Newt Gingrich, The Food-Stamp Candidate
On Monday night, during the first of this week’s two—two!—South Carolina debates, Newt Gingrich energized his South Carolina supporters with a feisty performance that earned him what his campaign called “the only standing ovation” of the Presidential playoffs. (He earned another one, last night, after berating the moderator, John King, for asking about comments by his ex-wife, Marianne.) During the broadcast, on Fox News, the camera stayed trained on Bret Baier, the moderator, while audience members behind him gradually stood up, in a wave that moved from the back of the room toward the front. Gingrich’s handlers quickly turned the performance into a new political advertisement, “The Moment,” in which the ovation comes through clearly, although not the standing. The reason for this ovation was an exchange between Gingrich and one of the panelists, Juan Williams, a Fox News political analyst, during which they did something unusual, in the context of this campaign: they talked explicitly about race—at least, one of them did.
On the stump, Gingrich has been promising to use his rhetorical gifts to combat black poverty. He says, “I’m prepared—if the N.A.A.C.P. invites me—I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks, and not be satisfied with food stamps.” This follows, usually, from his contention that Obama has been a “food-stamp President,” and it’s hard not to hear, in Gingrich’s promise to address the N.A.A.C.P., a suggestion that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has particular salience for black people. (According to government statistics, S.N.A.P. enrollment rose, largely because of an increase in poverty, from just over twenty-eight million, in 2008, to forty-six million, in 2011; African-Americans, who constitute about twelve and a half percent of the country’s population, account for twenty-two percent of enrollees.)
Monday, the day of the Myrtle Beach debate, was also Martin Luther King Day. In 1983, Gingrich was one of three hundred and thirty-eight members of Congress who voted to create this holiday; ninety voted against it, including Ron Paul. And it fell to Williams, who is black, to ask a few questions that fit the day.
‘Speaker Gingrich, you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps,’ Williams said. ‘You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?’
‘No,’ Gingrich said. ‘I don’t see that.’ The audience applauded his defiance, and kept applauding as he paid tribute to the virtues of hard work, adroitly avoiding any direct engagement with the topic of race. He ended with a populist flourish: ‘Only the elites despise earning money.’
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