“I’m a movie nut,” House Speaker Newt Gingrich said jauntily as he hunkered down at a table in the back of Brentano’s bookstore in Century City on Monday. “Every time I get close to Hollywood I get excited.”
And with those words--uncustomarily kind to a business full of liberals who wouldn’t be caught dead at a Newt Gingrich event of any kind--the controversial and outspoken Republican leader from Georgia began autographing copies of his book, “To Renew America.”
The book is a rendering of his political history and his first 100 days as Speaker, taking on welfare, balancing the budget and other issues. (By the way, he does admiringly cite Hollywood’s “unsurpassed” hold on the world entertainment market.)
In crisp blue shirt sleeves and a red tie adorned with elephants, Gingrich set about penning a big Newt in about 900 books, about 400 of which were sold within an hour and a half Monday morning. He took on admirers and the few foes who managed to breach the store’s assembly line security. And he dismissed the 75 demonstrators in front of the store protesting his staunchly conservative politics, including his advocacy of welfare cuts.
“It’s a bigger Monday morning crowd than we usually get,” said the book-hustling pol, a charismatic lightning rod for true believers and ardent critics of the conservative agenda. “I think it’s easier to get a crowd here than in San Diego,” he cracked, alluding to a previous stop on the 21-city tour, scheduled during Congress’ summer recess.
Gingrich talked and signed his way through the Los Angeles area, kibitzing via phone for nearly half an hour with radio personality Michael Jackson, lighting at Brentano’s and sweeping into the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, where he sold 1,800 books, breaking the library’s book tour sales record. (He surpassed Oliver L. North, who sold 1,200.)
At Brentano’s, Gingrich dismissed Gail Sheehy’s blistering personal portrait in the current issue of Vanity Fair, which quotes a woman named Anne Manning as saying she had sex with Gingrich when he was married to his first wife.
“I don’t intend to ever read it and I don’t intend to ever comment on it,” Gingrich said calmly to a book-buying reporter, never breaking his book-signing stride. Earlier, in his radio interview, Gingrich called Sheehy’s story (for which he was interviewed) “left-wing psycho-babble.”
Outside Brentano’s, a line of patient admirers waited to be ushered past security guards checking purses and packages before they were admitted into another line that moved quickly up to the Speaker’s table.
This was not a free autograph session. You had to buy Gingrich’s book here to get his signature, and he wasn’t signing anything else. Santa Monica housewife Sandy Nelson managed to triumph over this policy, getting “the Newt,” as she called him, to sign a small copy of his “contract with America” in addition to two copies of his book.
Gingrich skipped an entrance through the big glass doors that empty onto the most crowded part of the Century City mall--next to the movie box office and across from a food court. Instead, he appeared from a back door into the store.
“Hey! There he is!” said Dave Parke, who owns a lawn mower shop. Parke said any published accounts of Gingrich’s personal life--or any politician’s, for that matter--were beside the point.
“Would you not buy a lawn mower from me if I cheated on my wife on my desk?” he asked.
But outside, a group of noisy protesters carried banners decrying the allegations of extramarital sex as well as denouncing the “contract with America” and Gingrich’s position on reducing the cost of welfare.
“We know that normally bringing up people’s personal lives is dirty politics,” said protester Nancy Berlin, “but he started it. . . . On one hand he’s telling poor people they should be punished for having children out of wedlock and on the other hand he’s having sex out of wedlock.”
Some Gingrich supporters could not help chanting back at the protesters--no matter how nonsensical:
“My shorts are dirty and I need a new laundry!” bellowed Dave Parke, fashioning his own sarcastic protest. “Everybody’s gotta protest, right?”
Most of the autograph seekers slipped by the protesters quickly. Cynthia Alcala, 31 and seven months pregnant, stopped to collect her belongings after Gingrich signed her book. “My husband wants to name the baby Newt,” Alcala joked in an attempt to show the couple’s devotion to the Speaker.
“He’s going to make a better future for our children,” said Alcala, a black woman who said she is frequently asked why an African American is such an ardent supporter of Gingrich. Judging from the crowd that turned out Monday, the Speaker would probably not have expected a young pregnant black woman to appear before him clutching his book.
“I wanted him to see me,” Alcala said of the Speaker. “He looked surprised.”
Gingrich was also surprised by the throngs who waited hours to see him at the Nixon library, which has become something of a mecca for conservative authors. They vastly outnumbered the 40-odd protesters who chanted “Neuter Newt!”
“I have to confess I had no idea we would have this many people,” he told the group that packed the main lobby.
Gingrich signed books half an hour past the scheduled 4:30 p.m. ending of his appearance, scribbling autographs as he walked out the door.
“Politicians are better with the public than celebrities are,” observed Kelly Goodman, events coordinator for Brentano’s. “They take more time, they’re more personable.”
After posing for a group shot with bookstore employees, the very public politician bid farewell--and vanished through a back stockroom.
Times staff writer Len Hall contributed to this story.