Ever the Speaker
Whether or Not He Runs in 2008, Newt Gingrich Is Off to a Talking Start

By Lloyd Grove
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 1, 2007

Newt Gingrich might be too huge to be president.

Not in the physical sense -- though, at 64, he has taken on ballast since his frenetic phase a decade ago as speaker of the House, and he's moving these days with a purposeful waddle. But the conceptual framework of the presidency seems, well, just a tad limiting.

"The presidency is a minor post on the scale of change I'm describing," Gingrich, still the history professor, declares with a dismissive wave.

"You get to appoint a lot of ambassadors. It isn't 50 percent, it's 5 percent of the whole process. I want to make sure by the time we're done that in 511,000 elective positions" -- apparently the whole of U.S. officialdom -- "there are people who understand the 21st century, understand American civilization, and have fundamentally changed government at all levels."

He adds with a puckish grin: "And if, in that process, I become president -- that's fine."

He still has fabulous hair. It's whitening at the summit, creating a halo effect. He's gazing through wonk-tastic oblong wire-rims, and parsing the nature and scope of his ambitions, on the fourth floor of a downtown Washington office building at his corporate consulting firm, the think-tankishly-dubbed Center for Health Transformation. His desk is stacked high with brainiac books -- "World Changing: A User's Guide for the 21st Century," "Making War to Keep Peace," "The Way to Win" and a couple of dozen other weightily titled tomes.

He's plenty busy, so it's hardly surprising that he reports: "I feel good, but at this very moment I feel a little bit tired."

Gingrich Communications on the floor below handles his television appearances and daily radio commentaries, his various fiction and nonfiction book projects, his 60 paid lecture dates and the other 240 free ones, the chartered jets to whisk him there, and his for-profit Web site -- want to read all the articles Newt's research team sends him every day? Become a Newt.org premium subscriber for $5.95 a month! He's also running a tax-exempt 527 political action organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future, and bouncing between satellite offices at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, a professorship at the National Defense University and pro-bono service on various government and academic policy panels. This doesn't include the Spanish lessons by phone. The whole thing constitutes what might be called Newt Inc. -- a multimillion-dollar enterprise that keeps three dozen camp followers gainfully employed and Gingrich earning what he terms "adequate" income in the seven figures.

"I don't have to be president," he says. "I'd be willing to be president."

Another splash of Gingrich, anyone?

* * *

He has been threatening to run since last summer, tickling the body politic with, depending on the day, predictions ranging from, yes, he'll "probably" do it to, no, the odds are "4 to 1 against." He says he'll give his final answer by Oct. 1 -- after one of his televised American Solutions mega-workshops on how to transform government from bloated bureaucracy to lean machine -- and until then he's keeping his options open.

"He's a dynamic person that can rally a lot of intellectual firepower around him. He has a new idea every five seconds," says prickly Texas Republican Tom DeLay -- a frequent Gingrich detractor who resigned as House majority leader last year to fight charges of campaign law violations.

"But I think when people take a look at what he's really saying, he's going to have a hard time with conservatives. He's trying to appeal to everyone and cover up who he really is -- which is typical of Newt."

DeLay cites Gingrich's recent love-fest with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during what was supposed to have been a debate about global warming. The two not only ended up hugging trees, they almost hugged each other. "He's not in sync with the base of the party," DeLay insists. "Take his whole American Solutions idea. I'm very skeptical about finding solutions for government. Government is the problem, not the solution."

Still, Gingrich has been carefully cultivating key Republican constituencies, especially Christian activists who might balk at nominating a formerly liberal Mormon who claims to have seen the light and abandoned at least his ideological apostasy (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) or a pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, occasionally cross-dressing, thrice-married Yankees fan (former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani). Never mind poor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), sinking in the polls as though lashed to an anchor.

"I like John," Gingrich says, "but the combination of McCain-Feingold [the widely despised campaign finance law] and McCain-Kennedy [the hated immigration bill] is a tad heavy." Since the Supreme Court just carved up the former, and a raucous grass-roots insurgency deep-sixed the latter, it might seem Gingrich is on to something here.

As for former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, expected to announce a run for the presidency this week, "I think he becomes the establishment alternative," Gingrich says. "I've been fond of Fred ever since 'The Hunt for Red October.' I think he was totally convincing as an admiral."

What about Thompson's reputation for being the opposite of a workaholic? "I don't think it's a matter of working all that hard and being all that intense if he can put together a fairly bold, Sarkozy-like program," Gingrich says, referring to the just-elected center-right president of France. "Fred is not Ronald Reagan, but he could be Dwight Eisenhower." But could he have organized D-Day? "No," Gingrich chuckles, "but Eisenhower couldn't have been in 'The Hunt for Red October.' "

Gingrich, for his part, dismisses warnings that October will be too late for a non-billionaire to jump into the race and raise the necessary cash. "Do you know the approximate size of the U.S. economy? About $14 trillion. Annually. And how much money has been raised in politics? Hillary peaked in the first quarter with $26 million. If you assume we live in a limited universe of relatively impoverished people who can afford to contribute to only one candidate, then I will probably not find any supporters on October 1.

