Washington - "I want to make sure every House Republican is protected from some kind of dishonest Democratic ad. So let me say on the record, any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, because I have publicly said those words were inaccurate and unfortunate."
A grateful nation thanks you, Newt Gingrich. The presidential campaign is just starting, and already you've given us a passage that will live in infamy -- forever -- in the annals of American political speech. Your delightful quotation shall be filed under "fiascos" and flagged with a cross-reference to "utter nonsense."
I can't remember when we've heard a politician plead so desperately to take back something he said. Then again, naked desperation is clearly in order. The favorite parlor game in Washington this week has been trying to remember a more disastrous campaign launch than the one Gingrich is having. Many candidates have stumbled coming out of the gate, but few have taken off like a shot in the wrong direction.
The great irony, of course, is that Gingrich's grievous error was to speak the truth. Appearing on "Meet the Press" last Sunday, he referred to the proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to convert Medicare into a voucher program -- endorsed by all but four members of the GOP majority in the House -- as "right-wing social engineering."
He went on, "I think that that is too big a jump. I think that what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options." He said he considered President Obama's health care reform law to be "radical change" and added that "I would be against a conservative imposing radical change."
Prominent Republicans immediately grabbed their pitchforks, lit their torches and formed an angry mob. From opinion surveys and town-hall meetings, it was already clear that the Ryan plan to fundamentally alter the Medicare program is deeply unpopular -- and that ultimately it is likely to hurt the party at the polls. Now one of the best-known figures in the party, a candidate for the presidential nomination, was breaking ranks. Rather than accept the fact that Gingrich is right -- or was right, since he now wants us to forget he ever appeared on "Meet the Press" -- Republicans mau-maued him into a full-throated disavowal.
First he tried to claim that host David Gregory had somehow bamboozled him with a trick question; this "babe in the woods" defense was laughable, given that Gingrich had been on the show 34 times before Sunday's self-immolation. Then he claimed he actually supported the Ryan plan but believed the groundwork, in terms of public opinion, hadn't been properly laid. Finally, he just gave up and demanded to take it all back.
But by then, video was already circulating of an encounter Gingrich had with an Iowa voter who told him that "what you just did to Paul Ryan is unforgivable." When Gingrich mildly protested, the man persisted: "Yes, you did. You undercut him and his allies in the House. You're an embarrassment to our party. ... Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?"
Gingrich's week just couldn't get any worse. But then it did.
While he and his wife Callista were at a book signing in Minnesota on Tuesday, a gay-rights activist showered the candidate with colorful glitter. That same day, it was reported that Callista Gingrich, in disclosure reports she was required to file when she worked for the House Agriculture Committee, stated that at one point the couple owed between $250,000 and $500,000 to Tiffany's. So much for understanding the struggles of everyday Americans.
To cap it all off, Gingrich's press secretary, Rick Tyler, was asked by the Huffington Post to comment on media coverage of his candidate. Tyler's response suggests that the next time he sends someone out for coffee, he might ask for decaf. "The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding," it begins, before going on to describe an epic "firefight" that somehow involves sheep, cocktail parties and bylines.
"A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught," Tyler wrote. "But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won't be intimidated by the political elite."
I must note that Gingrich, a former House speaker, has been a card-carrying member of the political elite for years. But don't you dare quote me.
Eugene Robinson's email address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group