Most people in Washington were just getting started at work, but one 61-year-old man had been up for hours. He had already appeared on television, wowed a group of new lawmakers with a talk on Capitol Hill and fielded questions about whether he would run for president in 2008. Then he settled into the backseat of his chauffeur-driven sedan, flipped open his cellphone and called a senior aide to President Bush to nudge him on a pet issue.
“I wanted to stay in touch until it got done,” he said.
That’s a good morning’s work for the average Washington powerbroker, but this was no typical bigwig. At the center of this whirlwind was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who not long ago was one of the most polarizing politicians in America. But in the six years since he resigned from Congress after Republicans lost seats in a disappointing midterm election, Gingrich has reinvented himself as a respected entrepreneur of ideas.
He still has his trademark helmet of gray hair and mad-scientist grin, which make him instantly recognizable on the street. But much has changed since he slouched out of Congress.
He is an advisor to the Bush administration just as the GOP has reached a new peak of power. He has become a self-made expert on health policy. He has a splashy, self-promoting website, a new book and a sprawling empire of enterprises that support his lucrative work as a consultant and public speaker. He was briefly mentioned as a possible candidate for Health and Human Services secretary in Bush’s second term.
That nomination did not come to pass, but just the fact he was mentioned for the post -- by the outgoing department secretary, no less -- was a sign of how far Gingrich had managed to swim back into the political mainstream. He is a striking example of how America’s political culture allows some of its most tarnished figures to rehabilitate themselves.
Jimmy Carter, after being tossed out of the White House by voters in 1980, has become an international mediator par excellence. Former Democratic Sen. Gary Hart became a defense policy expert years after his 1988 presidential campaign collapsed amid a sex scandal. They belie F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Gingrich’s second act seems to be a bid for recognition in a city that once was so hard on him yet clearly is still fascinated by his iconoclasm.
He envisions a grand role for himself in public life as an eminence grise on a par with President Nixon’s famous secretary of State who remained a prominent foreign policy authority after leaving office.
“Think of me as the domestic equivalent of Henry Kissinger,” Gingrich said in an interview.
Whatever his personal ambitions, Gingrich also is trying to influence a seminal debate within his party: How can Republicans parlay their hold on power into a long-lasting governing majority? By adding his voice to the debate -- through speeches, articles and media interviews -- he is moving to defend his legacy as a party-builder.
He wants the GOP to try to solve big problems and to shake off the ideological rigidity it held as a minority party. “We made two huge mistakes as a party,” Gingrich said. “We have not taken the environment seriously -- the way we should -- and we have not become a party of inclusion that has [members of minority groups] in the room all the time from Day 1.”
The former Georgia congressman talks often with Vice President Dick Cheney, a friend from their years together in the House. He also is close to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who named Gingrich to the Defense Advisory Board, which meets regularly with Rumsfeld to offer counsel.
But Gingrich is not always singing from the same hymnal as his fellow Republicans. He has warned that the GOP risks losing its majority if the overhaul of Social Security includes cuts in future benefits. That is off-message at a time when a leaked White House memo makes plain that Bush is inclined to embrace such an option.
Gingrich has criticized the administration’s handling of Iraq after it declared the end of major combat in May 2003, and he has argued that its failure to make a midcourse correction turned the 2004 presidential election into a much closer race than it needed to be.
“I am an ally, not a subordinate,” Gingrich said of his relationship with Bush. Many fellow Republicans view Gingrich with bemusement as he spouts unconventional ideas, such as paying students to take math and science. “Newt is great with grand themes and vision, but sometimes those don’t translate into daily legislative things,” said one Republican who has worked closely with him. “He is -- pick your percentage -- 70% genius and 30% flighty.”
Gingrich’s increased visibility is the latest twist in a political career with more hairpin turns than a racetrack. First elected to Congress in 1978, he was the mastermind of the “contract with America,” the 1994 campaign manifesto that helped Republicans take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich was rewarded with the speakership.
But his tenure was buffeted by controversy.
He was heavily criticized for a budget showdown with President Clinton that closed part of the government temporarily. He suffered a protracted ethics investigation into his commingling of political and charitable funds and providing incorrect information to investigators. Eventually, fellow Republican House members worked to overthrow him.
By mid-1996, some polls showed his disapproval rating had climbed over 70%, as his polarizing antics invited critics to turn him into the mean face of the Republican Party. When the 1998 elections cut the Republican majority in the House to six seats, GOP patience wore thin. Facing a mutiny, Gingrich resigned.
Controversy followed him into private life.
