By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Romney didn’t really call Gingrich “zany”

You may have heard that Mitt Romney called Newt Gingrich “zany” in an interview with the New York Times — a rather incendiary charge that’s now burning its way through the political Web. A quick sampling:

  • “A sharper knife came out Wednesday, with Romney expanding his personal attacks on Gingrich. He started with the New York Times, saying of Gingrich,’zany is not what we need in a president.'” (Politico)
  • “Mitt Romney escalated his criticism of Newt Gingrich’s temperament Wednesday, calling the former House speaker ‘zany’ in an interview with The New York Times.” (
  • “His attacks growing ever more personal, Mitt Romney on Wednesday questioned chief rival Newt Gingrich’s temperament, spending habits and allegiance to both the GOP and the middle class while hecklers confronted Gingrich in the lead-off caucus state. During a series of interviews while fundraising in New York, Romney told one media outlet that ‘zany is not what we need in a president’ and another that Gingrich had ‘an extraordinary lack of understanding of how the economy works.'” (Associated Press)

And there’s plenty more where that came from. So would it surprise you to learn that claiming Romney called Gingrich “zany” is barely half-true?

In fact, this is a media-created controversy. The Times put the word in Romney’s mouth, and Romney, as maladroit a candidate as I’ve seen in my lifetime, repeated it. If this little incident backfires on Romney, he surely deserves some of the blame. But, anyway, let’s roll the tape. If you would like to watch, start at about the 3:00 mark. Times reporter Jeff Zeleny is asking Romney about Gingrich:

Zeleny: He has big ideas sometimes, and it seems that he is sort of rapid fire with his thought. Do you think that the American voters are getting enough of a sense of what he might do? Or is there some worry that as president, should he win, that there might be some zany things coming from the Oval Office?

Romney: Well, zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio, it’s great in the print. It makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader. And a leader needs to be someone who can bring Americans together. A leader needs to be someone of sobriety and stability.

So there you have it. Zeleny, not Romney, called Gingrich “zany,” and Romney went with the flow rather than disagree. If you keep watching, you’ll see Zeleny ask Romney whether he considers Gingrich “unstable,” a reference to Romney’s use of the word “stability.” Romney does not rise to the bait.

Despite what actually happened, the Times story, on which Zeleny takes the lead byline, begins like this:

Mitt Romney, his presidential aspirations suddenly endangered by Newt Gingrich’s rapid resurgence, is employing aggressive new arguments in an effort to disqualify Mr. Gingrich as a credible choice to Republicans, calling him “zany” in an interview on Wednesday and questioning his commitment to free enterprise.

Nor is there any further clarification deeper in the story. And it gets worse, as columnist Gail Collins says of Romney, “Zany really is a pretty unusual word. Why do you think he chose it?” Well, gee, Gail — he didn’t. You only write two columns a week. Would it be too much to ask that you at least watch the edited version of your own paper’s interview?

At this hour, there’s no way of knowing how the “zany” matter is going to play. Will Romney be characterized as looking strong or desperate? I don’t want to make excuses for Romney. He should have sensed danger, he failed to do so and now he may pay a price for it.

But he didn’t really call Gingrich “zany.”

Correction: Spelling of Zeleny’s name now fixed.

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  1. Rick Peterson

    Sadly, the facts stopped mattering a long time ago. Props to you though, for taking the progressive-icon NYT to task. I only wish more of your compatriots on the left shared your intellectual honesty. The messenger is far more potent than the message these days.

  2. Mike Benedict

    @Rick: While I agree that Dan deserves credit for digging and bringing this matter to light, by extrapolating this incident to castigate an entire ideology you are treading on some awfully thin ice of hypocrisy. Not only does the rightwing media have a veritable patent on intellectual dishonesty, but you tend to whine more than anyone when we on the left point it out.

  3. Nancy Mades

    It’s like the old days when pool reports used to interview eachother and include the quotes as coming from “sources close the White House.” I read this mostly as a lazy NYT reporter trying to make an otherwise kind of dull story sound more interesting and then even lazier columnists picking it up and running.

  4. Peter Sullivan

    Dan, I also would like to thank you for pointing that out.

    That has to be one of the most transparently biased and untruthful episodes I have ever witnessed, even from the New York Times!!!

    Trying to trip him up is one thing, but writing a story and putting your words in his mouth is just plain unethical journalism….

