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Cohen: Charging to the cliff

  • (JENNIFER KOHNKE / Tribune Media Services)

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 present 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.”

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