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posted: 10/9/2013 5:00 AM

Charging to the cliff

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My drill sergeant, a volatile martinet, once burst into our barracks at something like 4 a.m. to announce that in all his days in the Army, he had never seen things so bad. He had served in Korea, so I figured he knew something about bad. That morning, though, "bad" came down to the sloppy state of the latrine. Sheer terror stifled my laugh, but the man lives on whenever someone makes a mountain out of a molehill. That man is now Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich is a political polymath -- former House speaker, former presidential candidate, think-tank impresario, currently featured on "Crossfire" and author of innumerable books, some fiction, some not, some hard to tell. In The Financial Times over the weekend, he gave us his views on what's (not) happening in Washington. "The shutdown shows that Washington is working," the headline announced. Oh, what a relief.

Before showing how not working is working, Newt took some pokes at Democratic critics and, of course, the evil news media. He chastised White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer for the "viciousness" of his language -- saying Republicans were "people with a bomb strapped to their chest," for instance -- and called it "extraordinary." Exactly three sentences later, he called these Democrats "whiners, complainers and hysteria-mongers."

Gingrich then explained how a breakdown in the system is really a fine example of how it was designed to work in the first place. You would not know this from the media, he said. He cited the many shutdowns of the Ronald Reagan-Tip O'Neill era that he said no one ever mentions. Yet, I managed with just a couple of keystrokes to come up with newspaper accounts of former shutdowns, including an exhaustive list on washingtonpost.com, published almost two weeks ago.

The gravamen of Gingrich's argument is that the current shutdown is rooted in the rights established by a band of barons who extracted the Magna Carta from a reluctant King John. "That contract committed the English king to live under the law," Gingrich wrote. "It asserted that he could only get additional money with the approval of his barons." Before that, Gingrich cited George Washington's admiration for Joseph Addison's play "Cato" -- "a story of one man's courageous willingness to die for freedom."

With that, we are off at a gallop, rushing from the martyred Cato to the willing-to-be-martyred Patrick Henry -- "You can also appreciate better Patrick Henry's famous oration 'give me liberty or give me death'" -- until we arrive at the present day and our very own martyrs, the nudniks that have poured molasses into the workings of Congress. Now that Newt has explained matters, it's clear they see themselves as Spartans at Thermopylae -- holding back the onslaught of the dreaded Obamacare. Western Civ is at stake.

This is dangerous stuff. Gingrich has always had a weakness for the grandiose, but his megalomania -- all those martyrs, all those oaths -- has now infected others in his party. For their cause, which at its core is nothing less than opposition to a health insurance program, they see the black hand of socialism and have worked themselves into a considerable snit. In the name of history, they ain't moving.

The 100th anniversary of the start of World War I approaches, and it is this event, not Cato and Patrick Henry, that Gingrich ought to study. The conflict was infused with oaths and martyrdom. It killed by the many millions, made a mess of everything, and its origins -- its very cause -- are still in dispute. It is a prime example of things simply spiraling out of control, of men acting like fools, of how pride, stubbornness and a refusal to back down can produce a chain reaction of unforeseen and unstoppable events. The Magna Carta inspires but World War I instructs.

Now this silly matter over a much-needed insurance program has similarly evolved. It's no longer just about Obamacare. It's about the budget, the deficit, the federal debt and raising the debt ceiling -- the good faith and credit of the United States. Markets tremble. The world watches, appalled. Gingrich and his allies have so upped the stakes that they must keep insisting that they are right and their cause is virtuous -- as if right is a settled matter, as if right is the same as wise.

It is always fun and instructive to read Gingrich. In his Financial Times piece, he mounts his steed and sounds a trumpet for a great crusade. But follow at your peril. There's a cliff ahead.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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