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."
Gingrich's message tonight is "very simple": "Five words: Real change requires real change." It's time for "genuine, adult conversation," he says, about dizzying scientific advancement and stultifying, oppressive bureaucratic stagnation and decay; about the perils of rogue regimes arming with nuclear and biological weapons; about health care. Nothing excites Gingrich quite like health care. In his view, it's where bureaucracy most plainly impedes technological progress. It's the sector of the economy most ripe for reform. It's the system into which Lincoln-inspired leaders could introduce free-market incentives and state-of-the-art management techniques. "I believe we can get to 100 percent insurance coverage, a 300-million-payer system, much better preventive care, with much less cost, and produce a system that probably 20 years from now costs 40 percent less per projections," Gingrich says, drawing his performance to a close. "But it will be real change. And to get there will require real change."
Clap clap clap! The New York crowd eats it up. Some whoop; others applaud politely. Then Russert introduces Cuomo, who seems a little shell-shocked. He has spent Gingrich's speech studying a binder full of papers, onto which he kept scribbling--doodling?--notes. Also Cuomo is under the weather--tonight is the first time he's been out of the house "in any real way" for about a week, he says--and his voice is fatigued. Plus he must not have received the memo about "cold, calculating reason." It's not long before the septuagenarian statesman launches into a rushed, meandering, barely coherent attack on the Bush White House. "While I agree with the speaker that government can be positive," he says, "the current government has--been--a--disaster." Whereupon the liberals in the audience, who so far have been hiding, cheer.
Gingrich, who is sitting onstage next to Russert, a few feet from Cuomo, is smiling tightly.
"I don't think the speaker could have said it any better or any clearer," Cuomo says. "They're a disaster at Katrina, they're a disaster at foreign policy, they don't know what to do in handling weapons, they've done everything wrong--Homeland Security, it's an absolute disaster. He's right. . . . Mr. Speaker, I think we'll take care of that, on Election Day 2008." The libs are digging it now, and the boilerplate continues: "The nation's sense of community has withered over the last six years." . . . "Government should stay out of the religion business." . . . "If we had the Treasury that Bill Clinton left us, $5.4 trillion surplus." . . . Iraq is "a tragic, calamitous blunder that [Bush] refuses to acknowledge or to end." And so on.
Cuomo's gone over his allotted time, and the conservatives in the audience have punctuated his talk with impolite catcalls and jeers, and the whole business is a pretty sorry affair, something of which Lincoln would not have been proud. As Cuomo takes his seat you get the feeling that he is really here for another purpose, as a prop for the impish white-haired man sitting to Russert's left. The feeling grows more pronounced when conversation turns to the 2008 presidential election.
"Which Democrat and which Republican do you think would make the most interesting . . . candidate?" Russert asks.
"Candidate, but not president?" Cuomo says, "I really don't know."
And the audience exhales, Awwwwwwww.
And Cuomo says, "And the reason I don't know is because I don't know who all the candidates are gonna be."
But Cuomo knows he has to give them something, so he looks over at Gingrich, looks back at the audience, and then says, his voice turning soft and serious: "Newt--would make--a terrific--candidate."
There is, believe it or not, a path by which Newt Gingrich could conceivably arrive at the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. The path starts where we are now, with Gingrich not declaring any sort of candidacy and refusing to shed light on his plans. What he has done instead is create a nonpartisan political organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future, that can spend unlimited sums of money under section 527 of the U.S. tax code. American Solutions, Gingrich says, will hold national workshops this September 27--the thirteenth anniversary of the Contract With America--and September 29. Then, on September 30--call it G-Day--Gingrich will "decide" whether to run for president. At which point there still will be about three and a half months before the first actual caucuses and primaries.
Gingrich has a lot going for him. He has taken no apparent steps to run for president--he has no presidential exploratory committee, for example--but still comes in third, behind former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona senator John McCain, in every national Republican presidential poll. Gingrich also places third, behind McCain and Giuliani, in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls; he comes in fourth, behind McCain, Giuliani, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in the average of New Hampshire polls. Fortune magazine reported in November that an "internal GOP poll" had Gingrich running second nationwide. The right-wing group Citizens United recently conducted a straw poll among its donors; Gingrich won with 31 percent.
