Inside Newt's Stunning Comeback

Robin Nelson / ZUMA

Just a few months ago, among those who believed that Newt Gingrich’s presidential quest was doomed was the campaign’s own best political thinker, Gingrich himself. After a botched start and mass desertion by his top staff, Gingrich spent the summer struggling for money, organization, and, worse, for a man like him, relevance. “It was really hard,” he says now. “I got fairly tired of doing radio shows with people who would say, ‘Well, so since you’re dead …’”

By the end of summer, his campaign deeply in the red, Gingrich decided to quit—but was talked out of it by his wife, Callista. Entering the debate season, Gingrich focused on his advantages, and he began to see his near implosion as a gift. Among other things, the departure of the political professionals left Gingrich to become his own strategist. “Just as Clinton was,” Gingrich says.

For Gingrich, a Bill Clinton reference is a natural reflex. Each was the other man’s necessary foil in the great political dramas of the 1990s, when both made history because of their extraordinary gifts, as well as their outsize flaws. Clinton became the first two-term Democratic president since FDR and only the second president to be impeached. Gingrich became the first Republican speaker of the House since the Eisenhower era and the only speaker ever sanctioned by the House. They were the principal partisans at a moment when Washington’s political differences hardened into the bitter divide that defines the political culture today. Yet Gingrich and Clinton had far more similarities than distinctions: both are possessed of voracious intellectual appetites, rare political instinct, media mastery, and a good measure of sheer chutzpah.

And resilience. Clinton weathered impeachment and a special prosecutor’s sexposé before serving out his term and commencing a lucrative postpresidency in which he has betrayed no sign of lasting mortification. Gingrich, returning to elective politics, seemingly unbidden, after an absence of a dozen years, found himself polling in the single digits as recently as last month. Now he is the clear frontrunner in national polls, and he enjoys a commanding lead in Iowa as voters plan to repair to their caucuses.

The remarkable Gingrich surge has dismayed much of Washington, including many on his own side, who seem to be openly hoping for another Gingrich collapse. Gingrich shrugs it off. “If you get to this point, and you’re now arguably the frontrunner, you’ve gotta expect that everybody and his brother’s gonna come at you from a hundred different angles,” he says. “And the question is, when they get done, are you still standing? So you relax, and you live through it.”

The sudden frontrunner status has Gingrich scrambling to gear up his campaign apparatus. Gearing down had been easier. After a stormy morning meeting on June 9, the entire squad of hired political hands was gone from the national team. Gingrich says he felt no sense of betrayal, likening it instead to a corporate merger that didn’t take. “We were trying to merge the tactical, political capabilities of people who don’t know anything”—that would be the political pros—“with a system that is probably the most complex DNA in politics,” he says. “And it was just hopeless.” The defections left Gingrich with a loyal remnant, mostly staffers from his other enterprises, such as his policy organization, American Solutions.

Chief among them is policy adviser Vince Haley, a deep thinker from the Catholic right who “reads papal encyclicals as a hobby,” Gingrich says. His new campaign director, Michael Krull (whose previous experience in presidential campaigning was a stint as a field staffer for George H.W. Bush in 1988), met with Gingrich and Callista, and the three of them agreed to a frugality regime. They’d spend no more than they took in, which was a trick; in July the campaign brought in only $167,000, less than half of what it had been spending on monthly private air-travel costs.

Now an Atlanta firm is working full time on getting Gingrich’s filing paperwork up to speed, and outsiders are once again being brought into the campaign. This time, Gingrich says, he is proceeding with greater caution, requiring each major hire to undergo a training session to facilitate acculturation in the Gingrich way. “I realized that if you don’t methodically go through acculturation, this is not going to work,” he says, during meetings with Newsweek in South Carolina and his subdued Washington, D.C., offices. “Because this is too different—it’s too intellectual, it’s too fast, it’s too delegated.” Gingrich knows he has much to overcome, including a significant organizational and funding disadvantage, and the challenge of withstanding the assaults to come (including a confrontation with his own long and sometimes erratic record), while keeping his own impulses in check. Which puts Gingrich in mind of one last trait shared with Clinton. “People forget,” he says, “that we are both very tough.”

