The French Monkey on Newt’s Back

I noted a few days ago that Newt Gingrich actually put out an ad attacking Mitt Romney because he — gasp! — speaks French. Now Evangeline Morphos writes at Politico that Gingrich himself either speaks French or his PhD dissertation was little more than academic fraud.

Gingrich should know this. He spent several years in New Orleans getting his Ph.D. in history (we are constantly reminded) from Tulane University in 1971. The university’s requirements for this include at least one, often two, foreign languages. So we know that Gingrich is at least “bi” — if not trilingual.

My father was a French literature professor at Tulane and had been chairman of the Romance Languages Department. I can assure you this department would not have certified Gingrich unless he could actually speak French.

Gingrich’s dissertation surely demanded knowledge of French. His topic was “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.” Like any graduate student, he must have immersed himself in his subject — a French-speaking country. He cites more than 100 French-language sources in footnotes.

Is he hiding his own Francophone secret? Or did he play fast and loose with his research — citing sources he could not possibly have read with comprehension?

Morphos suggests the obvious question: Do you now or have you ever conjugated a French verb? And do you eat french fries or freedom fries? A bunch of slack-jawed morons with the right to vote want to know.

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  • F

    The “French Problem” just gets deeper, doesn’t it?

  • shallit

    The foreign language requirements for the Ph. D. degree are often just formalities. At Berkeley, for example, you were required to translate a couple of pages taken from a mathematics article and, if I remember correctly, you were allowed to use a pocket dictionary! So it is possible to pass such an exam with a minimal knowledge of the language – certainly without spoken fluency.

  • heironymous

    Augh! Maybe poor Newt speaks Flemish. French is not the only language of Belgium.

  • chilidog99

    I would love to see the modrator at the next debate ask:

    Bonjour M. Romney, vous avez déclaré que les Américains devraient savoir l’anglais. Pensez-vous également que ils devraient être familiers dans d’autres langues ?

    Bonjour M. Gingrich. Pensez-vous que la connaissance d’une autre langue est un-American ? Si oui, pourquoi ?

    (babblefish translation)

  • Do you now or have you ever conjugated a French verb?

    Yes, but I was under duress. Those high school teachers were *mean*.

    And do you eat french fries or freedom fries?

    “Chips”, please.

  • Gnumann

    Oh, the shock and horror – the man has most likely aquired skills and eeebil knowlegdes from the eduactional system.

    Clearly a case against him as a nominee.

  • jolo5309

    I have to wonder how fluent Pierre-Henri Laurent (a Belgian immigrant, distinguished academic, and native French speaker) was in English as well, and if Newt picked up any French from him

  • Zinc Avenger

    Yeah? Well I hear Romney knows how to do mental arithmetic. How can someone so out of touch with the common man aspire… uh… think he can be President? Newt has sucesfuly purjd himself of all eletist knowleje. Beat that, Romnuts!

  • Larry

    Ah, but Newt’s French isn’t the surrender-monkey French spoken by Mittens. Its the manly French of Hugo and the lover’s French of Maurice Chevalier.

  • davem

    When I see that combination of ‘French’ and ‘Monkey’, I’m just reminded of this:

  • dingojack

    Larry – So Newtie knows how to croon “Thank ‘eaven for little girls”?

    Well that’s got the Humbert Humbert vote all sown up!

    🙂 Dingo

  • matty1

    Are PhD’s different in the States? My brother has a PhD in Physics from a British University and it was entirely a research degree assessed through the thesis and defence of that at a viva. There were certainly no exams (unless you count the viva) or requirements for ancillary subjects like languages.

  • Blondin

    Is he hiding his own Francophone secret? Or did he play fast and loose with his research — citing sources he could not possibly have read with comprehension?

    I’m tellin’ ya he just paid some Canadian kid to do his homework for him.

