POLITICS JULY 24, 2006
"Who's that gray-haired guy in there with the monkeys and the Kennedy?"
It's a hot, humid summer afternoon at Providence's Roger Williams Park Zoo, and a young woman is asking about the enthusiastic gentleman who, along with Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy, is behind the glass wall feeding mealworms to the white-faced saki monkeys. Kennedy, who is only a couple of weeks removed from an embarrassing stint in drug rehab, has the sheepish look of a man who would rather be somewhere--anywhere--else. But his silver-haired companion is having the time of his life. Wearing a squinty-eyed smile, his ample belly protruding over his belt and the white mop atop his head charmingly mussed, he holds out a palm filled with mealworms and watches the monkeys go to town. When his hand is emptied of the slimy treats, he turns to a zookeeper and asks for more. It's just another day in the life of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich--once the second-most powerful politician in the United States, but now just some guy feeding monkeys at the zoo.
The zoo trip, needless to say, was Gingrich's idea--his treat for appearing with Kennedy earlier in the day to give a bipartisan talk about health care at a business conference. It's not that Gingrich minds talking about health care; he just loves going to zoos. The Providence zoo, Gingrich eagerly tells its director, is the seventy-fifth or seventy-sixth zoo he's visited. In fact, before he decided to become an academic and then a politician, Gingrich confesses, he wanted to be a zookeeper.
As the zoo director leads Gingrich and Kennedy on a tour of the facilities, it's difficult not to wonder whether Gingrich made the wrong career choice. While Kennedy--who is dressed appropriately for the oppressive weather in a polo shirt and khaki shorts but still looks miserable-- occasionally chimes in with an unconvincing "Isn't that the coolest?", Gingrich, who is sweating in suit pants and an Oxford shirt, asks questions that betray a startling degree of zoological expertise. How big does a flamingo herd have to be before the birds begin breeding? Are larger kangaroos as aggressive among themselves as wallabies? Does the zoo have "roar & snore" nights, when it allows visitors to sleep over? For more than an hour, Gingrich peppers the zoo director with such queries, stopping only to offer his own insights. "That's the darkest Masai I've ever seen," he marvels as he stands outside the giraffe enclosure.
Finally, it's time for Gingrich to leave, and, as he steps into a silver Lincoln Town Car, the zoo director shakes his hand, looking happy but also a bit dazed. (Most VIP visitors, he will later explain, aren't that interested in the zoo.) And then Gingrich is off to do the things he does when he's not conducting fact-finding zoological missions: writing books, giving $50,000-a-pop speeches, running his health care consulting business, offering the Bush administration advice on the war on terrorism, and, oh yes, laying the groundwork for his 2008 presidential campaign.
That's right, Newt Gingrich is running for president. Granted, he's not yet an official candidate, and, if you ask him whether he's running, he--like virtually everyone eyeing the White House this early in the process--will deny it. But, as soon as that denial leaves his lips, Gingrich, unlike other presidential candidates, will not-so-subtly undercut it--inviting you, for instance, to ask him again in August, when he'll be in Iowa glad-handing at the state fair. Because, as Gingrich himself seems to realize, the notion that he is running for president is, at least at first glance, unbelievable.
After all, it has been almost eight years since Gingrich last held elected office, and he didn't exactly leave on his own terms, resigning as speaker and from Congress after overseeing the Republicans' disastrous performance in the 1998 midterm elections. His time out of office has been similarly inglorious. Shortly after slinking off the political stage, Gingrich, who had mercilessly hounded Bill Clinton about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, went through marital difficulties of his own--ditching his second wife for the woman who would eventually become his third, a congressional aide 23 years his junior. More significantly, Gingrich has spent the last few years impotently watching from the sidelines as his crowning achievement, the 1994 Republican Revolution, succumbed to decadence and corruption, and many of the men whom Gingrich played a key role in bringing to prominence and power--men like Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff--became poster children for political corruption. Suffice it to say, these are not the items of which presidential resumes are made.
And yet, were it not for these misfortunes, it's doubtful that the 63-year-old Gingrich would be contemplating the White House at all. First, there is the not insignificant matter of personal redemption: A presidential campaign, even an unsuccessful one, would go a long way toward erasing the bad memories of Gingrich's rushed and gloomy exit from the House. It would afford Gingrich the opportunity to defend the legacy of the 1994 Republican Revolution and rescue it from the grubby paws of people like DeLay and Abramoff, who, to some extent, have replaced Gingrich as the faces of that revolution.
