Perusing the Wall Street Journal's review of "Double Down," an insider book about the 2012 presidential campaign, I learned that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie considered Newt Gingrich "the worst human being he had ever met in politics."
This is a serious charge, especially considering the source: Christie has met some very unsavory characters in his time. As a federal prosecutor, he obtained convictions against 130 corrupt public officials in New Jersey. That's a whole lot of bad people in politics. Christie currently works in Trenton, where the mayor, Tony Mack, is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges. (The New Jersey Legislature isn't exactly full of angels, either, though it's not the sewer it used to be.)
Can Gingrich really be worse than the political crooks and creeps Christie has encountered in New Jersey?
No one did more to make the U.S. Congress an agent of dysfunction and object of contempt than Newton Leroy Gingrich. From his perch in the House of Representatives, he began spewing poison in the early 1980s and didn't stop until his exit in disgrace in 1999. Gingrich didn't legislate; he attacked. He called Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill a "thug." When Jim Wright took over the speakership, Gingrich immediately began an assault, continually repeated: Wright was "thoroughly corrupt" and a "crook" -- "the most unethical speaker in the 20th century."
Gingrich didn't know much about Wright. But he understood how easily the news media could be manipulated. "The number one fact about the news media is that they love fights," he said. Confrontation begets attention. And attention was something Gingrich could exploit and transform into influence.
Democrats accommodated Gingrich's lust for power. After decades of ruling the House, they had grown complacent, sloppy and, yes, corrupt. Just not in the ways Gingrich alleged. There is a remarkable quote from him in John M. Barry's brilliant study of Congress, "The Ambition and the Power," that perfectly illuminates Gingrich's method.
With Gingrich's help, the media had just wounded Wright, disclosing a shady-sounding book-publishing deal that eventually brought him down, destroying his speakership and helping to pave the way to Gingrich's manic rule of the House. (Gingrich was eventually brought down with the help of a slightly shadier book deal.)
"The book was just lagniappe," Gingrich said. "I was going to proceed regardless, but it certainly helped."
Whether Wright was genuinely corrupt or what any specific wrongdoing might have entailed was of little interest to Gingrich. The end was to destroy Wright. The means were flexible.
Back in 1978, speaking to college Republicans, Gingrich delivered the kind of message designed to inspire youth in public service. "One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty," he told the youngsters.
Gingrich never failed at that task himself. His muddled philosophy -- he was adamantly in favor of small government except when he was just as passionately in favor of big government, moon-based or otherwise -- and his lack of interest in legislation diminished his legacy. But his recklessness, contempt for political opponents (and seemingly most other humans) and personal viciousness live on in the wreckage on Capitol Hill.
As Barry wrote, "His strategy was to use the House floor and his position as a congressman to influence the media and, through it, the world outside Congress . . . . It was a destructive, not constructive, force which he hoped to generate."
Gingrich's destruction was rewarded with big corporate contracts and a gig on CNN. Think about that the next time you hear a corporate CEO or network pundit lamenting the death of comity and decency in the capital. To his credit, Christie exercises more discerning judgment. Maybe he'd make a good president.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)