In his Monday column “The Good Newt,” former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller dished out some rare if backhanded defense for Newt Gingrich, at least on Newt’s amnesty-style ideas on illegal immigration: “There are plenty of reasons the thought of President Newt Gingrich makes me shudder. But on this hard, defining American issue, he’s shown a combination of brains, heart and guts that puts the rest of his party to shame.” Later, after backlash from liberal readers, Keller posted that he would avoid using the word "illegals" in future.
As it is practiced in our politics, the subject often dredges up darker feelings: tribalism, xenophobia, envy, a pull-up-the-ladder stinginess. This is not new. The English and Dutch colonists resented the immigrant waves of Irish and Germans, who resented the later waves of Italians and Poles and Jews. Polls show that Americans only halfheartedly support immigration, and less than halfheartedly in hard times.
Nowhere is our national ambivalence on this issue more grotesquely displayed than in the current Republican campaign. Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich each, in turn, tripped over the issue -- Perry by letting illegals in Texas pay lower, in-state college tuition; Romney for failing to fire a lawn care service that employed undocumented workers; and Gingrich for saying that not every family lacking legal status should be put in a boxcar and shipped to Mexico.
Rather than parse his debate sound bites, go to Newt.org and read his proposed solutions. You have to get past a certain amount of red-meat rhetoric and brush aside some half-baked notions that are typical Newt, more smart-alecky than smart. (His plan for local citizen boards to pass judgment on which immigrants get deported sounds to me like the Neighborhood Watch from hell.) But you will find that on major points Gingrich is consistent with the best proposals compiled by serious students of this subject, who aim to build a reform based not on what makes you feel good but on what’s best for the country.
There are plenty of reasons the thought of President Newt Gingrich makes me shudder. But on this hard, defining American issue, he’s shown a combination of brains, heart and guts that puts the rest of his party to shame.
Keller got some blowback from the paper's liberal readership for using the term "illegals" in his column, and wrote on his personal blog that after talking to the paper's style editor Phil Corbett, who cautioned him using the term, he finished: "Well, vigilant readers, the good news is, you seem to have gotten the style book updated. And I’ll resist that particular shorthand in the future."
At the Daily Caller, journalist Mickey Kaus criticized Keller for leaving out Gingrich’s support for “unlimited new immigration leading to dead-end second class citizenship,” something Kaus figures “would further destroy wages of unskilled Americans while building a two-tier society” and should be offensive to Keller.