  5. Marc Larocque

    Nor is there any further clarification deeper in the story. And it gets worse, as columnist Gail Collins says of Romney, “Zany really is a pretty unusual word. Why do you think he chose it?” Well, gee, Gail — he didn’t. You only write two columns a week. Would it be too much to ask that you at least watch the edited version of your own paper’s interview?

    That had me crackin’ up.

  6. Three thoughts:

    1) I wasn’t sure if I was missing something when it was reported that Romney called Gingrich “zany”. If he had said that, would that have been such a big deal? Is that the most unprofessional word a candidate has used in this campaign… this month?

    2) I’d be lying if I said I was disappointed- I’ve grown to expect this kind of manipulation from media outlets. But I am very surprised that the Times did this. Therefore,

    3) Wow, if this is the best the Times can do, I guess there just isn’t anything to dig up on Mitt. (Yeah, right.)

    • Dan Kennedy

      Deb: I watched the video specifically because it seemed so un-Mitt-like. I hope the Times public editor writes something about this.

  7. Dan: very. I read/heard it as a measure of how frustrated Romney was by Gingrich’s “rise”. That had the effect of making me take Gingrich’s polling numbers more seriously than I did, say, Perry’s. I am pleased that I can go back to waiting for Gingrich to implode.

    I’d like to see a response as well.

  8. Aaron Read

    What were you just saying about Politifact, Dan? 😉

    • Dan Kennedy

      Aaron: Yes, indeed. I would rate this as Mostly False, nudging just slightly in the direction of Half True.

  9. Andy Koppel

    As a subscriber to The New York Times who read both the article and the Gail Collins column, I am deeply disappointed in them — and applaud you for your revelation. At the same time, I do not want to lose perspective.

    Let us not forget the far more egregious distortions and outright lies promulgated by Romney and his minions throughout this campaign. Yes, The Times should own up to this travesty, but let’s not make it the whole story.

    Perhaps politicians have more latitude than journalists (although I don’t know why they should), but this specific story does not invalidate the worth of The Times or validate the worth of Romney’s unnecessarily craven campaign.

    And let’s observe how Romney and Fehrnstrom exploit it for their advantage.

  10. Andy, that the Romney campaign- most campaigns- twist stories not only doesn’t exonerate the Times it makes what they did worse. We depend on our news outlets- especially the paper of record- to give us the straight story. They have instead added an unnecessary layer of complexity.

    This isn’t going to get Romney the pity vote from anyone, but it is going to make the Times a less reliable source if they don’t mea culpa immediately. FYI, I am also a subscriber to the Times.

  11. peter sullivan

    “Yes, indeed. I would rate this as Mostly False, nudging just slightly in the direction of Half True.”

    I would call that an out an out lie!!!

    Can’t wait to see how “The paper of Record” sweeps this under the rug…..

  12. Paul Bass

    Great piece!

    (Now respond, “Yeah, great piece,” and I’ll quote you calling your own work “great.”)

  13. C.E. Stead

    DK – after Sean Hannity asked Newt Gingrich if he forgave Romney for calling him ‘zany’, I sent him your story. So you may get interest in entirely unexpected quarters.

    Another Hannity moment – he was interviewing all the candidates in turn after the debate, and when he got to Romney he said (paraphrase) – ‘Gee, I thought I knew pretty much everything about you guys, but I have to admit that when you answered that question about judicial appointments you made a Governor, I had no idea that the Legislature in Mass. was 85 percent – is that RIGHT? 85 PERCENT? – DEMOCRATS??? I didn’t know you couldn’t just appoint judges either – I thought you had just chosen them…’ Mitt did not haul off and sock him, proving he is capable of the most delicate kinds of diplomacy and restraint.

  14. Rick Peterson

    @Mike: I never said that there aren’t as many idealogues to the right as there are to the left. You just wrote that I am the one “extrapolating”? Who used the term “entire”? And I’m the one “whining”? Next you’re probably going to say that I post too often. We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

  15. Ben Starr

    Is Romney really as maladroit a candidate as you’ve seen in your lifetime? He seems less maladroit than Gingrich or Perry unless i’m misunderstanding the word.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Ben: Gingrich strikes me as being completely in command of what he’s saying at all times. He’s not aware that half of it is lunacy.

  16. Mike Benedict

    @Rick: You’re so zany!

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