It's not too late for a once (and future?) leader

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

I recall dimly and perhaps inaccurately a Russian tale about a bandit chief who led his cavalry so well against government forces that the Czar sued for peace. As part of the deal, the chief rode lightly across plains and rivers to Moscow, where he received a gorgeous gift: a suit of armor encrusted with jewels. The delighted bandit wore it going home-until, crossing one of those rivers, he fell off his horse and drowned.

I recall much better a recent bandit chief, Newt Gingrich. Because we shared some ideas about welfare reform, he and I were sitting across from each other in a Washington restaurant late one evening in 1995, at the height of his influence. I asked him how I could pray for him, and he said, "the physical things"-strength to go through 18 hours a day of running around from meeting to meeting and speech to speech, with any misstatement becoming instant fodder for reporters who truly were out to get him.

Last month many pundits, first promoting and then exulting at Newt's exit from the speakership, emphasized the Gingrich weaknesses. He sometimes talked loosely, so that media foes could pull out damaging soundbites. He sometimes got tired and then showed irritation that allowed reporters to portray him as childish. Given an opportunity for a lifetime of economic security, he grabbed at a Rupert Murdoch book deal that obviously created ethical concerns.

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But what I saw in person in 1995 and 1996 were the Gingrich strengths. His grasp of Western civilization and American history is extraordinary. When he encounters good ideas he does not reconnoiter them suspiciously, as Gen. George McClellan did the Confederate lines in 1862, but pounces on them, tears them apart, and then melds many of them brilliantly with his own. I once watched from backstage as he worked a conservative Mississippi crowd into exuberance not by pandering, nor by reciting rap doggerel, but through a rare marriage of intellectual vim and political vigor.

So what went wrong? Why did many of those conservatives last month want him out? Some Republican congressmen had personal beefs with him, but two larger, interrelated reasons stand out.

First, the pre-1996 Newt was the only politician I knew who did not kiss up to liberal journalists but told them to their face that they were not only scribes but Pharisees. Somewhere along the line, maybe after the end-of-1995 government shutdown, Newt decided that he could not fight successfully the liberal full-court press. He moved away from his conservative banditry and lost a lot of conservative support in return for slightly less sadistic coverage-although whenever it counted, the Washington wizards got out their long knives once again.

Second, I once thought the Speaker could become a greater speaker, another Patrick Henry-but it turned out that Newt lacked a rock-solid biblical base. Without it all his knowledge of Western civilization could not keep him from succumbing to Clinton and media bullying. Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, facing enormous pressure, once almost gave in, but then stopped, listened to the church bells ringing, and announced that he would not "bow down to the golden calf." Newt, I suspect, did not hear tiny church bells in his brain, and cultural noise today often makes the larger, external ones hard to hear.

It's not too late for Newt to change and be changed. Last month, when he spared his party and his nation new trouble by quickly giving up his office (would that Bill Clinton might also act honorably!), Newsweek displayed its hate speech by putting Newt's picture on the cover and crowing, "The Loser." But maybe this recent loss will turn into great gain. Maybe he won't need as much prayer for "the physical things" as he did in1995-and maybe he will realize that the deeper need is prayer for the spiritual things.

I'm praying that God's grace will touch him directly and help him to avoid bitterness. He has been treated unfairly by the press and by many among the politically ambitious, and the natural tendency of all of us is to treasure up grievances and repay treachery with insult. But if the Lord blesses Newt Gingrich he could still become a Patrick Henry, writing and speaking words that inspire minds and make hearts soar. At age 55, Newt still has time to help others and then lead others. He will need not the Washington armor that only curtails agility, but the whole armor of God.


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