Gingrich Writes Act 2 of His Political Life

January 16, 2005|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — 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."

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