then time and sentience become in-your-face finite. That stupid vapid phrase — “nothing lasts forever” — it’s true!

The largest and smallest things are finite. Our planet is finite. Our sun and solar system are finite. In five billion years, our sun will exhaust itself, give up, explode, and grow so large that it reaches and destroys the Earth, before shrinking to an ember dwarf of its former self. And even before that, the sun’s steadfastly growing luminosity will extinguish all life on Earth. We could be destroyed by light in as little as a billion and a half years.

Our galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, is finite. We are on a collision course with Andromeda, a much larger galaxy likely to ravage our galaxy and become something new. Even our universe is finite. At some point in the far distant future, all stars finally run out of fuel and die. Many of them persist as smoldering embers for a long time, but life is unsupportable. Sentience disappears. As if we never were.

It’s difficult, to put it mildly, for me to accept this prognosis. The thought of true nothingness, of everything that has been or ever will be, becoming permanently lost in stellar old age sends me reeling into lust for religion. God please give me heaven. Even hell. Anything but nothingness. Any place that remembers. Because the greatest achievement of the universe is memory.

Shortly before my great aunt Dorothy died, she answered a standard social question on the telephone in a disturbing way. “How are you doing?” And she said, with that husky, confident voice I had always known, “not good, Ken, not good,” and she said some other things I don’t remember. But I do remember being struck by her uncomfortably emphatic violation of protocol. We’re always fine. La-la-la, and then, okay, maybe we die, but we’re always fine. And you? Fine, thanks.

Not until later did I understand my great aunt’s words as the simple honesty of someone who knew she wouldn’t celebrate the next Thanksgiving. Even after she died, I felt troubled by that exchange — because I hadn’t become aware of dying. And I couldn’t comprehend how anyone else might confront it.

A little while later, my father with his faltering heart confided that he didn’t look to the future anymore. He found himself thinking mostly about the past. And then he died. Suddenly. The doctor reportedly said he gave up. And I vaguely understood, for a man who had endured a triple bypass and had his rib-cage stretched wide, maybe he just couldn’t accept a life that involved more of that.

My father giving up made a strange sense to me, even though I beat on his grave and wept. My father looking mostly to the past took me longer to understand. My father had become not only aware of dying, but intimately aware of his own dying, just as his aunt Dorothy had. They knew it was over. I sort of understand them now.

Perhaps the strangest thing we do, as life, is die. It makes no sense to be so fulsomely what we are, and then not.

It is a tiny absurdity against the vast absurdity of the universe dying. Every fiber of my being tells me it cannot possibly be that everything simply blinks out someday. Perhaps there is hope in the tiniest and densest point yet conceived by modern physics: the singularity, the true core of a black hole, which physics has yet to fathom.

Because it could be that new universes burst out of the singularity. It could be that our own universe is a big bang belch from a previous singularity. It could be that we keep happening, that we do not finally die after all. Perhaps we could even remember.

And just maybe my father is in heaven, or hell, or in between, or spiritually recycled. Any would give me comfort over the alternative. And if this is the origin of religion, it comes from our deepest place.

Republican ephemera, Part 4: Even Newt’s baggage has baggage…

Newt Gingrich has been quite the Republican statesman lately, shrewdly applauding his fellow candidates at every opportunity and attacking debate moderators. And his poll numbers lift him from the presidential obscurity to which he seemed destined a mere month ago to Serious Contender status. (Americans viscerally detest debate moderators.)

A Fox poll of Republican primary voters gives Gingrich 23%, Romney 22%, Cain 15%, and the rest single digits. A CNN/ORC poll of Republicans and independents who lean Republican gives Romney 24% and Gingrich 22%. Quite the surge for the gentleman from Georgia.

Debate-weary Republicans dream of the Great Debate between Gingrich and Obama, and what the savvy Speaker and architect of the ’94 Republican resurgence could do to the guy who was 33 in 1994, and hadn’t yet begun his political career. Meanwhile, Democrats salivate at the prospect of Republicans choosing Newt Gingrich to run against Barack Obama, and their Playbook for such a scenario is thick with optimism.

Gingrich has three categories of baggage — and by “baggage,” we mean stuff that depresses voters, or more particularly, depresses voter enthusiasm and turn-out (or, alternatively, inspires enthusiasm or turn-out for one’s opponent).