Four days after his staff walked out last June, Gingrich took to the stage at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire for the first major Republican debate. Some suggested that Gingrich’s only chance of survival was to hit a home run. He disagreed. “You can’t do that, because you will look like you’re trying to hit a home run,” he argued. “What you have to do is go in and look very stable, so you look competent. And you have to be very patient.”

Gingrich’s debate strategy became, of necessity, his campaign strategy. He would not attack his fellow Republican candidates, directing his criticism instead at President Obama and the press. It proved a remarkably effective political gambit. The debate crowds were far more raucously partisan than in the past, a fact that Gingrich immediately sensed, and exploited. “You’ve got these media guys, and behind them are 2,000 right--wingers who are waiting to beat them up.”

Ever the analyst, Gingrich recites the key moments of his comeback, locating them within the long string of debates. The first, and perhaps most important, came in Iowa in August, during an event hosted by Fox News and The Washington Examiner. Gingrich arrived mired deep in the lower tier. When Fox News anchor Bret Baier opened the evening by encouraging the contestants to “put away their talking points” and prepare for a substantive discussion of issues, Gingrich noted Baier’s words and waited. His chance came when Fox’s Chris Wallace asked him, “How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?”

Newt Gingrich 1984 AP

Gingrich blasted Wallace for “playing Mickey Mouse games,” and the audience roared its approval. (Gingrich notes that he got lucky by getting the question from Wallace, “because he may be the most disliked person on Fox.”)

Two months and four debates later, Gingrich’s poll numbers had doubled. The other candidates, meanwhile, were busy harming themselves. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann went at each other in what Gingrich calls “a destructive exchange,” followed in subsequent debates by Rick Perry and Mitt Romney “acting like seventh graders.”

Gingrich’s rising poll numbers have been received in Washington like a tornado warning. The reaction of Democrats (Nancy Pelosi says she’s holding juicy information on Gingrich) is understandable; he handed Democrats a historic defeat, brutally mocking them in the process. The consternation among some Republicans, potentially far more damaging to Gingrich, is more complicated.

The freshmen Republicans of 1995, like the Tea Party class of last year, were true believers in the revolution they’d been recruited into by Gingrich. They’d come to overturn not just Democrats, but Washington itself. The hard-core zealots among them insisted upon a permanent revolution, but Gingrich seemed more interested in a permanent Republican majority, which was not the same thing. To some of the dissidents, such as Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma obstetrician who’d made a term-limit pledge, it began to seem that Gingrich had too easily accustomed himself to his new power. In closed-door meetings of the conference, Gingrich spoke condescendingly to his recalcitrant members about how governing really worked. He barked loudly when they didn’t fall in line, and once threatened to send the sergeant at arms to collect them if they failed to appear at a meeting he’d called. Rifts grew, and a coup was attempted before Gingrich had completed his second term as speaker.

When, at the end of the 1998 session, Gingrich urged passage of a 4,000-page omnibus spending bill that no member had read, the dissidents rebelled. A peeved Gingrich, in what turned out to be his last speech from the House floor, sarcastically chastised what he called “the perfectionist caucus” of his party. It is difficult to imagine John Boehner, who was there that day, publicly rebuking his Tea Party caucus. But that moment helps to explain why Coburn, now in the Senate, says that he will not support Gingrich’s presidential bid. Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman who was also part of Gingrich’s 1994 Republican revolution, succinctly captured this Beltway antipathy on his Morning Joe broadcast last week. “He is not a nice human being,” Scarborough said of his former speaker. “He is a bad person.”

But the conservative base is plainly thrilled by Gingrich’s forceful oratory. In Gingrich, conservative voters see a guy who’s as alarmed as they are about the state of the nation (alarm is Gingrich’s natural state), and who has already delivered a historic victory—one that produced a balanced budget and reformed welfare. His command on the debate stage has had a dwarfing effect on the other contenders.