Gingrich continues to enjoy a gut connection with Republican voters. Back in 2005, consultant Frank Luntz held focus groups in Iowa and New Hampshire on the Republican candidates. In a report published afterward, Luntz wrote, "We were genuinely surprised by the strongly favorable reaction" to Gingrich's "speeches and interviews." According to Luntz, voters ignored, or in some cases forgot, the controversial nature of Gingrich's speakership. "The words he spoke were like nothing they had heard from anyone else," Luntz went on. "While he didn't start either session with any measurable support, he ended both Iowa and New Hampshire sessions with the most new converts." Out of office, Gingrich has remained largely insulated from the scandals and debacles of the Bush Republicans. In fact, the 2006 midterm election results could be viewed as confirmation of what Gingrich has been saying for some time: that the Republican party and broader conservative movement have lost their way, and the time has come for a rebirth of the reform impulse that in 1994 brought the GOP to congressional majority status for the first time in 40 years.
The current state of the Republican presidential field also works to Gingrich's advantage. None of the top-tier candidates--Giuliani, McCain, Romney--is entirely acceptable to the right. Nor has anyone among the lower-tier conservatives--Kansas senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, California congressman Duncan Hunter, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore--vaulted into contention. So Gingrich, sitting in third place in national polls and gleaning free media speculation about his intentions, sucks up all the remaining oxygen in the race. And with good reason. As the primary strategist behind the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994, Gingrich has as much a claim to the "movement conservative" candidate title as anybody.
It helps that this is a multi-candidate race, with no incumbent and with the declared candidates squabbling for the right's support. Over the next six months each of the Republicans running for president will work to tear down his opponents. By opting for a late entry into the race, Gingrich avoids becoming a target--until voters are so exhausted by this already wearying campaign that they go searching for a fresh face. "He'll be a catalytic factor, and in many ways a good one," says Republican consultant Mike Murphy.
Among Republicans, the current wisdom concerning Gingrich has two parts. The first is that, come September, Gingrich will in fact decide to enter the race. "These guys always run," Murphy says. "It's what they do. It's like chimps picking up bananas. They can't help it." The second part is that Gingrich's impact will be limited to the presidential primary debates. Gingrich's understanding of conservative Republicans, this line of thinking goes, combined with his rhetorical powers, may set the terms of discussion and win support, but ultimately voters will choose to vote for either McCain, Giuliani, or Romney. Still, after watching Gingrich dominate the debates, conservative Republicans might just say to themselves, Why not . . . Newt?
"I think Newt's about nailed this," says Republican lobbyist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "But when it comes to having an impact in the race . . . time will tell. This is a guy who doesn't need a big infrastructure. He's kind of a one-man band. He understands how to make news, he understands how to exploit his opponents' political weaknesses, and he's a happy warrior." Most important, Reed says, Gingrich has "always understood how to make a dramatic entry into politics."
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. It's possible Gingrich won't enter the race at all. And if he does, success is by no means assured. Gingrich may turn out to be great at thinking about running for president, but not so great at actually mounting a campaign. "Newt has never run for president and has never been closely associated with a presidential campaign," says one D.C.-based Republican consultant. "I don't see how you raise the money to become competitive. Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, came second in New Hampshire, but couldn't take advantage of it because he didn't have the money. If they don't have any money to build on their victory, it won't be of much use."
Even the skeptics append caveats to their predictions, however. You never know. . . . Stranger things have happened. . . . So: There is the chance, however small, that Newt Gingrich, should he choose to run, will wake up one morning in February 2008 the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States of America.
And what would happen then?
The idea for the Cooper Union debate originated not long ago, during a conversation Gingrich was having with Barry Casselman, a conservative columnist. Gingrich has been studying Lincoln for some time; he devoured Holzer's book and plugged it constantly, and last year he read a book by Ronald White, The Eloquent President, about Lincoln's use of language. A Lincoln Inspired Event made some sense. It would allow the speaker to impart the lessons he had learned from his study of the sixteenth president. And it would be an appropriate capstone to what might best be described as a two-year-long public relations blitz, the goal of which has been nothing less than the rehabilitation of Gingrich's image.
There was a period when Republicans weren't so enamored with Gingrich. By the time he announced his retirement from Congress after the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich's towering ego--he once scrawled a note in which he described himself as "leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces" in the battle to renew "American civilization"--and his combative, quirky managerial style had alienated most of his caucus. And while Gingrich knew many of the men and women who would assume top positions in the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, during the 2000 campaign candidate Bush had made it a point to repudiate the Republican Congress, saying, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."
