In the last installment of Newt Gingrich’s college course called “Renewing American Civilization,” which ran (and is now re-running) on the Mind Extension University cable channel, Gingrich played, for some reason still obscure to me, that crowd pleaser, that favorite cut, that “best of” gobbet from Ken Burns’s hit “Civil War” show in which an actor reads the last letter of Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife over a weepy violin. Mr. Gingrich was himself not unaffected emotionally and had to brush away the tears. “I get teary,” he explained simply to the boys and girls of Reinhardt College, Waleska, Georgia, who looked on in curiosity or embarrassment.

Why, I wondered, did I get exasperated rather than teary? Why, indeed, did it seem to me, who cry in movies with some frequency, ridiculous to well up to a TV show? I think it has something to do with the...

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