WASHINGTON -- I didn't think it was possible, but Newt Gingrich has disappointed me. He has managed to be more cynical and more incendiary, more irresponsible and even less honorable than I had imagined him to be.
And my imagination gave him plenty of credit for pettiness, indiscipline, deceit and an overweening arrogance. I knew him to be capable of stunning chutzpah and cheap sensationalism. I've seen his over-the-top attacks on rivals, his situational ethics and his disregard for commonplace proprieties.
Still, I believed Gingrich had a healthy respect for the nation's growing commitment to racial equality and a historian's understanding of the fragility of that commitment. I thought he regarded the advances brought about by the civil rights movement as a significant contribution to national greatness, a way of advancing our claim to American exceptionalism.
But last week, at the annual convention of the Georgia Republican Party, he played an ugly race card, stooping to suggest a reprise of the old poll test for voting -- a tactic once used by white racists to restrict the franchise. He said, "But maybe we should also have a voting standard that says to vote, as a native-born American, you should have to learn American history. You realize how many of our high school graduates, because of the decay of the educational system, couldn't pass a citizenship test?"
With that, Gingrich dived head-first into the slimy trough of the Southern strategy, wallowing in a tactic that seeks to stoke the fears and misapprehensions of whites still uncomfortable with black advancement. He hugged tightly one of the GOP's most repugnant campaign ploys: voter suppression.
Many Gingrich critics would argue that there is nothing new about his use of racially coded rhetoric and not-so-subtle nods to the prejudices of ultraconservative whites. They point to his attacks on welfare during the '90s, when he co-authored the Contract With America, which called for slashing benefits to poor, single mothers. (In his Georgia speech, Gingrich also called President Barack Obama "the most successful food stamp president in American history.")
I remember that period, too, but I didn't view Gingrich's enthusiasm for curbing welfare as prima facie evidence of racially tinged politics. After all, conservative Republicans have always been skeptical of the social safety net.
During that same era, Gingrich worked to save the Republican Party from its growing reputation as the last resort of mossbacks and racists. He foiled a GOP effort to launch a full-scale assault on affirmative action. In 1996, he said the Republican Party should spend "four times as much effort reaching out to the black community to ensure that they know they will not be discriminated against, as compared to the amount of effort we've put into saying we're against quotas and set-asides."
But that was a Gingrich who was in a position of power as speaker of the House of Representatives. He was getting plenty of press. He could afford to be temperate.
Lately, as he flirted with a presidential bid, he's been tempted to make criticisms of President Obama that range far beyond standard conservative fare. Last year, he endorsed a view of Obama's politics as "Kenyan" and "anti-colonial," a statement that was as ridiculous as it was racist.
But even that didn't go to the core of one of the country's greatest historical failings: disenfranchisement of black voters. For decades after the passage of the 15th Amendment, Southern states did everything they could -- violence, intimidation, ridiculous "tests" -- to keep black citizens from exercising their right to vote. As recently as the 1960s, the black franchise was largely restricted in the South.
And Gingrich, who likes to brandish his academic credentials, knows that. It's shameful to hear him suggest that voting should be restricted on the basis of a test.
Given his considerable baggage, it's unlikely Gingrich can claim the GOP nomination for the presidency. He should have had the grace to try to go out with the better part of his legacy intact.