More importantly, running for president would allow Gingrich to assume the role that comes most naturally to him: savior. Gingrich has always had an outsized image of himself--likening the political strategizing he did as speaker to Ulysses S. Grant's command of the Union Army or dubbing the course he taught at Kennesaw State University "Renewing American Civilization." And, despite the remarkable distance he has traveled from those heady days, that titanic self-regard remains. Gingrich's current political positioning, he explains, is about something much bigger than a mere presidential campaign. It's about "defining the idea context and solution context of the next generation of American politics." It's about "winning the future" (the title, incidentally, of one of his recent books). It's about nothing less than saving the United States from ruin.
One recent morning in Washington, Gingrich gives me a laundry list of the momentous challenges he believes the country currently faces--from the war with what he calls "the irreconcilable wing of Islam" to the rise of China and India to the epidemic of diabetes. But these aren't the only challenges, he explains. "I think the deeper problem," he says, a tinge of weariness creeping into his voice, "is the whole nature of the modern world." He grimaces. "I think that we are almost nowhere in explaining to ourselves how hard this is going to be." No one, Gingrich seems to believe, is capable of offering that explanation, much less acting on it. Not John McCain. Not Rudy Giuliani. Not even George W. Bush. No one, that is, except Newt Gingrich.
Talk about Gingrich these days with any of his friends and admirers, let alone with the man himself, and you'll undoubtedly hear the same word: ideas. "If there was ever anyone in politics who's an ideas man," says New Hampshire Representative Charlie Bass, "it's Newt Gingrich." "Newt obviously has ideas," says Gingrich's former spokesman and Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley, "so he gains cachet from the contrast with people just wandering around repeating slogans." Joe Klein, writing recently in Time, went so far as to jokingly propose a new federal position for Gingrich akin to party ideologist in the old Soviet Union--"party ideaologist."
Indeed, Gingrich is so full of ideas that he has actually created a physical repository for them--a twelve-by-eight windowless office at the American Enterprise Institute (where Gingrich is a senior fellow) in which, he says, "we're trying to literally organize layer after layer of ideas." There, two twentysomething Newtoids pore over copies of Winning the Future, boiling the book's essence down to short maxims that they then type on small sheets of white paper and thumbtack to the wall under headings like DEFEATING AMERICA'S ENEMIES, DEFENDING GOD IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE, AND PROMOTING ACTIVE, HEALTHY AGING. "It's a work in progress," one of them says when I visit, apologetically pointing to a bare spot on the wall.
The notion that Gingrich is brimming with ideas-- on everything from animal husbandry to the health care system--is, of course, nothing new. An old joke in Republican circles, dating back to the early '80s, when Gingrich was just a backbencher, was that his office had file cabinets stuffed to the point of overflow with newt's ideas and one uncluttered desk drawer labeled newt's good ideas. But the degree to which Gingrich and his allies go out of their way these days to portray him as a "man of ideas" almost certainly has something to do with their desire to distinguish him from DeLay--and to try to separate the House leadership under Gingrich from the House leadership that followed. As one Gingrich booster puts it rather explicitly, "DeLay was about power. Newt was about ideas."
When Gingrich talks about his speakership, he does so in the way Democrats of a certain age talk about the Kennedy administration. "It's a little bit like Camelot," he says. "There was this golden moment when Republicans cared about ideas and kept their word." He adds, "There's a certain virtue to my having left, because there's a clear break point, and then, after I left, gradually the spirit of DeLay and Abramoff became symbolic."
It's a nice story, if not an entirely accurate one. After all, while Gingrich was never personally fond of DeLay, he did bring him onto his leadership team, making the man known as "the Hammer" his whip. He also supported DeLay's efforts to turn K Street into a solidly Republican enclave. "I remember Newt talking about how the K Street Project was important," says DeLay's former spokesman John Feehery, "because, ultimately, the real place where the fund-raising happens starts with K Street." Abramoff, meanwhile, didn't make the career transition from Hollywood producer to Washington lobbyist until after the 1994 midterms, when his old pals from his College Republican days became ascendant. "Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet privately with Speaker Newt Gingrich," the new lobbyist wrote in a February 1995 letter pitching his services to the governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, "and was able to raise the issue of the desire of the CNMI for more latitude in dealing with its own affairs."
