Now, after a 13-year hiatus from politics, that pugnaciously cherubic face under the dome of white hair is back on the main stage. The 68-year-old former House speaker is climbing the polls as GOP voters watch him unspool seamless paragraphs on debate stages lined with stammering presidential opponents.
To some, a lifetime of hearing how smart he is has produced in Gingrich an ungovernable ego, colossal even by Washington standards. To others, it’s just biography. He vacuums information, and always has.
“One time we were outside and he was cooking hamburgers, talking to me and reading a book all at the same time,” said Joanne Harwell, 76, the wife of the pastor at First Baptist Church in Carollton, Ga., where Gingrich was a deacon and Sunday school teacher during his professor days at West Georgia College. “And it was a thick book.”
Evenings at the Gingrich home were often silent but for the sound of flipping pages, with his youngest daughter, Jackie, on the floor, sister Kathy draped across a chair, his first wife on the couch, all deep in a chapter of something.
“My dad would read, and he would walk slowly back and forth across the room,” said Jackie Gingrich Cushman, 45, from Atlanta. “He was a speed reader, and his finger moved along under the lines pretty fast. We spent a lot of evenings like that.”
It was a library hush that would not survive the barrage that Gingrich was about to launch on American politics.
If one hemisphere of the Gingrich brain is chock-full of facts, maybe it’s the other one that tosses the grenades. They are the double helixes of his persona, big thinking and bomb throwing, intertwined. Ever since he was brainy kid from an unsettled home, he has deployed intelligence and an embrace of disorder to vault himself ahead in life. He is a public-sector version of what business schools call a “disrupter.”
Gingrich is not so much a change agent as an upheaval agent. The man who shattered a 40-year Democratic House majority, upended congressional culture, transformed welfare, shut down the government, took on Big Bird — and along the way married three times and morphed from Lutheran to Southern Baptist to Roman Catholic — is no slave to the status quo.
To Gingrich, the thirst for roiled water is just a natural extension of the restless society he grew up in.
“Americans are astonishingly change-oriented,” he said last week in an interview at his austere campaign office in Arlington, talking between bites of cheeseburger from a foam box. “They go from BlackBerrys to iPhones. They go from iPhones to iPads. They go from movies to YouTube. It’s the most churning, chaotic society in history.”
And now he wants to be its churning, chaotic leader. His sudden success has legions of longtime Newtologists wondering which Gingrich will dominate his candidacy — or his presidency. The contemplative historian or the combustible politician? Or both?