Richard Reeves

The New Newt

WASHINGTON -- Mention the name of the man of the hour around here and people all seem to have the same reaction. They shake their heads. Some seem amused, some angry, some frightened. Despite living most of his adult life here, Newt Gingrich does not have many friends among his neighbors.

Some, mostly Republicans, hate him because of his bully-boy antics when he was speaker of the House. Many, in both parties, think he's nuts. Only six members of that House endorsed his run for the Republican nomination for president when his surge in the polls began after a couple of good debate performances. Not one of the Republicans in the Senate has endorsed him. By comparison, more than 40 House members and eight senators have endorsed Mitt Romney. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said he could not think of a man less suited to be president than his onetime House colleague. Newt does not play well with others.

"They all remember," according to Politico.com, "the bombast, the reckless personal life, the arrogance and lack of discipline that bordered on dangerous."

Newt-trembling has become the most bipartisan movement in the capital in months, even years.

Here's conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times:

"'How do we stop Newt?'

"I've now been asked that question by a lot of conservatives ... in staff meetings, at the chiropodist, even at the McDonald's drive-thru.

"The other night while having drinks with some prominent conservatives, I said I thought there was a significant chance that Gingrich will not only win the nomination but that he might be the next president. Going by their expressions, I might as well have said I put a slow-acting poison in their cocktails."

They all thought Gingrich was long dead. What they remember is his old craziness in changing the House's agenda from day to hour to hour.

What they remember, too, is the recklessness of impeaching President Clinton while he himself was having affairs of his own, and then the shutting down of the government over one of those debt limit fights, his public whining when he was given a seat at the back of Air Force One on the official flight back from Israel to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. His personal ethics resulted in a $300,000 fine leveled by the House Ethics Committee when he tried to obstruct investigations of himself. Finally, his own party threw him out as speaker and he quit the Congress.

Never to be heard again, or so we all thought.

Well, HE'S BACK!

There are some people who wish him well. They meet in the White House early every morning. He is Obama's preferred opponent over Mitt Romney, who is a least-objectionable-alternative kind of candidate. If Romney is the nominee, dull as he is, the president will be the issue, and people who dislike him might go with the bland choice. But if Gingrich is the candidate, he will be the issue, the ghost of scandals past and present, the guy with three wives, millions of dollars in fees as a "non-lobbyist" lobbying all over town, the $250,000 revolving credit account at Tiffany's, the guy who wants to put a colony on the moon. He has more baggage than Southwest Airlines carries free.

Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who is a historian by trade, compared Gingrich to Napoleon, specifically the time when the Frenchman escaped exile and led soldiers to take Paris.

"It's like Napoleon showing up for 100 days," said Cole. "We all may follow him into battle again -- and you just hope it's not Waterloo."

"Gingrich's hand 'always six inches from the self-destruct button'" was the headline in a Washington political newspaper, The Hill. The paper quoted Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a Republican who served under Gingrich in the House, as saying, "Any time you throw a thousand ideas out there, you get a great likelihood that a great majority of them are not very good."

True. Some of them are downright crazy. But you never know in this business. Gingrich says he has matured. He is the "New Newt." And we, after all, are the people who bought the "New Nixon."

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