And then there were Gingrich's own scandals--including a run-in with the House Ethics Committee over the use of tax-exempt funds to pay for his political activities that resulted in a formal reprimand and a $300,000 penalty. Gingrich blamed these troubles on Democratic efforts to demonize him--a somewhat ironic charge from a man who had disseminated to GOP colleagues a list of recommended terms to describe their Democratic opponents, including "sick," "corrupt," and "traitors." In other words, most of the problems that crippled the House Republicans during the days of DeLay and Abramoff--the raw exercise of power, the rampant corruption, the hyper-partisanship--were also there, at least in embryonic form, during Gingrich's reign. "Newt wasn't just a piano player while all this stuff was going on upstairs," says Marshall Wittmann, who served as the Christian Coalition's director of legislative affairs during the beginning of Gingrich's speakership. "The seeds were being sown for what eventually took place back in those early years."
Gingrich prefers to ignore these inconvenient facts. In his retelling, the House under his leadership was a laboratory of problem-solving that not only cut taxes, reduced the debt, and balanced the budget, but even took crucial steps that benefited the war on terrorism. "The 9/11 Commission described the Gingrich plus-up and said it was the only increase in intelligence spending in the '90s," the man responsible for said plus-up boasts, "and [George] Tenet has said that, without that plus-up, the system would have broken down." The sum total of his and the Republican revolutionaries' actions, Gingrich argues, was nothing short of monumental. "What we did was create a solution-oriented, idea-based, grassroots movement that led Washington by changing the country."
Gingrich says all this, he hastens to add, not to brag but to impart a lesson--a lesson not everyone has learned. "I think neither Bush and Rove in Texas nor the DeLay faction ever understood what we did," he tells me. "They didn't study it, they didn't think about it." On another occasion, addressing a group of scholars and reporters at the Brookings Institution, Gingrich is still more specific. "I think the Gingrich model of an idea-led, contentious Republican Party that fought and argued and debated is a lot better as a model than 'the Hammer,'" he says. "If you just think about it, if you think you're in an age where you need new ideas, a hammer is a relatively dumb symbol."
A prolific author, Gingrich has written four alternative historical fictions--spinning tales of what would have happened had the Confederates won at Gettysburg or had the United States not confronted Nazi Germany--and is currently at work on a fifth about the Pacific theater in World War II. But there is no alternative history that seems to interest him so much as the one about what would have happened had he not politically imploded in the late '90s. Had he remained speaker, Gingrich tells me, DeLay, for one, would have been held in check. "He never would have had the level of power that he had," Gingrich says. "It wouldn't have happened, and I would have been consciously organizing and helping younger members create countervailing centers of ideas."
But his political downfall, Gingrich believes, had ramifications that stretch far beyond what transpired in the House after his departure. "I think, when I was speaker, you could argue that it was the second-most powerful office in the country," Gingrich says. And there was a time--prior to the government shutdown, prior to the impeachment debacle--when Gingrich seemed to be on a glide-path to the most powerful office in the country. He was viewed by Republicans as both Moses and Joshua, having led his people out of bondage and into the promised land, and many assumed he would be their presidential nominee in 2000. It's an agonizing game of "what if" for Gingrich, because, as he never tires of pointing out, he was right about so many things that others were wrong about--leaving implicit the suggestion that, had he been in charge, certain catastrophes could have been avoided.
Like September 11. Gingrich guides the skeptical to his 1984 book Window of Opportunity, in which he urged the United States to confront terrorism.
Or Katrina. Gingrich tells the story of how, "in August of last year, before Katrina, I went to see Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld, and I said, look, you have an enormous systems crisis. ... I said, 'You're going to have a catastrophe.'"
Or Iraq. "For reasons I don't understand," he says, "in June of 2003, [the Bush administration] decided to go for an American occupation. ... I was screaming at Rice, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. ... Now, had we appointed Khalilzad to be ambassador in June of 2003, I think we would have saved at least 1,000 American lives, and we would have ended the war much earlier."
When I finally ask Gingrich point-blank what would have happened had he not resigned as speaker, he gets a far-off look in his eyes. My question is specifically in the context of the House, but Gingrich doesn't take it that way. Rather, he heads straight for the bigger picture. "It's hard to go back and imagine," he says in a wistful tone. "It would have been a different world."
For the time being, Gingrich has had to settle for more modest satisfactions. He has the Center for Health Transformation, his for-profit health care consulting business, and Gingrich Communications, his political shop, which combine to give him a staff of about 25--more than some congressmen. When he's not in his Washington office or at his home in suburban Virginia, he's typically appearing on Fox News, where he's on contract as a commentator, or traveling the country delivering speeches--often for astronomical fees--in front of groups that range from Michigan's Ottawa County Republican Party to the National Plastics Expo. "I once asked Gingrich years ago how he'd like to be remembered," his political Svengali, Joe Gaylord, tells me. "His reply was that 'I'd like people to think of me as a patriot and a teacher.' I think he's in both roles right now."