  • jjgdenisrobert

    @chilidog99: “Babelfish Translation.” It shows… Hopefully, Gingrich and Romney would be able to respond in better French 😉

    If speaking another language badly should disqualify a candidate, why wasn’t Bush disqualified? (He speaks really horrible Spanish, just like Romney speaks horrible French, and Huntsman speaks horrible Chinese). It seems to me, in fact, that speaking a foreign language badly is a badge of honour for the GOP…

  • jerthebarbarian

    matty1 @12

    PhD requirements in the states vary from university to university and program to program. My PhD had no foreign language requirement – the relevant literature in Computer Science is either in English or has all been translated into English (it helps that the field is so young). On the other hand, if I wanted a Mathematics degree from the same university, I would have had a foreign language requirement – either French or German – so that I could read the relevant literature in its original context.

    I also am fairly certain that at my university, the requirements for History PhDs were fairly strict if your subject was one where the primary documents were in a foreign language. They expected you to be able to read if fluently (though I don’t think they required a spoken exam).

  • dingojack

    jjgdenisrobert – “… (He speaks really horrible Spanish, just like Romney speaks horrible French, and Huntsman speaks horrible Chinese)… ”

    Wow, you speak Spanish, French and ‘Chinese’! (Cantonese or Mandarin?)


  • Ron Paul’s PAC did pretty much the same thing to Huntsman, portraying the former US Ambassador to China as a foreign traitor in a Mao jacket.

    But of course, there’s no connection AT ALL between the candidate and the PAC that was formed for no purpose other than to support the candidate wink wink nudge nudge say no more…

    The GOP is a party of xenophobic racist hypocrites. What a surprise this isn’t.

  • tbp1

    @#2: You’re right about the rigor of language requirements varying from school to school, and from degree to degree. My doctorate didn’t require languages, but my wife’s required a decent reading knowledge of French and German (reading ability is emphasized over speaking for research purposes).

    But surely a Ph.D. in history, when your dissertation topic involves a French-speaking country, and many–probably most, maybe all–of your primary sources would be unavailable in translation, requires at least a very good reading knowledge of French (and possibly Flemish).

    I wondered about that attack ad at the time. Does he think no one would notice?

    And for cryin’ out loud, when did being smart and educated actually become a liability for a politician? I can only speak for me, but I WANT the president to be smarter, better-educated and better-informed than I am (and not to brag, but I’m pretty smart, pretty well-educated, and keep myself pretty well-informed).

    There was an article on Composers Datebook the other day about a White House reception for Stravinsky during the Kennedy administration. Can you even imagine anything remotely like that happening today? (Actually I will give Mr. Gingrich a tiny bit of credit for one thing—he apparently goes to the opera at least occasionally, and admits to it. It’s nowhere near enough to make up for the vast tons of vileness in his personality and actions, but still…)

  • shouldbeworking

    It seems to me, in fact, that speaking and thinking in a foreign language any language badly is a badge of honour for the GOP…

    Fixed that little typo for you. Your welcome…

  • jnorris

    I want to know why Freddie Mac needed a $1.5 M consultant on the Belgian educational policy in the Congo?

  • This is proof that when GOPers accuse, they are projecting.

    That aside:

    Note: If Newt studied Belgian education policy in the Congo, then he is surely aware that Congolese children were not allowed schooling beyond the age of 12… to make certain they didn’t learn enough to get ahead. Maybe this is what he desires for America, considering that he wants children to work as school janitors. To hell with math and history. Clean toilets, kids!


    Oh, so it’s French VERBS that one conjugates! I kept trying to conjugate the French pronouns: vu et moi.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    tbp1 #18: There was an article on Composers Datebook the other day about a White House reception for Stravinsky during the Kennedy administration. Can you even imagine anything remotely like that happening today?

    It’s a different world now.


    Boston Bruins Goalie Skips White-House Visit to Make Political Statement

  • matty1

    Sorry, I should have been clearer. I’m not surprised fluency in a language would be a practical requirement to study historical documents in that language. It just jars with my perception of what a PhD is that language skills would be tested separately rather than the examiners picking up if a candidate has actually read what they cite regardless of language.

    Of course if you mean entry requirements thats entirely different. I just have trouble with the idea of taught subjects as part of a PhD.

