“We’re really puzzled,” Newt Gingrich says. “Here at Gingrich Productions, we’ve spent weeks trying to figure out: what do you call this?” Then he holds up a smartphone. It appears to be an iPhone, but it’s definitely some kind of touch-screen, internet-capable personal communications device, known in circulars and strip malls across America as a smartphone. The term “smartphone” was first used by Ericsson in 1997, but Gingrich seems genuinely not to know it, spending three minutes in rapturous speculation on what such a device might be called. “If it’s taking pictures, it’s a not a cell phone,” he opines. “If it has a McDonald’s app to tell you where McDonald’s is based on your GPS location, that’s not a cell phone. If you can get Wikipedia or go to Google, that’s not a cell phone.” Props to Aaron Galbraith for the video, which is 2:53 of uncut dramatic irony that you can watch after the jump.
Two questions leap to mind, here:
- Did no one at Gingrich Productions have the temerity, at any point in this process, to blurt out “it’s a smartphone” and save the boss some embarrassment?
- Is Newt Gingrich dumb?
Item (1) is beyond the scope of our inquiry, although it suggests something about the culture of leadership Gingrich has instilled in his offices. Item (2) presents a problem of epistemology.
Clearly, Gingrich is not dumb in the traditional sense. He holds a PhD in education from Tulane and, perhaps more conclusively, served as Speaker of the House during an exceedingly Machiavellian time in Republican politics. He must be crafty, and he must know plenty about human nature, political history, and the cultivation of knowledge itself. Throughout the 2012 Republican primaries, he was routinely called the smartest man in the room.
And yet he doesn’t know what a smartphone is called. Gingrich is not dumb per se, but he apparently has not run across information that most of us find commonplace. Combat! blog animal behavior consultant Lucretia suggested that perhaps Gingrich has never bought his own cell phone, and so he has not encountered the various coupons, reviews and store promotions that use the word “smartphone” incessantly.
This accounts for Gingrich’s initial obliviousness to the term, but his ignorance throughout the process of making this video can only be attributed to his personality. Having had this idea that the “handheld computer” is the kind of amazing development that assures Americans a bright future, Gingrich went on to do absolutely no research. If he had, he probably would have encountered the term “smartphone.” Instead, he devotes 700 words and three minutes of video to fleshing out his own idea, with pretty much zero interest in the ideas of others.
Gingrich wants to think, in other words, but he doesn’t want to learn. This attitude, combined with the kind of bizarre privilege you enjoy 20 years after you become Speaker of the House, resulted in the three minutes of perfect comedy above. I submit that it also captures an essential problem of contemporary politics.
As anyone at the very end of the bar will tell you, politicians are dumb. It’s a weird phenomenon, because virtually any single politician—your Mitt Romney, your John Kerry, your Newt Gingrich—is smarter than the average person. George W. Bush was rumored to have a subnormal IQ, but that hoax was rendered prima facie implausible by the fact that he had been President. Glib cynicism aside, a stupid man does not get near the most powerful office in the world, if for no other reason than the other stupid men keep clawing him back down with them.
Of course, Gingrich did not become President. Still, he is a manifestly intelligent person when he’s not struggling to name familiar objects. It seems more accurate to say that Gingrich is out-of-touch—improbably, even bafflingly out of touch, to the point where the things he does not know are familiar to millions of children. He has never heard one of the most common terms in American consumer culture, and he had a fine time exercising his considerable mind trying to invent it.
That’s maybe the saddest part of this video. Newt Gingrich, author, statesman and presidential candidate, came up with “handheld computer.” It’s not catchy, it’s not particularly descriptive, and the collective efforts of the telecommunications and marketing industries did a lot better. A free-markets guy like Gingrich should appreciate that, although I’m not sure how it will comport with his great man theory.