For all the material and psychological comfort those roles may provide Gingrich, he clearly believes that they also entail making others uncomfortable. To the extent that he has a stump speech for his nascent presidential campaign, it involves explaining to his audiences that the United States is on the brink of calamity. In late June, on the same day that he later blitzes the Providence zoo, Gingrich offers his dark vision to a gathering of venture capitalists and private equity managers at a tony seaside resort in Newport, Rhode Island. His ostensible topic is health care, but, in order to put the crisis into context, he explains, he must offer a broader societal critique. And that critique begins, as it does in seemingly every speech Gingrich makes these days, with a particular historical analogy. "I believe that the scale of total challenge we face is more like April 1861 than any other period since then," Gingrich says. He goes on to explain that April 1861 was the month Fort Sumter was fired upon, setting off a chain of events--from the Civil War to the construction of the transcontinental railroad to the printing of paper currency--that no one at the time foresaw. "You go back through the cold war, the Second World War, the Great Depression, the First World War--each of those were large, singular, focusable events. In some cases, they were excruciating, but they were containable," he says. "We're going to be hit over the next 15 or 20 years with so many different things simultaneously that the total number of solutions we have to come up with is going to stretch our capacity as a society to talk to itself well enough to actually reach agreement to get something done."
For Gingrich, the deeper problem, as he might put it, is not so much the size of the challenge, but that no one is prepared to face it--especially not President Bush. Gingrich's relationship with W has never been close. Part of that is because the two men have not had many occasions to interact: When Gingrich was leading the Republican Revolution in Washington, Bush was in Austin learning how to be a governor; by the time Bush was ready to move onto the national stage, Gingrich was in political Siberia. When Bush became president, Gingrich had good relationships with Dick Cheney (from their time together in the House), Donald Rumsfeld (from their work on defense issues), and Condoleezza Rice (whom he met at Stanford's Hoover Institution, where he's a visiting fellow), so he tended to communicate his ideas through them. But, more than the lack of personal connection, it seems clear that Gingrich's biggest problem with Bush is that he doesn't put much stock in Bush's intelligence. "There is a certain smartest-kid-in-the-class syndrome here," says one Gingrich friend, trying to explain the relationship--or lack thereof--between the two men.
To raise the topic of Bush with Gingrich, I read him a quote he gave to The New Yorker shortly after September 11, in which he said of the president, "You have to remember, this is a Texas governor learning to be leader of the world." Looking back over the last five years, I ask, does he think Bush has learned that role? "I think he's a lot better than he was in 2001," Gingrich replies. And that's as far as he'll go. Two days before, U.S. forces in Iraq had killed Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, and, while Gingrich is obviously pleased with the news, he's angry at Bush for the way he delivered it. "This was the moment to say, 'We got Zarqawi, but you need to remember ... this is a worldwide campaign with worldwide complications, and it's going to go on a long time,' because every time the country looks up, they need to be reminded of that." He adds, "I think the administration is trapped in normalcy."
And that, in Gingrich's view, is a tragedy, because normal leaders are not what these times call for. "The genius of guys like Lincoln and Reagan and FDR--the great communicator leaders--is that they're actually educators, so they understand when they use a phrase that they have to explain it, because, by definition, you won't understand it or they wouldn't need to be using it," he says. "I think Bush is like a lot of managers who think, if they repeat it, it's your problem to figure it out. Now, no great teacher believes it's your problem to figure it out, because most of the students won't." He goes on, "I think Bush represents a Harvard Business School model of leadership, as opposed to an educator-communicator model." It's an odd insult coming from a man who once taught a business course at Kennesaw State University, but it's an insult nonetheless.
Gingrich says he won't make a final decision about whether to run for president until 2007. "Sometime late next year, we'll look," he explains, "and then, if at that point there's still a huge vacuum, and if at that point there's enough interest, we'll probably do something." In the meantime, he's making sure that, when that moment comes, he'll be ready to pull the trigger. He's a long shot to secure his party's nomination, but perhaps not as desperate a long shot as you might initially think: While he may be anonymous to visitors at a zoo, he still has fantastic name recognition among the people who vote in GOP presidential primaries. In a recent Gallup poll of national Republicans, Gingrich placed third, behind Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, among potential 2008 presidential candidates. And, in June, Gingrich was the top vote-getter in a 2008 straw poll at the Minnesota Republican Party state convention.