  • dingojack

    If only Darwin had learned German as part of his university education*

    🙂 Dingo


    * (of course, why would he have done that?)

  • matty1

    If only Darwin had learned German as part of his university education*

    🙂 Dingo

    Then he might actually have read certain research from Austria?

  • d cwilson

    Newt’s French problem is even worse than you think. It turns out, he lived in Orleans, France as a teen:

    In 1961, Gingrich graduated from Baker High School in Columbus, Georgia. He became interested in politics during his teen years while living in Orléans, France, where he visited the site of the Battle of Verdun and learned about the sacrifices made there and the importance of political leadership.

    So, not only is likely that he speaks French, but he credits the French with inspiring him to get into politics.

    This is one of the things I love about the state of the GOP. Newt has walk the edge between convincing people he’s the brilliant ideas guy and “historian” and avoiding being labeled a pointed headed elite.

    The reality is he’s neither. Tulane should revoke his PhD. He’s clearly not projecting a good image of level of education their history department affords.

  • jjgdenisrobert

    @dingojack: I speak French natively. I know Bush spoke Spanish badly and the same for Huntsman and Chinese because people who are fluent in those languages stated so (there’s no such thing as “Mandarin”, btw; the official language of the PRC is Putonghua, which means “common language”). Not that it would be that surprising that someone could be fluent in all three; I have known more than a few people of Chinese descent in Quebec who do… It’s pretty telling that you would find this surprising; only in the US is being polyglot such a foreign concept.

  • Irene Delse

    As a French national, I must say this whole “French Problem” controversy is just delicious, in a bitter-sweet way.

  • Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    vu et moi

    I try to get to the stage of “tu et moi” first.

    It’s vous, by the way. Vu means “seen”.

  • Few things are a more exemplary of the anti-intellectualism of the right than attacking someone for knowing a foreign language. I keep wondering what their major malfunction is, and I keep going back to the Grand Unified Theory of right-wing behavior. Basically, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful, and seek to turn this country from a virtual plutocracy into a literal one. It would seem at first glance that anti-intellectualism isn’t really connected, and is at best a sideshow.

    Except that being a plutocratic wanker requires an awful lot of lying. If your policies are clearly harmful to the interests of the median voter, then you have to spin a lot of bullshit narratives to fool people into supporting you anyway. And as a corollary, you have to control the information (like, say, having your own dedicated cable news channel). You can’t have knowledgeable college professors and experts pointing out that you’re wrong. These people need to be held in contempt and denounced as commies, and the public must be constantly made suspicious of their motives. Hence, the raging anti-intellectualism.

    The amazing thing about Newt is how he plays both sides. He’s a college professor who served as Speaker of the House and made millions in consulting fees and giving speeches. Yet, he denounces the “elites” with every other breath. He’s most likely fluent in French, yet he attacks his main rival for being… fluent in French. This is Orwellian to a degree that Orwell would find incredible.

  • Hercules @ 29:

    Thanks. Ah, no wonder I kept striking out! Foolish me.

  • Midnight Rambler

    (there’s no such thing as “Mandarin”, btw; the official language of the PRC is Putonghua, which means “common language”)

    Yes there is. Putonghua is a standardized form of Beijing Mandarin.

  • dingojack

    jjgdenisrobert – Pardon me for being less impressed than I orginally was. Your impression is based on fluently speaking French (OK that is worth noting), a bald statement on Spanish (less impressive) and unsourced opinion on Mandarin (unsouced opinion(s), hardly compelling).

    Overall I’d give the analysis C- but only because I admire someone who learns a second language.



    PS: How many dingoes do you imagine are indigenous to USA?

  • robertfaber

    I have BAs in both history and French. Yes, there absolutely is a language requirement for your historical field of study, and that requirement is universal. If it’s antiquity, you must know latin. If it’s medieval, you need both latin (the language of the church) and some middle english or french, or arabic if that’s your route. If it’s early modern to modern and not US history, you need know the local language in your area of emphasis. It’s not optional and never has been, with the exception of US history. But then Newt was studying the Belgian Congo, and for that, French would be mandatory, or he is a fraud.