A potentially more serious Gingrich vulnerability is that subject invariably referred to as his “personal baggage,” by which is meant the thrice-married Gingrich’s messy domestic history—a topic that could hurt him with morals voters. A subject that plainly annoys Gingrich is the oft-repeated tale that he delivered divorce papers to his first wife, Jackie, in her hospital room, as she lay dying of cancer. In refuting the story, he enlisted the aid of his daughter, also named Jackie, who wrote a column “setting the record straight.” She wrote that her mother was not on her deathbed that day in 1980, and is still very much alive. She said that Gingrich did not deliver divorce papers to his wife that day, as the couple had decided on a divorce weeks earlier.

When the subject came up in my conversation with Gingrich, he urged me to read Jackie’s column. I told him that I had, and suggested that the actual story of that day, as recalled in contemporaneous accounts, was more complicated. Jackie, a cancer survivor, was in the hospital for the removal of a tumor, which proved benign. According to the Gingriches’ pastor at the time, the Rev. Brantley Harwell, Gingrich brought his daughters to visit their mother, and while he was there, he began discussing particulars of the proposed divorce settlement—“division of property, alimony, that kind of thing,” Harwell would recall. (Harwell, who recounted his version of events in 1995, died this summer.) A bitter argument ensued, which Jackie later discussed with her pastor and others.

“I haven’t disputed that there was an angry discussion,” Gingrich says now. “We got into an argument. Now, how many people do you know going through a divorce end up occasionally getting into arguments? That then got spun into its worst possible interpretation.”

Gingrich can expect questions about that matter, and his personal life generally, to be raised repeatedly during his run, prompted by the prominence in his life, and in his campaign, of his third wife, the former Callista Bisek. The slender, tightly coiffed blonde, 23 years Gingrich’s junior, had been a legislative aide in 1993, the year she began an affair with the married Gingrich. Their romantic entanglement lasted through his tenure as speaker, and they were married in 2000, the year after Gingrich divorced his second wife, Marianne, and left the House.

Callista became a formidable partner in shaping Gingrich’s new life, leading him into the Catholic Church. A trained musician (classical piano and French horn), she runs Gingrich Productions, a documentary unit that produces public-policy movies, which the Gingriches sell online. She has applied her exacting standards to matters ranging from campaign photographs (she is also a photographer, whose insistence that her subjects hold poses until she gets just the right shot has been known to exasperate even her husband) to the campaign’s official logo (she hated the one commissioned by the original staff, and replaced it with a design of her own, which is very similar to the swoosh-y Gingrich Productions logo).

Gingrich’s original campaign staff resented Callista’s influence, blaming her for his disinclination to fully devote himself to the traditional-style campaign they thought necessary (the Gingriches vacationed in the Greek Isles when the staff thought he should be on the hustings in Iowa and New Hampshire). “She’s really very hard to deal with,” says one highly placed current staffer, who counts himself an admirer. But Gingrich himself considers Callista an invaluable force in his race, crediting her with the fact that he is even in it.

To many of Gingrich’s critics, Callista is exhibit A in the charge of hypocrisy against Gingrich, who was having an affair while presiding over the House during its impeachment of Clinton. Gingrich’s defense is that he was not after Clinton because of his dalliance with the intern, Monica Lewinsky, but because he lied about it under oath. “I was very careful” to make the distinction, he says, offering as evidence a conversation he had at the time of the impeachment with -Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s chief of staff.

“Erskine came to see me at one point, and he said, ‘Look, virtually every guy I know has had an affair,’?” Gingrich recalls, adding, “Obviously, knowing what you now know about my life, I wasn’t going to start getting into that.” Gingrich said that he told Bowles that he himself had been in Clinton’s shoes, when his own divorce lawyer had hinted that he should lie under oath during discovery, and he refused. “I said, ‘This isn’t about Bill Clinton groping some girl. This is about the president of the United States, who is a lawyer, sitting in front of a federal judge, lying under oath, in a case in which it is a felony.’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Well, there is that.’?”

(As it happened, Gingrich would be faced with the issue himself again a year later during his divorce proceedings against Marianne, when Callista was obliged to testify about their affair—and admitted it under oath).

