Cover Story

Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong

"Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong" Continued...

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

He rushes in where dainty politicians fear to tread. For example, Gingrich doesn't think Islam should be called a religion of peace, because "it's a complex historical movement [with] elements that are loving and elements that are horrible." We need to "have an honest conversation" about Islam, and some of what occurs now in the United States is like "trying to describe Nazis without saying they're German."

On compassionate conservatism, Gingrich says that "money should go to the people to be helped, not to the bureaucracy." He praises Chuck Colson's faith-based prison work and also innovative schools such as the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Academies that have grown up in many cities: "Why is it that I'm paying for a failed bureaucracy rather than for KIPPs?"

Wherever Gingrich speaks, people not only listen but think. Late last month he spoke in San Antonio to several thousand contractors at the annual meeting of the Associated General Contractors of America. He spoke about the importance of health-care reimbursement accounts in bringing about market-based health care that could reduce costs by 20 percent to 40 percent. He spoke about the need for government agencies to get up-to-speed technologically. The contractors gave him a standing ovation.

He revved up audiences similarly in the mid-'90s as he led the drive for welfare reform, which many observers still call the major achievement of 12 years of GOP congressional rule. He boldly embraced new ideas and moved Republicans from decades of unsuccessful sniping about "welfare queens" toward a stress on how welfare hurt poor families by destroying what was left of parental self-esteem and teaching children to see dependency as a way of life rather than an emergency response.

Gingrich is almost a walking proof of the importance of understanding biblical "calling" or "vocation." The biblical idea is that God, in His kind providence, has given each person the talent and personality to succeed at some occupations and not at others. Think of it like a basketball team: An outstanding 2-guard, who can make a good percentage of three-point shots, might fail as a point guard whose job it is to run the entire offense.

Gingrich is a great shooting guard, and he also crashes the boards at times and steals the ball from opponents. But when he was a point guard as speaker of the House, Bill Clinton not only stole the ball from him but stole his lunch-and at halftime, Gingrich's own teammates said he had to go. Current House minority leader John Boehner, a Gingrich ally during the 1994 Republican Revolution, said that under Gingrich "there was no design. . . . He'd make these giant pronouncements, and everybody would go, 'Huh?'"

The public-affairs events from 1995 through 1998, and not the private affair that went on throughout the period, are the major concern of some of Gingrich's close associates from that era-except that several see the adultery as an indication of reckless self-indulgence. The question that occupies them is whether an apparently happy remarriage has exorcised what one called "a set of [psychological] demons that he was unable to bring under control."

Former "Newtoids" would typically speak to WORLD only if I identified them as "former close advisors": They cited past loyalties and also concerns about future retribution from a powerful leader. The one who would speak on the record is Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman from 1981 to 1993 and one of Gingrich's closest allies during that period. Weber is now the managing partner of a Washington lobbying office.

Weber said that Gingrich "thinks more deeply of the changes taking place than anybody I know in politics. [He] operates at several levels of depth greater than most politicians. Newt should never not be a major part of the national discussion." But Weber also observed that Gingrich's "negative image is not undeserved. He has a tendency to vilify his opposition. Words roll off his tongue-'corrupt, sick'-and stand in the way of his ever becoming a unifying leader."

Weber said that Gingrich was consistent strategically in his big vision but often changed tactics: "He's not an intellectual butterfly, [yet] at a tactical level people might be frustrated" as Gingrich zigs and zags to arrive at a certain point. But another former close advisor said that while Gingrich's "ideas are better than anyone else's" and "his capacity to grasp complexities is superb," he has "a deep insecurity, a lack of self-worth."

A third former close advisor stipulated that he was "not focused on marital infidelity" except as one indication that Gingrich "was not able to put aside his ego out of a sense of higher purpose or principle." He said, "It breaks my heart to say this, because Newt has a view of the world closest to mine, [but] is this the person I want across the table from Putin?"

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