1. Gingrich has high name recognition precisely because he was the guy who reintroduced America to divided government. When the Republicans took over the House in 1994 — the first time since 1954 — it was due in no small part to the raging partisan energy of Newt Gingrich, co-architect of the Contract with America, and back-bencher bomb-thrower for years before that success. There followed abundant legislative energy in pursuit of the Contract with America, an unpopular determination to impeach a popular president, and a sad stand-off with President Clinton that could have been a significant victory for fiscal responsibility, but ended up being about Newt Gingrich feeling personally snubbed by the president, and a government shut-down that Democrats successfully painted as Gingrich’s petulance. Gingrich’s name recognition derives substantially from his passionately partisan stature in the 1990s — not a recipe for attracting independents.

2. Fast-forward to the 21st century. Gingrich strives to acquire counter-baggage. Serious counter-baggage, not simply moderation of his views. He flips 180, and flips hand-in-hand with iconic Democrats who were as passionately partisan for the opposite camp as he had been for his. He holds hands with John Kerry about global warming, cuts a global warming commercial with Nancy Pelosi, holds hands with Al Sharpton about education reform, supports a George Soros candidate in a special election, holds hands with Hillary Clinton about health care, and even applauds the individual mandate. And most recently, he calls Paul Ryan’s plan to save Social Security “right-wing social engineering.”

And now he’s trying to sound conservative again. I could make a case that Newt Gingrich is a smart man with views that evolve intelligently with the times — but if the question is who has flip-flopped more, advantage Romney, indeed, advantage all of the Republican candidates over Gingrich. And if the question in the general election is who has been more steadfast to their stated principles, advantage (barely) Obama. Gingrich’s reinvention of himself may be commendable — but it is serious baggage in the Republican primaries, and still baggage in the general election.

3. And then there’s the personal baggage. Should it matter? Probably not. But did it matter to Gingrich when he participated in the assault on President Clinton for his tawdry trysts with Monica Lewinsky and others? Yes it did, even though Gingrich was having an affair with his now third wife at the time. And then there’s the disputed treatment of his former wives, which would ideally be irrelevant, but will not in a general election with minions dispatched to slam the Republican candidate by whatever means possible. Similarly his status as the only Speaker of the House to have been disciplined for ethics violations. I’ve taken a look at those ethics charges — 84 charges, of which 83 were dropped — and the one that stuck, something about failure to seek legal counsel and providing inaccurate information, seemed thin to me — but we’re talking about “baggage.” And in the general election, Gingrich would simply be “the only Speaker of the House to have been disciplined for ethics violations.”

It wouldn’t appear from this essay that I admire Newt Gingrich — but I do. I cannot help but admire a man who ended a 40-year Democratic Party monopoly on Congress, a man who properly shares credit for some of the achievements of the Clinton administration and who deserves credit for preventing some of the mischief Clinton would have done but for divided government.

But that doesn’t mean he should, or could, be president. If Republicans are serious about winning the White House in 2012, then this latest Anybody-But-Romney uptick by Newt Gingrich should promptly go the way of Bachmann, Perry and Cain. Mitt Romney can beat Barack Obama. I don’t see anyone else who can.

On the Cain gaffe, the Perry gaffe, and what they do and don’t mean about Republican politics

Herman Cain performed poorly on Monday — as all candidates will at some point(s), who slog through the juggernaut of a hotly contested presidential primary.

Cain’s answer underscores a fatal weakness in his candidacy, despite his popular strengths of straight-shooting authenticity and business common sense: this is a man who simply hasn’t thought much about America’s role in the world or the complex question of what to do, or not to do, with America’s military might.

Cain’s answer is not, however, so indefensible, it is not, in my opinion, comparable to Rick Perry’s more telling gaffe in forgetting his own far-fetched talking point, and it is certainly not the evidence I see touted in so many liberal comments and posts of an intellectually bankrupt Republican field.

Here is what Herman Cain’s answer should have been (and I base this reconstruction on what he actually did say, so inartfully, not simply on what my ideal notion of a politician should have said), and something like what I think his campaign position will come to be, if his campaign recovers:

Which part of President Obama’s Libya’s policy are you talking about? The decision to bomb the country? The decision to bomb and put boots on the ground without congressional authorization? The decision to denounce Qaddafi even though the president had pointedly declined to denounce the tyrants in Iran, who were a far graver threat to the interests of the United States? The decision to supposedly turn over operations to NATO and Europe? The fiction that NATO somehow meant American non-involvement? The failure to articulate any clear American goal, and therefore simply to let events play out, which events could have played out very differently — and the ultimate consequences of which we still do not know?

