The Odd Couple: Romney Vs. Gingrich

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Across town, meanwhile, half of South Carolina appeared to be packed into a Hilton ballroom that began to stink noticeably of sweat and booze long before Newt showed up. Bodies were stacked together like sardines, and the crowd slobbered over visiting dignitaries like Mrs. South Carolina, a busty blond hottie who seemed to symbolize the earnest possibilities of open marriage. "It's like free admission to Wrestlemania," chirped one attendee.

When Newt finally arrived, he plunged into a booming victory speech that used the same tired, redbaiting clichés trotted out by every candidate in the race. (Some, in fact, were the same clichés Romney used, the only difference being that Romney described Obama as taking his inspiration from Europe, while Gingrich also pointed the finger at San Francisco.)

Most ludicrously, Gingrich – virtually his whole adult life a confirmed Beltway parasite, as voracious a consumer of lobbyist money as has ever been seen in modern America, a man who in the past decade took more than 1.5 million consulting dollars from Freddie Mac alone – asserted that his victory was a triumph against the Washington insider. "So many people," he said, "feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all."

The crowd roared, and Gingrich, in a thrilling demonstration of sheer balls, moved on to insist that he'd won the race not just because he was a peerlessly brilliant television presence, but because – get this – he represented good values. "It's not that I'm a good debater," he said, "it's that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."

This, of course, was the final irony: that South Carolina – a nest of upright country church folk proud of their exacting morals and broad distrust of buggery, stem cells and Hollywood relativism – had chosen as its values champion Newt Gingrich, a man who has been unfaithful not just to two wives but also two religions (raised Lutheran, he is currently Catholic by way of Southern Baptist). We've all heard the various sordid stories from Newt's past – the divorce papers reportedly thrust in the lap of his hospitalized first wife, the alleged multiple affairs, the unpaid tax liens, the 84 separate allegations of congressional ethics violations, one of which landed him a $300,000 fine. This is a man whose campaign is being fueled almost entirely by gambling money contributed by Sheldon Adelson, a Vegas casino magnate and hardcore Zionist who handed Gingrich two $5 million checks – two of the biggest political contributions in American history. (Newt, in return, has dismissed the Palestinians as an "invented" people, remarks that Adelson reportedly approved.) There is a distinct odor of corrupt indulgence around Gingrich that may not bother sinners like you and me – but sure as hell ought to bother Southern evangelicals, who a decade and a half ago wore us all out wailing about the nearly identical personal failings of one William Jefferson Clinton, another flabby, smooth-talking hedonist who, in the pulpits of America's megachurches, was whispered to be the earthly vessel of Satan himself.

But evangelicals accounted for two-thirds of the South Carolina vote, and Newt cleaned up with them, beating Romney – a man whose genitalia has never even been rumored to be somewhere it shouldn't – by a margin of more than two to one. Even odder was the fact that this hilarious fraud was being perpetrated on behalf of a man who was consigned to the historical footnotes well over a decade ago. After all this time, it ends up being Newt Gingrich? Really? How can a guy who was kicked off the B list in the Nineties be the headline act in 2012? It's like finding out that Eric Roberts has been picked to MC the Oscars. In an era of popular revolts on both the right and left, it is sobering to think that the American power structure is so desperate, so bankrupt of fresh deceptions, that it is now forced to recycle the dregs of the dregs in its attempts to pacify the public.

The two other contenders in the race each had good reasons to be shocked by the sudden emergence of Gingrich as the standard-bearer for Republican values. Former senator Rick Santorum earned a place in American pop culture as the nation's leading pious, finger-wagging bore, the Anita Bryant of his time – he was famous for comparing homosexuality to bestiality, for opposing not only abortion but contraception, for calling it "radical feminism" when a mother worked outside the home. Yet for all his creepiness, Santorum at times has come across as the sanest, most human of the candidates, adopting the exact "Jesus, what a couple of disgusting assholes!" look that any of us would have if forced to stand on a stage next to Romney and Gingrich. Genuinely religious, with a genuinely working-class background, Santorum nonetheless was beaten senseless in the South Carolina polls, receiving fewer than half as many votes from evangelicals as the philandering Gingrich.

Then there was Ron Paul, whose unaccountable predicament was on display in the Ham House madness. As Newt stood in the packed restaurant, gloating over Romney's cowardice, a small contingent of Paul supporters crouched in the rain at a Hardee's parking lot across the street, seething over the latest slight to their candidate's dignity. "The machine would rather have Huey or Dewey or Louie or whatever," sighed Ted Christian, watching the media blitz at the Ham House.

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.