Many Republicans were furious when it was disclosed, in the course of a divorce from his second wife in 1999, that Gingrich had been conducting an extramarital relationship with a congressional aide even as Republicans were impeaching Clinton for lying about an affair with a White House intern.
Gingrich remained so radioactive that, a year after he resigned, some House Republicans did not want to invite him to a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Republican takeover of Congress.
Still, Gingrich did not follow the low-profile route of other cast-off House speakers like Jim Wright, who went back to Texas to teach, or Thomas S. Foley, who joined a law firm and later became an ambassador.
Instead, Gingrich carved out a private sector niche befitting such a brash public figure. He quickly staked out a think-tank base -- a typical platform for fallen politicos -- at the American Enterprise Institute. But he went on to set up a consulting firm, a public relations outfit and a policy center of his own called the Center for Health Transformation.
The center has a typically outsized ambition: changing healthcare as we know it. His post-Congress obsession is promoting the use of new technology, consumer choice and free-market principles in healthcare.
Gingrich also became a regular commentator on Fox News. He made speeches, reportedly at $50,000 a pop, around the country. He has written several books, including two Civil War novels that imagine what would have happened had the South won at Gettysburg. (Part three is in the works).
At times, his opinions carry influence.
When Bush and House leaders were having a hard time persuading conservatives to expand Medicare to include coverage for prescription drugs, Gingrich wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal endorsing the measure. He also made a personal pitch in a meeting of the Republican rank and file.
His pronouncements left some Republicans slack-jawed, but GOP strategists close to the issue called them a key part of the drive to reconcile the party’s right wing to an expansion of Medicare, which eventually became law. Now Gingrich is stepping out with a broader agenda in his new book, “Winning the Future,” which he presents as an update on the contract with America. He includes his plans for overhauling Social Security (private accounts for younger workers are key, but without tax hikes or benefit cuts) and for instilling more patriotism in public schools (teach more American history).
He wants to bring religious values into public life, and ends his book with a “Walking Tour of God in Washington D.C.,” a catalog of references to God and religion at the major monuments of the capital. That, he writes, “will end any questions you might have about America’s indebtedness to and reliance on the Creator from whom all our rights come.”
Gingrich views the book as the culmination of his career after Congress.
“I spent five years learning,” Gingrich said. “Now I can spend a lot of time teaching.”
That’s what he tried to do in a blizzard of appearances one recent day in Washington, providing a window onto the array of interests and forces he has marshaled to remake his public persona.
He spent the day in the company of his 41-year-old daughter, Kathy G. Lubbers, who heads his communications firm and had traveled from her home in Florida to help him launch the book.
Gingrich began with an early morning appearance on Fox, where -- for the first of many times that day -- he was asked whether he was going to run for president. Gingrich insisted he wanted only to promote ideas, not himself.
Next stop was the Capitol that he once dominated, where he had been invited to speak to newly elected House members. At the Capitol were reminders of the once-lofty role he played in the building. An elevator operator gave him an affectionate welcome. He huddled with a top aide to his successor as speaker, J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
But there also were reminders of his now-humbler status. Although he used to travel with a grand entourage, only his daughter, a press aide and a driver accompanied him. His balky cellphone needed to be replaced. He had worn a hole through the bottom of his shoe.
None of that mattered as he motored to a television appearance with evangelist Pat Robertson. En route, he got a senior White House advisor on the phone for a conversation, which he insisted be kept off the record. But he was not shy about detailing his other frequent contacts with administration honchos. In the course of one week, he said, he had lunch with Rumsfeld, conferred with Medicare chief Mark McClellan and met with National Security Council staffers.
Throughout the day, Lubbers received Blackberry messages from her younger sister who was in Atlanta monitoring how Gingrich’s book was selling on Amazon. “We’re No. 20!” Lubbers said.
As he bounced around the city, Gingrich was still a celebrity. A couple of British TV journalists grabbed him for an interview on the state of American politics. A driver recognized him, honked his horn and encouraged Gingrich to run for president: “ ’08! Go for it!”
Gingrich settled in for the afternoon at the heart of what one staffer called Newt World -- the offices of his Center for Health Transformation, where he spends most of his time while in Washington.
At the center’s new home, the offices were still devoid of decoration -- the walls papered with analyses of projects described in Gingrichian buzz words -- “Consumer Directed Health Care” and “Information-rich HSAs [health savings accounts].
In his office, Gingrich autographed a stack of books and reflected on his future, which he viewed brightly."There is always a next act,” Gingrich said. “In America, there are as many acts as you have the courage to face.”