It’s impossible to give a simplistic yes or no answer to your question about agreement, or not, with President Obama’s “Libya policy” — and not merely because the president obviously had access to abundant classified information that none of us yet has, but also because there are multiple elements, and still-moving and unresolved targets, in that “Libya policy,” whatever it is.

To ask me or anyone outside the privileged circle of highly classified information, what would you have done differently in Libya? generates an artificial and unlevel playing field. But I can tell you what I would have emphasized from the beginning: who are these opposition forces? What ideologies guide them? What political, religious and social goals? Are they true supporters of democracy, as the jilted protesters in Iran, whom this administration quietly allowed to be crushed, appeared to be? What happens if they take power? Is it better than Qaddafi? Can American seriously influence the winners in a post-Qaddafi Libya?

And I can tell you that I would have sought to articulate clear American goals, with which the American people could agree or disagree, rather than trying so hard and haplessly to have it both ways: to remove American fingerprints when all the world could still see American fingerprints. That’s a transparently insincere foreign policy — a policy designed to take specious credit for good results and retain specious deniability for bad results, and that’s unworthy of American greatness.

Well, okay, it’s got a tiny bit of the flavor of what my ideal notion of a politician should have said — but if you listen closely to Cain’s ham-fisted response, he’s essentially saying, wait a second, Libya? not a single policy with which one can simply agree or disagree. And that’s already an astute instinct, even though he failed, unpresidentially, to process the flaw of the question quickly enough.

Now contrast that with Rick Perry’s gaffe — where he simply forgot his own massively pandering talking point. He didn’t receive a question — “Governor Perry, what departments of the federal government would you abolish if you were president?” — he started the silly point himself and just couldn’t finish it. And the point was not a technical or complex one. It was very nearly as basic as political rhetoric gets, especially for a man who has authored (?) a book about the many sins of the federal government.

So I don’t have any sympathy for Michelle Malkin’s miscomparison, “Cain makes Rick Perry look like a Mensa president,” or James Carville’s misdirected swipe that Cain “made Rick Perry look like Henry Kissinger.” These are the breezy sound-bites for people with no interest in context.

And now that we’re done debating who’s less qualified, between Cain and Perry, to be president of the United States — the frothy game the unprecedented Republican debate circus enables (while we put aside the gaffes and missteps of candidate and President Obama, never mind Vice President Biden, outside any debate or gotcha’ context) — perhaps it warrants a moment of reflection on how generally well-spoken, articulate and well-informed some Republicans and Republican candidates are.

Neither the Cain moment nor the Perry moment highlight the gifts of the Republican opposition to the Obama presidency. But neither do they bespeak some basic Republican deficit in tackling our nation’s challenges. Much less do they warrant the gleeful schadenfreude of so many on the left who seize upon these two moments for evidence (as I have seen so tiresomely repeated in columns, posts and comments) that all Republican candidates, even all Republicans, are stupid.

95% of the authors of these savaging columns, posts and comments have not actually watched the Republican debates, as opposed to taking their favored source’s description of the debates and then issuing sweeping conclusions about intelligence. (Oh my the irony.) It must be great fun to be in the third-class peanut gallery, watching the second-class peanut gallery watching what happens, and opining so serenely on incompetence.

What is not great fun, what is grueling and exhausting beyond the capacity of most in either peanut gallery to comprehend, is running for president in a hotly contested primary with multiple debates, press conferences and public appearances. And yet we’re seeing consistently good and nimble performances from Mitt Romney, who quickly encapsulates complex issues as well as I have ever seen in presidential debates, surprisingly steadfast performances from a very well-informed (but baggaged) Newt Gingrich, consistent, if a bit ideologically obsessed, straight-talk from Ron Paul, a refreshing focus on the content and mechanics of problem-solving from Herman Cain, an impressive grasp of some issues (and then not others) from Michelle Bachmann, a bit petulant but often trenchant observations from Rick Santorum, a kind of floating-a-bit-too-far-above-it-all but plainly well-informed Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry (who candidly runs on his record as opposed to his debating skills).

There is much with which to agree and disagree in all of these performances, and much to contest as to matters of emphasis, tone and presidential stature. But it’s the Republican party doing the serious and exhausting debating — that thing we purport to celebrate as a critical fixture of democracy (not being, as we all imagine ourselves not being, ideological automatons).

So, a little respect please, between easy guffaws at the gaffes.