Suddenly Gingrich had become the Republicans' prodigal son. Out of office, newly married to his third wife--with whom last week Gingrich admitted to having an affair during the Clinton intern scandal--he was in political exile. But the exile kept busy. He founded Gingrich Communications, which handled his many lucrative speaking engagements. He created the Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit think tank devoted to fixing the health care system. He joined the American Enterprise Institute and became a political analyst for the Fox News Channel. And every so often he would surface--from the depths--and generate headlines: his attack on the State Department in the spring of 2003, his advocacy of Bush's prescription drug entitlement later that year, his disavowal of L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, his scathing criticism of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, his attack on Rep. Tom DeLay and the other K Street Conservatives--many of whom had been his friends and allies--in the run-up to the 2006 elections, and his pronouncement last summer that America had entered World War III.
Gingrich, like many political exiles, is a prolific writer. Always a voluminous reader, in retirement he became one of Amazon.com's top book reviewers. (He's also written reviews for this magazine.) And he has continued to write novels, alternative histories in which the forces of American civilization face down counterfactual adversity and ultimately triumph over evil. He's written two books on health policy in consultation with his associates at the Center for Health Transformation. He's written a book called Rediscovering God in America. But most important is his Winning the Future, published by Regnery in 2005, a bestseller that doubles as a policy agenda.
Winning the Future is the latest title in what might be called Gingrichiana, a literary genre that began with the publication of the future speaker's Window of Opportunity in 1984 and continued through the then-speaker's To Renew America. A Ph.D. in European history from Tulane, Gingrich has made no secret of his intellectual mentors: futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, management gurus Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph M. Juran; and a shelf-full of military theorists and historians. Gingrich's published writings are a condensed soup of all these thinkers. They are written in the format of management tomes--using headings like "The Five Pillars of American Civilization" and "The Six Challenges Facing America" or the bullet points and short section titles that make Winning the Future assume the character of a PowerPoint presentation--but at times read like science fiction. "We have no notion at present what benefits might accrue by interfacing a mentally retarded child and the right computer system," Gingrich writes in Window of Opportunity; "in a zero-gravity environment, a paraplegic can float as easily as anyone else."
Depending on one's point of view, by the end of these books Gingrich reveals himself as either a visionary or a pretender, a world-historical figure or a goof playing at the highest levels of national politics. Republicans--and Gingrich--tend to adopt the more favorable view. What no one can deny, however, is Gingrich's mastery of political language, his ability to appropriate words that connect with people's aspirations and fears, his ear for terms that resonate deeply in the mind and heart. Opportunity, prosperity, patriotic, winning, future, transformation, decay, system, evolution, appeasement, change. Gingrich combines them with his favorite adjectives and adverbs. Stunning, dramatically, fundamentally, very.
"We live in a country that since 1932 has been dominated by the left," Gingrich said recently. He had a specific type of domination in mind. "The language of academics is on the left, the language of the news media is on the left, the language of politics is on the left, the language of bureaucrats is on the left." The Gingrich achievement can be found in his deployment of an alternative conservative rhetoric, a language that, to a certain right-of-center ear, is nothing less than hypnotic. Of course, whether this talent for finding the right words for the right audience can catapult a man into the Republican presidential nomination is another question entirely.
"There are operatives in politics, and there are candidates," says Mike Murphy. "Newt is an operative. Not a candidate."
"Whether it's strengthening our national security and intelligence-gathering agencies," David Bossie explains, "reforming the United Nations, or transforming entitlement programs, Newt Gingrich never stops asking the tough questions." Bossie is the president of the conservative group Citizens United. He used to work on Capitol Hill during the 1990s. But nothing could prepare him for this, the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham hotel in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, standing at a lectern in front of an audience of thousands of young conservatives--mostly boys, mostly white, a sea of blue blazers and pink jowls interspersed with stolid martial types in uniform--introducing the final, and most anticipated, speaker of the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC.
"Equally important," Bossie is saying, Gingrich "never retreats from confronting tough answers. This, my friend, is leadership." Bossie looks at the crowd, which is standing room only, people tripping over each other to get into this cramped, muggy, shabby ballroom. The kids, with their digital cameras and cell phones, were taking pictures of Gingrich a few minutes before, when he entered from the back of the room and was mobbed like a rock star as he made his way onstage. "Since his time as speaker he's donned many hats: chairman of the Gingrich Group, political analyst for Fox News Channel, bestselling author, among other distinguished credentials," Bossie says. "But perhaps his most important service that he can provide to his country is yet to come."