"But if you assume we live in a country of 300 million people, a substantial number of whom will not have contributed to anybody, we'll have to see. Assume for a minute that one of the three front-runners collapses. How many supporters does that make available? Assume for a minute that none of them catch fire."

Enter Newt? It's a testament to Gingrich's belief in endless possibility that in May he traveled to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., to give a commencement speech inveighing against the evils of "radical secularism." (Last year he published a book on the subject, "Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in Our Nation's History and Future.")

A Lutheran-turned-Southern Baptist, a native Pennsylvanian who made his political career in Atlanta, Gingrich likes to attend Mass with his Catholic wife (who sings in the choir at Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). He had already taken the extraordinary step of going on right-wing evangelical leader James Dobson's radio show to admit committing the sin of adultery prior to tying the knot with his third wife -- who, when the married speaker of the House took up with her, was a 30ish, sylphlike Agriculture Committee clerk named Callista Bisek. (In August, they'll celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary. "This time it's really love," says Gingrich's friend, former representative Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, Callista's boss before she joined the committee staff.)

In a riveting moment of political theater, Dobson grilled Gingrich on "the rumors . . . that you were in an affair with a woman obviously who wasn't your wife at the same time that Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were having their escapade." Gingrich manfully replied: "Well, the fact is that the honest answer is yes." Then he tried to draw distinctions between himself and Clinton, noting that House Republicans impeached the president for felony perjury, not sex. Dobson, a psychologist by training, brushed aside Gingrich's quibbles.

"Do you understand that word, 'repentance'?" he persisted.

"Absolutely," Gingrich answered. "I also believe that there are things in my own life that I have turned to God and have gotten on my knees and prayed about and sought God's forgiveness."

Today Gingrich verbally winces as he recalls that radio interlude: "Of course it's tough! It's like talking to your mom. There are things in life you just don't want to go home and tell mom. But it was my intuitive judgment that this was a room I had to walk through. If I never walked through it, I'd always be on the other side of the door."

Conservative activist and onetime presidential candidate Gary Bauer says the gambit was smart politics. "If you're thinking about running for the presidency and you have a personal history that you know will be used by your opponents -- and will raise questions for some who want to be your friends -- it is wise indeed to try to deal with that on your own terms rather than have people hear about it first from those who wish you ill," he says.

But former House majority leader Dick Armey, who was Speaker Gingrich's second-in-command, isn't so sure.

"Personally, I would not have gone on Dobson's show and made a confession of any kind," says Armey, who counts himself a Gingrich admirer. "My own view of the troubles of the Republican Party is that there have been many times over the years that Republicans have gotten themselves in trouble with the electorate by trying to make the Jim Dobsons of the world happy. But it isn't possible to make Jim Dobson happy. His occupation is not to be happy. Why give him what he will never receive?"

Armey claims Dobson's vaunted political influence is greatly exaggerated. "I doubt very much that Dobson can control all the votes even in his own family, let alone hundreds of thousands of votes. . . . I guess it's not outside the realm of possibility that Newt could be playing out a newfound religious conviction."

On the other hand, Bauer adds, Gingrich has never been a convincing religious firebrand. "Economics and national security are always what have made Newt's heart beat fastest."

Baggage Claim

"Are you Newt Gingrich?" asks a plump middle-aged woman in T-shirt and shorts.

"Yes, I am," confirms the object of her curiosity, who, wearing a bright orange Tommy Bahama camp shirt over khaki pants, has shown up unannounced at the National World War II Memorial to join Callista Gingrich and a small group of surprised tourists on a nighttime "photo safari" of the monuments on the Mall. "Ohmigod!" the woman exclaims. "I watch you on Fox News almost every night!"

But tonight Gingrich has a supporting role -- hauling his wife's tripod and camera bag as local photographer E. David Luria guides his wards from World War II to Korea to the Lincoln to Vietnam Veterans to, finally, the Albert Einstein statue. "I'm Callista's Sherpa," he says. But soon he's surrounded by out-of-towners -- two couples from Texas, another contingent from Louisiana, a teenage boy and his dad from Alabama -- who ask for his autograph and want to pose with him for snapshots.

"You need to run!" the plump lady calls out. Gingrich smiles. "I'd forgotten," he chirps happily after his fans move on, "how big a tourist attraction I am."

