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Nelson: Why Political Junkies Root for Newt

As a political junkie and collector of arcane political facts, I am rooting for Newt Gingrich’s nomination because of the number of historic firsts (or sevenths) that he is likely to achieve on his presidential journey.

Office: Gingrich is not the first former Speaker to seek a presidential nomination. That distinction belonged to three-time contender Henry Clay of Kentucky, who finished fourth in the Electoral College voting of 1824 but who, as Speaker, was able to tilt the 1825 House vote for president to second-place finisher Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and was rewarded with the post of Adams’ secretary of State.

Denounced by first-place finisher Andrew Jackson’s followers as a “corrupt bargain,” Clay would lose his subsequent presidential bids to “Old Hickory” in 1832 and to former Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee (“Young Hickory”) in 1844, the one and only time that a former Speaker ever gained the White House.

Later efforts by others who held the speakership, including John Bell of Tennessee, the 1860 presidential nominee of the pro-Union pro-slavery Constitutional Union Party; James G. Blaine of Maine, like Gingrich, a Pennsylvania native, who lost the 1880 nomination to his friend James A. Garfield and the 1884 election to New York Gov. Grover Cleveland; Thomas B. Reed of Maine, who was defeated for the 1896 nomination by Ohio Gov. William McKinley; James B. “Champ” Clark of Missouri, who lost the 1912 nomination to New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson; and John Nance Garner in 1932 who was defeated for the nomination by New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt but was added to the ticket as FDR’s running mate. Garner’s 1940 challenge to FDR’s renomination was less successful.

That so many of these Speaker presidential aspirants have lost to state governors should be a cautionary note to historian Gingrich, who is presently contending with three of them — sitting Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah.

Region: Should Gingrich be nominated, he will be the first Republican nominee selected from a Deep South state such as Georgia. While Texas native Dwight Eisenhower and Texas residents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were nominated, the GOP has avoided nominating candidates from the Deep South, a legacy of its link to the Grand Army of the Republic. Like both Bushes, who were born in New England, Gingrich is also a northern transplant. He was born in Harrisburg, Pa., the home state of 15th president James Buchanan, who ranks with Warren G. Harding as among the nation’s worst presidents. That is a legacy that Gingrich should try to avoid.

Religion: As a relatively new convert to Catholicism from his Lutheran childhood and Southern Baptist adulthood, Gingrich’s nomination would make him the first non-Protestant to be nominated for president by the GOP and only its second to be placed on its ticket. William E. Miller of New York, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 vice presidential running mate, was the only previous non-Protestant on a Republican ticket. For now, the question of whether Mitt Romney’s Mormonism may be seen as non-Protestant will be set aside.

Age: Gingrich will be 69 and a Social Security qualifier on Election Day 2012. That would make him only the fifth-oldest Republican nominee of the past nine, but its third youngest first-time nominee behind both Bushes. He would be younger than John McCain, 72 in 2008; Bob Dole, 73 in 1996; and Ronald Reagan, 69 in 1980 and 73 in 1984.

Education: With his Tulane Ph.D., Gingrich would be the third presidential nominee to have an academic doctorate, joining Johns Hopkins Ph.D. Wilson, the Democrats’ 1912 and 1916 nominee, and 1972 Democratic nominee George S. McGovern, a history Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Erudition: While successful Democratic nominees John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008 had two books in print at the time of their nominations, Gingrich is fast closing on 20 titles, including three co-authored with his present wife, Callista. Only the combined totals of Woodrow Wilson, a full-time academic, and the prolific Theodore Roosevelt come close to that pre-presidential literary output.

Generally speaking, it is the post-presidential years that appear to be the most productive as former presidents Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter launched multiple books to justify their presidencies. The fact that all three of those former presidents were commonly regarded as failures undoubtedly impelled them to defend themselves again and again in print.

Childhood Name: Gingrich is the child of a divorce and was christened Newton L. McPherson but was adopted by his mother’s second husband, much as Gerald Ford was originally christened Leslie King Jr. until his adoption by his stepfather. Bill Clinton was christened William Blyth until he took the surname of his mother’s second husband.

Sibling Issues: While Newt Gingrich may have been embarrassed by Candace Gingrich’s sexual preference and Bill Clinton may have been embarrassed by Roger Clinton’s substance addictions, they were both only a half sister and half brother. This was unlike the substance and financial difficulties visited on Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter and George W. Bush by their brothers Sam Johnson, Donald and Edward Nixon, the irrepressible Billy Carter and Neil Bush.

Marriage: While Ronald Reagan was the nation’s first divorced president, Gingrich could become the first twice-divorced president, a dubious distinction but a distinction nonetheless. This may explain Gingrich’s favorable attention from thrice-married Donald Trump.

Children: With two daughters and no sons, Gingrich would join the company of Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, George W. Bush and Obama. Having no presidential sons appears to be the post-World War II norm, with Harry Truman and Clinton joining the other four presidents who had no sons. Among the past 12 presidents, only Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Reagan and the elder Bush sired sons. Ike was the only one not to have sired a daughter.

Other aficionados of political trivia may add even more to this list like zodiac signs and name lengths, but as a historian of American political life, I know that Gingrich will be pleased that he has provided us with so many intriguing glimpses into the American past.

Garrison Nelson is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and co-editor of the seven volume “Committees of the U.S. Congress, 1789-2010.”

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