The conservative swarm is enraptured. A few moments ago, when Gingrich entered, they chanted Newt Newt Newt. None of the declared 2008 Republican presidential candidates who spoke to CPAC received such a response. Not Giuliani, not Romney, not Brownback--and of course not McCain, who skipped the conference for some fundraisers and the mention of whose name summons boos! from the crowd.
It's the Saturday after the Cooper Union debate, and Gingrich ditches the serious adult conversation talk he deployed in New York in favor of some Red-America red-meat right-wing oratory. The first thing he does is invoke every conservative's hero. "We all stand on President Reagan's shoulders," Gingrich says, "and we stand on the achievements of the Contract With America, and therefore, I want to propose, that we add to Governor Reagan's call for bold colors, that we need bold solutions based on those bold colors, and then we need to go out to the American people and have an idea-oriented, positive dialogue.
"And I want to be very clear here--because I've been active as a conservative a long time--I'm perfectly happy for all of you who want to spend a lot of time and energy to find ways attacking Sen. Clinton. And I know it will make you feel good. We will not--we will not--defeat the Clinton machine by being negative, we will defeat the Clinton machine by offering better solutions, based on better values, with a deeper reach into the American people's minds and psyche and history, and it is by representing the future of the American people that we will defeat the left, because it can offer no successful future."
The portly fellow toward the back of the room in the Jack Abramoff-like black fedora takes off his hat, the look on his face saying, Wow!
"Other than that, I'm not going to think about the presidential campaign until the 30th of September"--G-Day--"for practical reasons," Gingrich says. "We have created an organization called American Solutions for Winning the Future. We are going to be hosting, on September 27 nationwide, workshops aimed at creating transformational change across the entire country. Those workshops will be on the Internet. That is the anniversary of the Contract With America, and here's the principle. . . . The Oval Office isn't big enough. There are 511,000 elected officials in the United States. . . . This is about big principles, based on big values, to create big solutions."
One professional conservative--who's probably attended at least 25 of these annual conferences--leans forward on his tippy toes, absorbed in the scene.
"Liberals don't understand this," Gingrich says. "We have this goose that lays the golden egg. It's called the American economy. It's entrepreneurs. It's science and technology. It's markets. It's competition. It's the most explosively powerful system in the world. We are dramatically bigger than China, we are dramatically bigger than India, we are dramatically bigger than Japan, we are dramatically more dynamic than Europe--and of course the answer from the left is, 'But couldn't we be more like France?'"
Ha ha ha ha!
" . . . You know, you too can have massive unemployment," Gingrich says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "We tried this under Jimmy Carter. We ended up at 22 percent interest rates, 13 percent inflation, the steepest recession since the Great Depression, and gasoline rationing so you could only buy gasoline every other day, depending on your license tag. But since nobody studies history nobody remembers that we tried all these things. They fail."
The speech winds on. Gingrich gesticulates. His manner is calm but determined. He starts biting his lower lip whenever he pauses, just like his doppelgänger Bill Clinton. He grows quiet. The room grows quiet.
Gingrich says, "I want to close with this thought, but I want all of you to take this home. When Ronald Reagan came to CPAC in the 1970s, the Soviet Empire was on the march, and the threat was very real. Jimmy Carter didn't believe that. Jimmy Carter represented a left-wing mentality of disarmament and weakness, and as a result the United States attempted weakness in the Middle East. We had a 444-day hostage crisis, we had an American ambassador killed in Afghanistan and an American embassy burned in Pakistan, our position was decaying around the world. . . .
"The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, they had forces they supported in Mozambique, Angola, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, they were subsidizing a huge peace movement in Western Europe--direct payment, we now know, because we got the records--and people were shattered. And our elites were terrified. And Ronald Reagan came along, and a reporter said to him, 'What is your vision of the Cold War?' And he said, 'We win, they lose.'"
Clap clap clap! Most of the people in this room were not alive during the period Gingrich is recalling--but it's not too hard for anyone to see parallels between that time and our own.
Meanwhile, Gingrich is deadly serious.
"For our generation, a simple translation of that is this: We want America, and America's allies, to be safe, and we want America's enemies to be defeated, and we need a national debate to establish the parameters for that kind of effective national strategy. Thank you and God bless you."
It's not so simple a translation, actually. Nonetheless the audience leaps to its feet.
Newt Newt Newt!
"America the Beautiful" resounds throughout the ballroom. The mood is celebratory--triumphal. The prodigal son, the revolutionary hero, the leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces--he has returned . . . and the countdown to G-Day has begun.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.