  • jjgdenisrobert

    @dingo: considering that “Dingo” in French is slang for nutjob, there are boatloads of dingoes in the US… 😉

    “Mandarin” is a name given by Jesuit missionaries to China to the language of administration in the Chinese empire, which happened to be the Beijing dialect. The word “Mandarin” is a misnomer (it really refers to the officials, and the name is of Portuguese origin), and is typically not used by people who have studied the language, except as a compromise to incorrect popular usage. The proper term is “Standard Chinese” or “Putonghua” (Common Language). (see?, I can also Wiki with the best of them. It helps that I’m actually studying the language, although I’m still very much a beginner.)

    And maybe you’re right: Australians may very well be as surprised as Americans that some people actually speak more than one languages. I don’t know Australia that well. But certainly outside the English speaking world, people don’t tend to be so surprised when they meet someone who speaks multiple languages, even when they themselves don’t.

    Oh, and you might not have gotten it from my name, but I don’t speak French fluently. I speak English fluently. I speak French *natively*.

  • jjgdenisrobert

    @dingo: Also: a “bald” statement on Spanish??? Have you ever heard Bush try to speak it? Even I, who don’t speak but understand the language to a degree, can detect the thick American accent with which Bush speaks Spanish. And when he was in power, multiple people made the comment that he spoke Spanish like a second year High School Spanish student.

    As well, I do understand and read Portuguese quite well, and can speak it to a degree.

    The original point I was making on your surprise is that the English speaking world in general, and the US in general, is extraordinarily self-centered, and it is telling that only Americans (and as you proved, other English speakers) are surprised when they encounter people who speak other languages. I certainly don’t find the fact surprising at all, as I speak two languages with full fluency, my wife speaks two (not the same), my parents are both bilingual both my in-laws are bilingual, and I’ve known people who spoke up to 8 languages with relative fluency (mostly from the Middle-East). I currently have a friend who speaks Berber, Arabic, French, English and German, all quite fluently. It certainly impresses me that he knows 5 languages and can communicate comfortably in all of them, but it doesn’t not surprise me that someone is able to speak two or even three, since the majority of the people I grew up with did so.

    English speakers are insulated from this because they speak the World’s lingua franca, and thus do not *need* to speak another language. Had I not learned English, my professional options would have been significantly limited. Can you say the same?

  • I took high school Spanish for 3 semesters and I’ve mostly lost it. Unlike most wingnuts I know, I put that down as a failing on my part, and the tinge of guilt digs its way back into my mind whenever the language proficiency of non-Americans comes up.

    The kind of rhetoric slung around about other languages in politics makes me embarrassed for America.

  • Chris from Europe


    How much Flemish was used by Belgian officials at that time? As far as I know Flemish had a clear second-class status until after WWII.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    @16 – DingoJack … I speak fluent Spanish, and will vouch for the low level of Bush’s fluency: neither his accent, vocabulary or grammar are more thewn tourist-level.

  • Australia’s fairly monoglot but we do have a lot of immigrants. Spanish is low on the radar – Vietnamese, Arabic, Chinese (several), Italian and Greek all have more speakers. Of course, we don’t consider it a defect to speak another language. Our last PM speaks Mandarin.

    And I don’t care that the Mandarin for Mandarin is Putonghua, any more than I care that the Greek for Greek is Ελληνικά.

  • dingojack

    jjgdenisrobert – It’s nice to know the handle works as well in French slang. 😀

    Who said I was surprised? Many people I know many people who speak more than one language, an Indian friend of mine’s parents speak several (there are a lot of lanugages in India, English is merely one of the official ones), another is (I suppose) fluent in German, Turkish, French and English. Speaking several languages is hardly unusual. Spanish, French and Mandarin is an unusual combo though.

    I certainly don’t find the fact surprising at all, as I speak two languages with full fluency, my wife speaks two (not the same)… ”

    How do you communicate? By sign language? 🙂 [relax – I assume you meant additionaly to English].

