When Richard M. Nixon ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1968, he faced a daunting problem: A lot of voters just didn't like him. Nixon had made his name in politics as an angry, partisan hatchet man, famous for lashing out against Democrats and the news media. To win the presidency, he needed to find a way to soften that too-harsh image.
In the months before the 1968 primaries, Nixon's campaign staged gauzy television segments that showed the candidate gently answering questions from ordinary citizens, not pesky reporters. In a nation that was divided by domestic crises and the war in Vietnam, Nixon stressed positive themes and "the lift of a driving dream." Reporters wrote about a "New Nixon" and voters who were rallying to his cause.
Now, almost half a century later, another not-always-lovable conservative is trying to stage a similar comeback: Newt Gingrich. This week's polls show Gingrich, whose candidacy was once given up for dead, in a virtual tie with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Part of the reason, as Gingrich himself says, is simple process of elimination: Conservative voters have tried out a succession of other candidates — Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain — and found each wanting.
But there's another reason for Gingrich's rise: He doesn't sound as angry as he once did. We appear to be witnessing "New Newt."
Old Newt — Angry Newt, the one who entered the presidential campaign last spring — talked in apocalyptic terms about threats to American culture. Old Newt wrote about "a secular-socialist machine" led by the Democratic Party that "represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did."
"If we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America," he warned, the U.S. could soon become "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists."
New Newt — Presidential Newt — talks about fiscal challenges more than cultural threats and says they don't look that scary. "There are ways to solve this," he told voters in Iowa this week. The economy can be fixed, he said, simply by allowing more oil and gas drilling, reducing fraud in federal programs and "putting people back to work."
Old Newt attacked other Republicans. He once called every modern GOP leader before Ronald Reagan "pathetic." He condemned his own caucus in the House as "cannibals" (they were pushing him out of office at the time). Only last spring, he denounced a House Republican proposal for Medicare reform as "right-wing social engineering." (He apologized for that one.)
New Newt is conciliatory, even bipartisan. In several debates, he's refused to criticize his rivals and has scolded moderators for — gasp! — trying to accentuate their differences. As president, he told voters in Iowa, one his first acts would be to reach out to Democrats.
"It's become much too partisan in both parties," said the man who has been accused of destroying the bipartisan tradition in the House of Representatives.
Gingrich still slings contempt at Democrats and the news media, of course. Last month, he charged that President Obama and his allies come from "a stream of American thought that really wishes we would decay and fall apart."
But most of the time, he says he's striving for a higher plane. "I think I'm a much more mature person," he said last week.
He has also acknowledged a practical political reason for the apparent change: Negative campaign messages "actually hurt the candidates that are negative," he said.
Of course, after decades as the bad boy of the GOP, Gingrich doesn't need to establish his partisan credentials, but he does need to reach out. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week found that a majority of Republicans view Gingrich favorably, but most non-Republicans still harbor a negative impression.
Can New Newt keep Old Newt at bay for long? It's one thing to focus on fiscal issues instead of cultural warfare; that's just a matter of emphasis. The greater challenge for Gingrich is maintaining his changed temperament after years of delighting in unconventional ideas and unrestrained polemic.
Indeed, only this week, Gingrich denounced Congress' "super committee" on the federal deficit as "the dumbest idea I've seen in a very long lifetime." And he said one solution to the federal government's fiscal problems would be to abolish the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, a move one budget expert likened to killing your doctor because you don't like your blood pressure reading.
Gingrich-watchers can only gaze in fascination, like spectators at a NASCAR race with an erratic driver who tends to run into walls.
"If history is any guide, he'll blow himself up," a former aide to President George W. Bush told me.
Back in 1968, New Nixon bested Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, Mitt Romney's father, for the GOP presidential nomination. But don't presume a similar story this time.
Gingrich is trying to engineer a turnaround in a matter of months. Nixon was methodical and diligent; Gingrich — Old Newt, at least — is mercurial and undisciplined.
New Nixon turned out to be something of an illusion; but in 1968, the change of image was impressive enough to win the presidency.
Like Nixon, the former speaker is a man of outsized talents and outsized flaws. But my bet is that in the end, Newt Gingrich will prove to be no Richard Nixon.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times