Watching nine TVs at once in search of a way to either reverse his aging or end his childhood, Newt Gingrich saw President Obama praise American pilots for flying missions against ISIS “with courtesy.” It was right there in the closed captioning on C-SPAN. Quickly, Gingrich turned to Twitter to express astonishment at the president’s strange diction:
That’s a screenshot from my phone, so remember that those two tweets appeared in reverse order. They also arrived one minute apart, q.v. The Washington Post. Gingrich could not believe that anyone, least of all the president, would apply “courtesy” to the act of bombing military targets. Seventeen minutes later, he figured out how to rewind his DVR:
Poor Newt—it turned out he could believe the president said “courteous” and was in fact the only person capable of doing so. And he came pretty close to admitting he was wrong.
Closed captions on the live broadcast are hardly C-SPAN’s official transcript of the president’s remarks. By locating the inaccuracy in “their version,” Gingrich shifts the blame for his own poor sourcing to the network. It’s pretty unfair, which is how you know the former speaker is embarrassed.
He is embarrassed because he has just given us a clear window on how he thinks. Anyone who watches closed captions knows they contain nonsense all the time. Seeing some nonsense, Gingrich forgot the likely explanation and leapt to the conclusion that the president had said something crazy, because it was the president. Seized by reflex, Gingrich found it more likely that Obama had used a completely inappropriate word than that closed captioning was wrong, offering us all a glimpse of his weltanschauung.
What makes it, though, is the dramatic irony. From the perspective of a reader who knows Gingrich got the wrong word, his repeated complaining that the president’s mistake is “just weird” becomes tragic. He is hastening his own demise, with a flair that only we appreciate. Twice he tweets, in a minute. He cannot get over how nuts the president is to think “courtesy” should appear in that sentence.
I don’t know about you, but I kind of liked N. Gingrich after I read these tweets. Not the correction—in that he is as small and infuriating as ever. But in the moments before he understands what happened, he embodies a foible of the modern age: our readiness to be astonished at the behavior of someone we don’t like.
Put any other speaker behind that closed caption, and I’ll bet Gingrich laughs at the typo instead. But with President Obama, he is vulnerable to outrage. It is the thing he most readily feels, apparently even to the exclusion of simple joys like captioning mistakes. Gingrich has spent so much time stunned before his television at the bonehead thing Obama said that he experienced it when it wasn’t happening, the way you think you heard your phone.
And as sometimes happens when we leap to correct others, he wound up exposing himself.* That combination of irony—our hero brings about his own demise—and shared experience makes for a robust comic conceit. Basically, the combined forces of Gingrich’s intellect and America’s press corps recreated this:
Comic corrects stooge is not funny. Comic tries to correct stooge and gets corrected himself, however, turns out to be pure gold.
Kombat! Kids: write three three-beat scenes in which one character exposes his ignorance by saying someone else is wrong, then tries to cover his mistake. Submit your answers to the Comments section—but remember to copy them to the clipboard first, so you don’t screw it up like Attempt always does.