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Fergus Cullen

Political reincarnation: What’s old is Newt again

File 1963/the associated Press

Nelson Rockefeller, right, and his New Hampshire campaign manager Hugh Gregg, greet an enthusiastic crowd at the opening of the Rockefeller’s campaign headquarters in Concord, N.H., in 1963.

NEWT GINGRICH is a historian and a futurist. Does he also believe in reincarnation? Aspects of his candidacy echo earlier presidential primaries in New Hampshire and give the feeling of political déjà vu.

That Gingrich’s marital history doesn’t seem to concern most voters is a measure of how much society has changed since 1964, when similar circumstances may have cost Nelson Rockefeller the nomination.

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The facts about Rockefeller’s divorce and remarriage are not flattering, even by today’s standards. Rockefeller, then governor of New York, divorced his wife of 31 years in 1962 after seeing five children to adulthood. Rockefeller, 54, married his second wife, 36, a year later. His new wife, Happy, had been a member of the governor’s staff. The wedding took place just one month after her own divorce, in which her ex-husband obtained primary custody of their four children. None of this helped Rockefeller with the women’s vote, though Rockefeller, like Gingrich, laid it all out there and let voters judge.

The second wedding occurred just 10 months before the New Hampshire primary and, compounding perceptions, the new Mrs. Rockefeller became pregnant. In “Making of the President 1964,’’ Theodore White describes a scene from a Rockefeller campaign stop in Hollis in which a visibly pregnant Happy sat on stage: It “might have been a gathering of Puritans come to examine the accused.’’

The late Hugh Gregg, a former governor of New Hampshire, served as Rockefeller’s state chairman. In his political memoir, “The Candidates,’’ Gregg wrote, “Rocky’s domestic difficulties were so fresh in everyone’s mind that . . . this was the single, most destructive influence on his campaign.’’ Rockefeller finished third, behind write-in winner Henry Cabot Lodge and Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater was the Gingrich of the 1964 field, capable of going a half sentence too far at any moment. “For each complication [Goldwater] has a direct and simple answer,’’ White wrote. “His candor is the completely unrestrained candor of old men and little children.’’

When former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu recently attacked Gingrich on behalf of Mitt Romney for Gingrich’s opposition to the 1990 budget deal that broke President George H.W. Bush’s “no new taxes’’ pledge, it wasn’t the first time a strong-willed New Hampshire governor went beyond a campaign’s control. In 1976, the Reagan campaign tried to keep ardent supporter Governor Meldrim Thomson on a leash. Reagan’s team wanted to lower expectations, mindful that eight years earlier, Gene McCarthy technically lost the New Hampshire primary with 42 percent but succeeded in driving President Lyndon Johnson from the race.

Thomson sabotaged the plan by publicly predicting an outright win for Reagan by a margin of at least five points. When the ballots were counted, Ford topped Reagan by 1,587 votes, 50.1 to 48.6 percent. Instead of looking weak like Johnson, Ford looked better than the comeback kid. “Reagan would have won, I’m sure, if Thompson had kept his mouth shut. That’s what killed us,’’ Gregg, who was Reagan’s state chairman, told me in a 1994 interview.

Gingrich’s appeal is reminiscent of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns. It’s not hard to imagine that the Tea Partiers backing Gingrich today would have been Buchanan voters 20 years ago. Buchanan, like Gingrich, was a quick-tongued orator gifted in the art of the sound bite. He too ran low-budget campaigns driven by media coverage.

Both depart from conservative orthodoxy. Buchanan assembled an anti-establishment coalition of newcomers and outsiders, some harboring deep resentments. Gingrich’s team has similar qualities, a motley collection from the Island of Misfit Toys.

His largely inexperienced New Hampshire staff includes stranded former staffers for Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty. Former Senator Bob Smith, defeated in a primary in 2002, has returned from Florida to campaign for Gingrich. Former state party chairman Jack Kimball, forced out three months ago, finds himself in the Gingrich camp.

Buchanan received 37 percent of the vote in 1992 and 27 percent when he won the primary in 1996. Gingrich would be happy if history repeats itself that way, too.

Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.
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