Richard Reeves

Whack a Newt Is the New Game in Town

WASHINGTON -- Like most reporters here in the 1980s, I liked Newt Gingrich and spent time listening to his office lectures every few weeks. He was smart, he was candid about most things, wrong about others -- and funny in his hypercharged way. He was young and irreverent -- like us -- and he was on his way to taking over the Republicans in Congress and then Congress itself. His ambition was boundless, but he was changing the rules in Washington for better or worse.

Then, after becoming speaker of the House after the 1994 elections -- the Contract With America year -- he began his self-destruction. Lord Acton would have understood: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. The little professor from a Georgia college no one had ever heard of was of a type I came to know well, the angry academic who feels he is being held back by other teachers.

Well, he showed them all by being elected to Congress. What he found there, he told me then, was a permanent Republican minority, heads down, waiting for their next defeat. He changed that. He organized other young Republicans into a militant force determined to defeat rather than just modify Democratic initiatives. And he succeeded, for a while.

But ... As Politico.com's Jonathan Martin and John Harris wrote last Wednesday:

"The new political lease on life brought on by his buoyant poll numbers guarantees a new season of harsh scrutiny of old Gingrich controversies: his finances, his volatile temperament, his erratic management record, his polarizing brand of politics over the course of nearly 40 years in the public arena.

"'He's going to see a real barrage,' predicted former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. 'His success really depends on how he handles himself.'

"Whether Gingrich's revival is a fad or something more substantial hinges on his answers to a handful of questions -- all of them relating to how a politician, at age 68, explains and defends his own past. Can he rewrite his personal narrative?

"Memories are short in politics. It could be that people supporting Gingrich in recent polls only dimly recall that he made himself the most unpopular man in American politics while House speaker in the mid-1990s. Or that his own GOP colleagues, weary of his melodrama and impatient with the party's poor midterm election results, pushed him out of that job in November 1998. Or that nearly the entirety of his campaign staff, including long-time aides, declared themselves fed up by his decision-making and inconstant attention when they quit en masse earlier this year."

And then there's the three wives, one of whom he left while she was in the hospital battling cancer, and the million-dollar revolving credit line at Tiffany's, and the millions of dollars in "consulting fees" from Freddie Mac as soon as he left Congress.

Now, for the moment at least, he is, according to polls, the last man standing against Mitt Romney, replacing the equally surprising Herman Cain, who really represented "none of the above."

Romney appears to be hated by a majority of Republicans. They seem determined to do anything to stop him, even raising Gingrich from his political grave. Whatever his past, no one ever questioned Gingrich's intellect. He's probably the quickest of the Republican candidates, even if he often rewrites world history, national history and his own personal history to suit his purposes of the moment. What the adults in the party question is whether he has finally grown up. He also has his own battalions of enemies, as you would expect of a man who once called the then-leader of his party, Sen. Bob Dole, "a tax collector for the welfare state."

Politico's David Mark, who runs an open forum called "The Arena," picked up a couple of these quotes after Gingrich's mini-surge began:

"His record is an opposition researcher's dream," said Brendan Daly, who once served as Nancy Pelosi's communications director and is now in public relations. "The Republicans will be stuck with phony flip-flopper Romney, whether they like him or not."

"The Newt boomlet is an amusing media-inflated diversion from a race that will end with Republicans having to choose between the rudderless (Romney) and the clueless (Perry)," said Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America's Future.

So it's going. The Republicans don't seem to have much of a present or future. So they have turned to an unhappy past -- until Rick Santorum or Jon Huntsman are the next to be bumped up as Romney plays Whack-a-Mole one more time.

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