The Magazine

Scenes from the Gingrich Campaign

Don't rule out Newt in 2008.

Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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It's February 28, 2007, in the poorly lit, dank, crowded basement, aka the "Great Hall," of Cooper Union college in Manhattan, and Newt Gingrich is talking to a sophisticated, well-attired, seen-it-all New York audience. As he speaks, the tempo of his words increases, until he begins to sound as though he is rapping: "We spent hours last week on a left-wing billionaire"--David Geffen--"getting unhappy because his former friends"--the Clintons--"didn't do what he thought they would do when he bribed them," he says, "because he's really unhappy about being lied to because he thought surely they would actually do what he wanted when he bribed them. . . ."

It's the sort of rhetorical barrage one expects from Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity--or from the old Gingrich, the Gingrich of the 1980s and '90s, the partisan gunslinger who brought down House Speaker Jim Wright and declared war against the liberal elites and made Democrats seethe in fury. But for the new Gingrich, the Gingrich who has been painstakingly refurbishing his image in the last few years, who has said nice words about Hillary Clinton and who plugs New York senator Charles Schumer's new book at every opportunity, the aside seems out of character. It sparks cognitive dissonance. What would have once seemed routine now seems jarring. Even impolite.

Yet none of the New Yorkers assembled here seems to mind. All these men and women with serious looks on their faces, their winter coats splayed across their laps or hung from their chairs, clad in somber colors brightened by fine jewelry--when Gingrich finishes his rap they erupt in cheers and laughter. They've done this throughout his speech: after he said, "If we had Sarbanes-Oxley for the public sector, half the bureaucracies couldn't sign any reports because they'd go to jail"--clap clap clap!--and after he said, "You don't elect a president to memorize. You elect a president to have wisdom, to have serious thought, to reflect," and after he said that presidential campaigns "are consultant full-employment processes." Each of these lines receives raucous applause.

The audience likes Gingrich. Some waited in line--on line, as they say here in Noo-Yawk--outside for more than an hour as dusk fell across Manhattan this chilly evening, hoping to grab a seat to watch Gingrich and former New York governor Mario Cuomo debate the great issues of the day in what everyone's ticket calls a "Lincoln Inspired Event." The two ex-pols were not the only luminaries for whom people waited on line. The host of Meet the Press, Tim Russert, who lumbers onto the stage using a single crutch, is tonight's moderator and interlocutor. Author Harold Holzer--who wrote Lincoln at Cooper Union, about the great man's 7,700-word address delivered here on February 27, 1860, the speech in which Lincoln coined the phrase "right makes might" and which, according to Holzer, "made Lincoln the president"--introduces the event. And New York executive assistant district attorney Jack McCoy, in real life a guy named Sam Waterston, is in the audience. "I rode the elevator down with Sam Waterston," a distinguished-looking lady with short gray hair and a billowy green scarf tells the reporter sitting next to her. She is all smiles and can barely conceal her excitement. "I said, 'Aren't you Sam Waterston? And he said, 'Either that, or I bear a close resemblance.'"

But tonight is about more than celebrity. It's a serious business, this Lincoln Inspired Event. So says Cooper Union president George Campbell Jr.: "We issue a call to all of the candidates to come to the Great Hall, to put aside their marketing strategies, to put behind them the sound bites . . . to step away from their handlers and to engage this New York audience as Abraham Lincoln did in a serious conversation. About the serious issues that we're facing. About critical foreign and domestic policy issues." So says Russert: "Lincoln called for cold, calculating reason. That is the standard we have set." So says Gingrich: "I believe this country today faces more parallel challenges than at any time since the 1850s. And I believe there is a grave danger that our political system will not be capable of solving these problems before they take our society apart in ways that are very destructive.

"And I want to talk about two or three of them tonight," Gingrich goes on, "but I think the larger principle--is--a principle of seriousness. And that's what I find so disheartening in watching the current political process--and again, I've been active in politics since 1960. . . . The process is decaying at a level that is bizarre. And it's a mutual, synergistic decay between candidates and consultants and the media. And it's fundamentally wrong for the survival of this country. Because the challenges we face are so great."