"There'll be a moderate candidate like Giuliani or McCain," predicts conservative activist and longtime Gingrich friend Grover Norquist, "and, as soon as conservatives realize they don't want that, they'll grab the prominent conservative, who could be [Senator George] Allen or could be Newt." Gingrich, Norquist continues, "is by far the best speaker and presenter. ... He's got star quality; people want to come and listen to him." Even if Gingrich doesn't win--as almost certainly will be the case--by running for president, he'll ensure that more people, not to mention more reporters, listen to what he has to say, a benefit he himself acknowledges. His presidential posturing will have gotten him, and his ideas, some of the attention he believes they deserve.
But is attention all that Gingrich thinks he's owed? He repeatedly emphasizes that he doesn't miss being in charge, that he doesn't need to be president. "Nixon had this remarkably effective, deeply intense will to power," he says. "Reagan and I have a will to ideas." He's constantly boasting about the influence he has behind the scenes--about the 53 hours of classified briefings on Iraq and the war on terrorism the administration gave him in one month alone; about his access to Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, and now Karen Hughes, who had him into her State Department office a few months ago to pick his brain on public diplomacy; about the reception he receives from congressional Republicans when he's on the Hill. "Almost everybody answers my calls," he says.
And yet, Gingrich's actions often seem to betray his frustration that, when people do answer his calls, he's the one giving the advice, rather than the one deciding whether or not to take it. A couple of years ago, for instance, Gingrich spoke to House Republicans about the Medicare bill. As Indiana Representative Mark Souder, who came to the House in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution, recounts, "He gave the best defense of the bill I've ever heard--better than the president, better than anybody. Then he proceeded to say at the end, 'If you don't vote for this, I want you to come explain to me why.' And it was like, 'Newt, you're not even a congressman anymore. We're not going to your office.'" Souder adds, "There's an old country music gospel song by the Oak Ridge Boys that goes something like, 'Nobody wants to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus / everyone wants to be the leader of the band.' Newt Gingrich is no rhythm guitar person."
Indeed, Gingrich's self-regard is such that his current lack of power inclines him to cast a gimlet eye on the entire American political system. One morning in Washington, after he has finished a rooftop interview with Black Entertainment Television and before he goes to speak at the Brookings Institution, Gingrich sits in a borrowed office inside a TV production facility and talks to me about his political hero, Abraham Lincoln. Lately, Gingrich says, he's been spending a lot of time thinking about Lincoln's Cooper Union speech. "Here's a guy who's basically saying, 'I can take 7,300 words to center the North on an explanation of who we are, on which I'm prepared to stake my candidacy for the presidency,'" Gingrich says, becoming so immersed in this retelling that, as is often the case, he seems to forget that there's anybody else present. "And he spent three months personally writing it, and he then goes to the newspapers that night to make sure they get it technically right in their editing. He then gives the same speech in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, and goes home. And that's it. He doesn't say anything for the rest of the year."
Finished with his reverie, Gingrich comes back to earth and evidently notices the quizzical look on my face. What does Lincoln's Cooper Union speech have to do with his presidential ambitions? Before I can ask, Gingrich continues. "It is totally outside the Washington conversation," he says, a bit petulantly. "So you can imagine if we'd had the modern Washington, and everybody here would have gossiped about the fact that this defeated yokel from Springfield gave this speech. It would be a one-day story in ABC's The Note or something, and it would disappear. We wouldn't understand what Lincoln was doing." He goes on, "So all I'm saying is, you could have a moment in time where the country would be prepared for a serious conversation, and the question will be whether or not the political and the news-media class could actually present a serious conversation that the country is ready for."
Just minutes earlier, Gingrich's press aide, Rick Tyler, had interrupted to tell his boss that Fox News wanted to know whether he was available to do a segment that weekend. Gingrich said yes to the request, so I ask him, in light of his doubts about the news media's ability to present a serious conversation, if he thinks going on Fox--which is not exactly renowned for facilitating serious conversations--is really a useful exercise.
Gingrich is momentarily flustered, but he quickly sees a way to reconcile the contradiction. "If I'm on by myself, it is," he replies, explaining that he tries to avoid panels with more than one guest because they typically "degenerate to the dumbest idea." Warming to the subject, he continues, "It depends partly on the quality of the questions people are willing to ask you. Hannity and Colmes and O'Reilly are more focused on what's today's news story. But what I try to do is take today's story and try to link it to a larger lesson." Now Gingrich is smiling. "And I can do that on those shows," he says, a note of triumph creeping into his voice, "because they treat me with respect." At least someone, it seems, appreciates his genius.