Newt Gingrich has never had trouble attracting attention to himself. From his days on the Republican back benches in a Democratic-controlled House in the 1980s through his tumultuous tenure as speaker after the GOP House takeover in 1994 that he largely engineered, Gingrich was always easy to spot, a restless, relentless advocate of all things conservative who was never reluctant to tell others what he thought.
So it was entirely in character that earlier this week Gingrich gave a speech that has caused another uproar, dividing his friends in the conservative movement and bringing to the forefront a simmering dispute inside the Bush administration.
In the speech at the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a resident scholar, Gingrich assailed the State Department. He portrayed it as a "broken instrument of diplomacy" and accused it of a "deliberate and systematic effort to undermine" President Bush's policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Calling for wholesale reform of the State Department, Gingrich explicitly contrasted that agency's "pattern of diplomatic failure" with what he described as the successes of the Defense Department under Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
But in the aftermath of those stinging words, Gingrich did something wholly out of character: He went to ground.
"He's not granting any interviews on the topic," Gingrich's spokesman, Rick Tyler, said. According to Tyler, Gingrich was surprised by the "degree and intensity" of reaction to the speech. Since delivering it, the former speaker has appeared on two talk shows on Fox Television, with which he has a contractual arrangement. But otherwise he has turned down "every network morning show, two weekend political shows, a couple of nighttime news magazine shows and probably every talk radio show that invites guests," Tyler said.
Asked if White House officials had asked Gingrich to drop the subject, Tyler said that he didn't know, but that "I would be surprised if he didn't receive a call" from the White House.
A key reason the speech attracted so much attention was Gingrich's longstanding relationship with Rumsfeld, who at the beginning of the Bush administration appointed him to the Defense Policy Board, an advisory body that meets with Rumsfeld several times a year. Gingrich is seen as a Rumsfeld ally, and his assault on the State Department was interpreted by some as part of the ongoing struggle between the Pentagon and Powell's State Department over the direction of U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.
The reaction to the speech included the acid comment of Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who said, "It is clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy." It also included rebukes from two of Gingrich's longtime allies from their days together in the House, former representatives Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Vin Weber (R-Minn.).
Kemp called the speech "a thinly veiled attack" on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that did "enormous collateral damage" to Bush. Weber said, "It was unhelpful on so many fronts that he cares about, I can only guess he was freelancing."
But others came to Gingrich's defense, saying his criticism of the State Department reflected a widely held view among conservative Republicans. "Newt has become increasingly frustrated at what he regards as the chronic failure of the State Department to get behind the president's policies," said one Gingrich associate who asked not to be identified. "There is a sense among conservatives that the department, by and large, is not sympathetic to the president's policies."
Tony Blankley, who was Gingrich's press secretary in the House and is editor of the editorial page of the Washington Times, said Gingrich's speech should not have been seen as an attack on Powell but an example of how Gingrich has always approached issues.
"The great thrust of Newt's critique is structural," Blankley said. "When he took over Congress, the first thing he did was reorganize the committee system. It wasn't a matter of personality; it was always focused on structural reform. That is something Newt has always been interested in. I see a lot of continuity in what Newt said Tuesday [at AEI] and what he did as speaker and what he's talked about on defense issues."
Gingrich has always been a political lightning rod. As speaker, he survived a coup attempt by restive House Republicans, but left the House amid ethics questions and after the GOP suffered losses in the 1998 elections.
He remained in Washington and founded the Gingrich Group, which describes itself as a "communications and consulting firm that specializes in transformational change." His Web site, newt.org, says Gingrich is a "highly sought after public speaker and world-renowned strategist" and a "leading figure in entrepreneurial and technological advances."
How much influence Gingrich has with the Bush administration is an open question even among his friends. He is a longtime friend not only of Rumsfeld but of Vice President Cheney, who served in the House with him. He has never been shy about expressing his opinions. One participant in Defense Policy Board meetings said Gingrich often shows up with an outline of the points he wants to make to Rumsfeld.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles "Chuck" Boyd said Gingrich also enjoys a good relationship with the uniformed military services. He said much of that stemmed from a series of lectures on the congressional component of government decision-making that Gingrich has delivered every year since the mid-1980s to select groups of officers from each of the services who were considered rising stars.
"For 15 years, most of the officers in the four services who reached three-star and four-star rank were lectured to by Newt Gingrich and had some connection with him," Boyd said. "That wasn't true of any other American politician."
A source familiar with Pentagon workings said Gingrich uses his access to Rumsfeld to pepper the defense secretary with e-mails on defense-related topics. Whether Gingrich's advice affects administration policy remains unknown.
The source said Rumsfeld appeared to value his relationship with Gingrich but "also knows that there is a ratchet factor with Newt. You've got to ratchet down what Newt tells you. He has a propensity for overstatement. You've got to modify what he tells you."