Peak of pique

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The Independent Online
The man who argues that he is still faithful to his wife if he and his mistress indulge only in oral sex is, one would have thought, a man to be trusted. Yes, he is indulging in an extreme form of casuistry, but at least such a man is constructing a logical argument to cover his immediate, er ... difficulties.

Such a man, in my view, is Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Congress in the United States. Like many of our own crusaders for family values, Newt has built his expertise on the back of several families. It was during his first marriage that he and an Anne Hollander met up and agreed that, while vice was too nice, soixante-neuf wasn't adulterous. Prudently, however, they chose not to share this ingenious argument with first Mrs Gingrich.

Satisfied with the outcome of this dispensation, Mr Gingrich has gone on to become famous for his ability to link ends with means. Through his televised lectures, his audiotapes and his books Newt has shown that he possesses the "Vision thing" - and then gone on to demonstrate the Strategy, Tactics and Projects things, too. His interviews often sound like a convention of management consultants on speed, as he hurtles through personal development, the superhighway and great moments from the career of Kemal Ataturk. His status as a big thinker is confirmed by his friendship with Heidi and Alvin Toffler - brilliant philosophers of the Third Wave, but too often confused with two barmy, elderly ex-hippies with execrable dress sense.

In short, Newt is my kind of guy. Or was. And then this week he revealed the true Gingrich. His obstinacy in refusing to agree any budget compromise with President Bill Clinton was not the result of a careful calculation of the electoral consequences of the collapse of federal government. Nor was it fine tuned to call the president's bluff. No, he did it because he was - in the vernacular - pissed off. Bill, he felt, had treated him shabbily on their flight back from Israel after the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

While Gingrich and his Senate Republican colleague Bob Dole had been put at the back of the plane (presumably too close to the loos and the microwave), Clinton had snubbed them by sitting up at the front, near the pilot. So for 12 long hours Bob and Newt sat there waiting for the call that never came. To add further humiliation, upon landing the twin Speakers were forced to disembark by the back door. Said Newt: "Every president we have ever flown with has had us up front." This showed him that no compromise on the budget was possible, and that the White House "wanted a fight". Within days 800,000 federal employees were idle.

To take an important public decision out of pure pique is, on the face of it, quite rare. We remember the exceptions, such as Lord Cardigan, who charged the guns at Balaclava partly because of his animosity towards his equally boneheaded fellow peer, Lord Lucan.

Actually, as the incomparable Norman Dixon has pointed out, this lack of rationality is not uncommon. Among a certain type of leaders he discerns something he calls the "Phaeton complex", after the son of Phoebus, who insisted in driving his father's chariot across the heavens and was eventually stopped from killing everything in his way by a thunderbolt from Zeus. Pushing them on is an irrational desire to prove themselves.

And what do they have in common? A study of the 24 British prime ministers between 1809 and 1937 showed that in 16 cases, as children they had suffered the permanent loss of a parent through separation or death. As adults they showed tendencies towards extreme reserve, solitariness, an obsessive need for love, recklessness and (often) a belief in the supernatural. Needless to say, young Newt lost his father at an early age. So did young Bill. If I were an American civil servant, I'd be looking for another job.