December 18, 2006 4:01PM

Beam Me Up, Mr. (Ex-)Speaker!

Say what you will about Newt Gingrich, but he has that rare political gift: he sounds captivating and forceful even while talking complete dreck. I witnessed that up close a couple of years ago when I crashed a meeting of conservative activists, and saw Gingrich take the floor to urge everyone to get behind the president’s prescription‐​drug bill. Given that the plan represented the greatest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society, you’d think this would be a tough sell. But to hear Gingrich tell it, signing onto the president’s bill would be a stroke of genius for limited government activists. The bill would cause a “plate‐​tectonic shift in the continental architecture of the modern welfare state.” Or something. I didn’t understand what that meant then and I still don’t. Yet so confident was the pitch, so bold the hand gestures, that Gingrich probably convinced a few people who knew better. 

Those talents were on display again yesterday morning, when the former Speaker appeared on Meet the Press to play coy about his presidential aspirations. He may or may not be running; but as always, he’s pushing Big Ideas. Among the highlights: “The only exit strategy in Iraq is victory.” That’s right: and the only treatment for cancer is remission. To be fair, Gingrich did go into a little more detail on how we win. It had something to do with FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps. 

He also talked a bit about his latest passion: creating some kind of bipartisan debate or series of debates that would in turn create “a wave of new ideas, a wave of new solutions. And see how that ferments.” Apparently, the catchphrase for this crusade is “Real change requires real change.” Which is less a slogan than a mind‐​blowing zen koan

Host Tim Russert pressed Gingrich to explain his remarks in Manchester, NH a couple of weeks ago, where, as the featured speaker at the “Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment award” dinner, Gingrich called for rethinking the First Amendment. On Meet the Press, Gingrich wouldn’t back down:

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: You close down any Web site that is jihadist.

MR. RUSSERT: But who makes that judgment?

FMR. REP. GINGRICH: Look, I—you can appoint three federal judges if you want to and say, “Review this stuff and tell us which ones to close down.” I would just like to have them be federal judges who’ve served in combat.

Now depending on the details, this could mean a major overhaul of First Amendment doctrine in the areas of incitement and prior restraint. But put that aside. “Three federal judges who’ve served in combat?” What does that have to do with anything? Is this a legal question or a military one? What a stunningly illiberal non sequitur. 

And on it went, for more than half the program. A half an hour of that sort of thing, and you’re almost ready to put up with Tom Friedman’s soundbitten wisdom in the “roundtable” portion of the program. Did you know that in Iraq, “the shortest distance between two points isn’t a straight line?”