One thing is clear: Newt Gingrich is not running as Ronald Reagan, but as Margaret Thatcher, at least the Thatcher caricatured by Spitting Image, the Brit satirical television show, circa 1984. Gingrich has often been lampooned as a puppet, one in particular, the malevolent horror-film character Chucky, but Spitting Image’s Thatcher seems the more pertinent choice.
Watching the new film, The Iron Lady, where Thatcher is portrayed magnificently by Meryl Streep, it was startling how many of Thatcher’s speeches of the 1980s sounded like Gingrich’s recent ones: get those children off their duffs and give them a broom! – all that sort of boot-strap rhetoric Thatcher favored: Let everyone pay the same tax, rich and poor alike, which will end the terrible graffiti in the council house neighborhoods, etc.
The two recent films about 20th century historic figures, the UK’s Thatcher and our own J. Edgar Hoover, are, oddly, both love stories. That might not be strange for Hollywood films (though The Iron Lady has a lot of British support – even, evidently, money from the UK’s public arts program. Thatcher would be spinning in her grave, if she was in a grave.)
Both films have the star power of famous American actors in the namesake roles, and both Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio give more warm human interest to their subjects than either of the individuals possessed. They make both figures somewhat lovable, not a quality either had, or projected, in their public roles.
But love stories both films are: Thatcher and her husband, Dennis, and J. Edgar and Clyde Tolson, whatever Tolson could be called, husband, confidant, bromance boy.
I wrote a book about a trial of anti-war priests and nuns Hoover instigated (The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left) and, back in 1972, Hoover’s visage kept reminding me of a line from a popular song of the period (MacArthur Park): Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain. That’s what Hoover looked like back then. DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar isn’t up to the quality of Streep’s; indeed, DiCaprio, however he ages, still looks like a little boy in all his roles, and, for Hoover, it is a strange look indeed.
Back in 1972 Clyde Tolson and Hoover’s relationship wasn’t commonly known; journalists were more discreet then, at least nationally. You had to be in the know. Now everyone’s in the know. When I watched The Iron Lady in a Midwestern cineplex there were only six people in the theater; even if Streep wins an Oscar for her performance, the film will still be a hard sell for Americans. You really need to know a lot about the history of the period to keep anything straight (though that is true even for J. Edgar), and even if you know – and I do: I wrote a novel about the Thatcher era NUM coal-mining strike (Notts) – it remains confusing in the film.
But history is always confusing, I suppose. We’ll have to ask our historian-in-chief candidate, Newt Gingrich. Less confusing if you say everything, as Newt does, with such conviction and bravado. The less conviction one has, the easier it is to sound absolutely certain. Like most serial adulterers, Newt shows signs of being a pathological liar, one well-practiced.
One historical comparison that offers itself is that Newt is playing J. Edgar to Mitt Romney’s Clyde Tolson. Gingrich is the huffer and puffer, a la Hoover, out front, hogging the limelight, while Romney remains the tall, handsome figure in the shadows, looking confused.
Because of the unprecedented number of debates and the compressed onslaught of caucuses and primaries, the Republican primary season has elevated all its participants to the realm of the grotesque. (Just name those who have dropped out and you can see what stalwarts in that regard even the B-team was.) So, it is fitting that the most grotesque figure of them all, Newt Gingrich, is now the Republican frontrunner. Spitting Image, indeed. He’s a Hogarth etching in the flesh, but, it doesn’t much matter, since we are now all living in a post-satirical age.