It is Gingrich’s calculation that people will forgive (or, at least, forget) his personal sins from a decade and more ago, and there is evidence—starting with his standing in the polls—to suggest he may be right. Don Rogers, a Tea Party sympathizer and social conservative who attended a recent Gingrich appearance in Greenville, S.C. (Bob Jones country), says he is less concerned about Gingrich’s personal life than he is with the way Gingrich might govern. “He’s still an enigma,” Rogers says. “You cannot penetrate to know the real Newt—I’ve been trying to do that for a long time. He was the conservative voice for most people for a long time; he did things historically that had never been done before. But he also does things like sitting down on the couch with Nancy Pelosi.” This was a reference to Gingrich’s appearance alongside Pelosi in a television promotion for an environmental organization founded by Al Gore, a move Gingrich calls “the dumbest mistake of my career.”

At another South Carolina event heavily attended by Tea Party folk, Gingrich reminded the audience that he’d been able to get things done by working with Bill Clinton. “What makes him think that working with Democrats is a good thing?” asked an attendee after the event.

Such concerns are broadly voiced by Gingrich’s critics on the right, and, in a way, have more to do with who Gingrich is than what he has said or done. Gingrich says of himself, “I’m an eclectic person of deeply conservative philosophy, who is dedicated to being effective, and moving the ball in our direction, and moving the country in our direction.” Others see a voluble narcissist, given to grandiosity, and prone to intellectual faddism (many on the hard right are still deeply bothered by his 1970s infatuation with the futurist Alvin Toffler).

Gingrich seems inclined to the belief that he has a special capacity to see the country’s problems clearly, and the exact program to correct them. To some, this has a certain appeal. Bill Clinton, himself a perpetual idea machine, recently praised Gingrich for his proposals on immigration and Social Security. Conservatives worry that Gingrich’s expansive vision reveals him to be a big-government conservative. (Gingrich “would make a marvelous Marxist,” George Will recently wrote.)

In answering such criticism, Gingrich employs a favorite rhetorical device, posing an untenable set of choices. “If you want to smear people who are trying to think, fine. Let’s just make sure the country understands these are the two choices: Over here are the defenders of failure. Over here are people who will sometimes say things, and do things, that are complicated.”

Complication is the Gingrich package, defined.

In the Washington meeting with Newsweek, Gingrich asked, “Did you see my speech last night? I think it’s on -C-Span. You really ought to get a copy of it.” In the speech, he said that when the Wright brothers were experimenting with the first airplane, they’d bring extra wood along for repairs, because they knew there would be lots of crashes along the way. That, he says, is how a Gingrich administration would approach an intractable problem like poverty. “So, we’re gonna help the poor?” he asks. “Truth is, we don’t know how to help the poor. We’re gonna experiment and experiment and experiment until we break through.” That may not please the ear of a small--government conservative, but it is the essential Gingrich. “It makes me, in some ways, like the two Roosevelts,” he says.

Gingrich, who is already thinking beyond the presidential election, says that his larger project is the creation of a “new majority,” which will derive partly from the conservative movement, but “will be much bigger.”

“You take brain science, you take personal and Social Security savings accounts, you take offering the poor the opportunity to work and have a paycheck instead of food stamps, you take Lean Six Sigma”—a management-efficiency doctrine, his latest fascination—“and suddenly you have a Gestalt that is in many ways conservative, but in many ways very moderate.”

There are considerable obstacles standing between Gingrich and his new Gestalt, including the practical matter of building and managing a viable campaign organization. Gingrich is scrambling to organize in Iowa, and he failed to make the primary ballot in Missouri.

Too, there is the very real—some would say likely—prospect that some of the criticism of Gingrich will take hold, and that Mitt Romney, provoked at last by a serious challenge, and with the formidable Chris Christie at his side, will move to finally seal the deal with voters.

For now, Gingrich continues to astound those on both sides of the political divide who thought since summer that they’d never again have to contemplate the prospect of a Gingrich presidency. Gingrich himself said he once thought it impossible. “At least until 2006 or so, I didn’t think I would come back to the public arena,” he says. “It just struck me as being too implausible and too difficult.”

He says that he believed that the role he played in leading the conservative movement would have long since been filled by someone from the next generation. Asked why no such figure has emerged, he shrugs. “It mystifies me.”