    While I agree with you about George the least’s Spanish, simply ‘guessing’ it’s awful isn’t proof that it is awful, is it?

    As for Huntsman’s Manarin, who knows? Without a native speaker, neither of us are in a position to judge. (Although I love the image of Huntsman and our Kev nattering away in their (possibly) awful Mandarin).



    PS: On the subject of Portugese, what is it’s relationship with Galician?

  • dingojack


    “Many people I know speak more than one language…” or “I know many people who speak more than one language… “, but not both.

    Catastrophic English fail. 😀


  • lpetrich

    Le singe français sur le dos de Newt.

    Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian | History News Network — He liked Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and he now imagines himself a present-day Hari Seldon, complete with creating a Foundation (GOPAC and the like) for slowing the decline of the Empire (the US).

  • lpetrich

    Back in the 1990’s, Newt Gingrich had taught some “history courses” whose content was far from rigorous.

    Political Animal – Steer clear of Newt’s courses

    The thesis of Gingrich’s course is that American history was an uninterrupted continuity of opportunity and progress from colonial times until what he calls the “breakdown” of 1965. If you read the papers, you know what comes next: That’s when the elite liberal state, aided by the counterculture, introduced the infections of dependency, bureaucracy, and failure.

    Like discussing the Civil War without mentioning slavery.

    Newt Gingrich, Pseudointellectual by Daniel Luzer | Washington Monthly

    He earned a Ph.D. in history and taught college before winning a seat in Congress. He has often spoken of himself as an historian. In 1995, he told CNN’s Bob Franken: “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.”

    But whereas Wilson spent years publishing scholarly works, Gingrich was more like the professor who wins popularity awards with undergraduates but fails to get tenure because he hasn’t published anything significant. He even told a college paper in 1977 that “I made the decision two or three years ago that I’d rather run for Congress than publish the papers or academic books necessary to get promoted.”

    Newt Gingrich is not exactly Hari Seldon:

    A typical Gingrich work is full of aphorisms and historical references — and devoid of the hallmarks of academic research: rigor, nuance and consideration of alternative views. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson once assessed materials for a televised history course Gingrich was teaching as a “mishmash of undefined terms … misleading claims … and unclear distinctions.”

  • lpetrich

    Tim Wise » Fake Newton: Looking for the Real Newt Gingrich

    Back in the sixties, he was a Sixties Radical, someone whom Republicans would run against for decades.

    According to friends from that period, and the Tulane student paper, The Hullabaloo, during those heady days of national protest, Gingrich was an iconoclastic liberal, especially with regard to social issues, who despite being a Republican, would regularly complain about how “corrupt and stupid” the white, New Orleans, conservative elite were, and how the city was missing the boat culturally and economically because of the racism of the old-timers.

    He led a mass movement in favor of the campus paper’s right to publish nude photographs. He also protested a brokerage house, a department store, and a local bank. Yes, a bank. He demanded such things as the abolition of compulsory attendance, the right of students to make all dormitory regulations, a policy that would allow students to rate their professors in such a way as to determine tenure decisions, turning an Olympic pool into a public bath, the liberalization of campus drug policy and the abolition of ROTC credit courses.

    But aside from his activism, Gingrich’s most pronounced countercultural tendencies surfaced in his educational philosophies, which he had a chance to put into practice at Tulane in the spring of 1969. It was then that Newt taught a free, non-credit course for first year students — FUTURE 100 — the class title of which was “When you are 49: The Year 2000″ (Not exactly a classicist meditation on the Peloponnesian War). Interviewed by the student paper about the course, Gingrich opined that his teaching method was based on the concept of “total feedback” (whatever, hippie), and that the course would operate without formal rules, notes or lectures. Exam questions, Newt explained, would be given to students two weeks before the test so as to lessen performance anxiety and allow for better results. Not exactly the kind of educational reforms advocated by the right, then or now.

    Claiming that there was “no penalty great enough to compel people to learn,” Gingrich complained that colleges and universities were “bogged down with a lot of useless systems…such as credits and rules, and unrealistic requirements,” which he favored eliminating completely.