More than eight years after leaving public office, Gingrich has been astonishingly successful at maintaining his 93 percent name recognition. The downside of his fame, of course, is that more than half the electorate -- a daunting 53 percent in a recent Zogby poll -- say they'd never vote to put him in the White House.

"Newt would have a very hard time winning the nomination and a harder time winning the general election -- he's got too much baggage," says a prominent Republican officeholder and former associate who is fond of Gingrich and doesn't wish to criticize him publicly. "Newt is a great idea man, but he's also a man who leaves no fault unspoken. He tried to be the predominant power in the American government from the position of speaker of the House -- because he never got to be the predominant power by being president -- and he got a bloody nose for doing that.

"The left spent hundreds of millions of dollars demonizing Newt in the 1996 election cycle alone. In a 40-minute speech, Newt comes across as an impressive, thoughtful guy. But you take four seconds out of that speech and you can make him sound like a nut case, like a radical, like his eyes glow in the dark. When you're subjected to that kind of treatment for four years, it's hard to recover."

Initially sent reeling by Gingrich's "Contract With America" juggernaut that overturned 40 years of Democratic rule, Clinton ended up deftly outmaneuvering him. The speaker was portrayed by the White House as an egomaniac who shut down the federal government out of personal pique -- he'd whined to reporters that the president had snubbed him on Air Force One during a trip to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral -- as an ogre who attempted to strip deserving citizens of Medicaid and other entitlements, and as a motor-mouth who talked so loosely about so many hot-button issues that even his own lieutenants advised him -- in the immortal words of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) -- to "shut up." After the 1998 election, Gingrich was forcibly retired by his fellow Republicans. "In the Chinese tradition," Gingrich says, "I'd lost the mandate of Heaven."

Gingrich acknowledges his baggage problem, but thinks it might not be fatal. "The question is, is it a glass jaw or a harpoon?" he says, trying to assess whether the damage is temporary or shattering. "If it's a harpoon, you take it out and it heals."

Of Lincoln and Franklin

Traipsing around the Mall for four hours while lugging his wife's camera equipment -- Callista is honing her photographic skills so she can take pictures for a planned coffee-table edition of "Rediscovering God in America" -- Gingrich proves to be an entertaining, often surprising, conversationalist.

"In fourth grade, I wanted to be a movie director, so I read all sorts of books on how to make movies," he confides. And when did he drop that idea? "I haven't," Gingrich answers. "I just haven't gotten around to it." (Or, as Norma Desmond put it in "Sunset Boulevard": "I am big. It's the pictures that got small.")

He started the day with a full-dress policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute, sweepingly titled "The Next Governing Majority and the Transformation of American Politics and Government," and spent the rest of it in meetings, phone calls, an interview and taping his staff-written radio commentaries. Long after sunset, his verbal powers have not deserted him.

The man loves to talk -- whether about Walter Isaacson's "terrific" biography of Einstein, his fascination with dinosaurs and paleontology, his admiration for Russell Crowe ("probably our best actor"), the sheer fun he's had collaborating with William Forstchen on alternative-history fiction like their latest, "Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th," his newfound enjoyment of golf, inspired by his athletic wife, or his hero-worship of Abraham Lincoln.

"Where did Newt go?" Callista asks at the Lincoln Memorial when it's time to trek to the next site. She shrugs and carries her tripod down the memorial's many steps, and eventually this reporter finds her missing Sherpa standing alone in front of the marble-etched Gettysburg Address, reading it aloud. When he finishes, he's clearly moved. He produces a handkerchief, removes his glasses and wipes his eyes.

"Lincoln's cadences are a combination of Shakespeare and the King James Bible," Gingrich says. "He may well have been the best wordsmith ever to be president. I find it very humbling. I'm routinely reminded of the gap between him and the rest of us."

Like the current president? Gingrich rolls his eyes.

"It's breathtaking! You can imagine -- given my respect for the power of language -- what this is like. The key to leading a free people is to be able to communicate with them. And if you can't do that, you cannot lead. It's just that simple."

It's almost midnight, and Gingrich is sounding less and less like a future candidate and more and more like a guy who can't stop reaching under the sneeze-guard and loading his plate with tasty morsels from the all-you-can-eat intellectual buffet.

"I'm actually pretty happy trying to develop a new generation of solutions," he says. "I think if I can find a way to do that in a way that's real, not just an academic exercise, put that on top of the 'Contract With America,' getting the majority in the House and helping the Georgia Republican Party, that would be a pretty good run. I think the Benjamin Franklin analogy is the best analogy. Franklin enjoyed being Franklin. He didn't think he was less than Washington or Jefferson. He was deliberately eclectic and deliberately complex, and happy to be so. He was pretty interesting. If you had told him, 'If you could have been simple, you could have been president,' he would have said, 'That's pretty stupid.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company