Thirty-six years ago, the director of the liberal Republican House caucus urged me to see a promising young congressional candidate from Georgia; reluctantly, I did.
That was Newt Gingrich. He didn’t disappoint. Bright, energetic, effusive, he spent a couple of hours extolling the need to transform his party, embracing the anti-Richard Nixon progressive Republican governor of Virginia, Linwood Holton, as a role model and civil rights as a central cause.
It took him two more elections to finally prevail. It wasn’t much longer before Holton and civil rights were in his rear-view mirror.
This flashed back as the remarkably durable Gingrich leads the protests against building a Muslim cultural center and place of worship two blocks from the site where terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. On Fox News, where the former House speaker is a contributor, and with more than a dozen postings on Twitter, he has savaged the project to erect a mosque near Ground Zero.
Gingrich, 67, says it is analogous to allowing the Nazis to put a sign next to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington; the New York imam leading the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, Gingrich charges, is a “radical Islamist.”
This is a perfect issue for Gingrich’s latest cause: religion, a commitment to God and country. That in turn is a centerpiece of a plan to run for president. His most recent book, “To Save America,” is subtitled “Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.”
‘Threat to America’
Secular politicians, led by President Barack Obama and the current House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, Gingrich charges, want to take God and religion out of the public square, are corrosively corrupt and oppose American values such as the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. This is no idle fear, Gingrich warns in his book: “The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.”
In his anti-mosque crusade and other critiques, Gingrich wraps himself in spirituality, castigating the morals and values of opponents. As in his long-ago celebration of civil rights, the clever Georgia Republican counts on a short attention span.
For this self-styled morality cop is on his third marriage, no big deal by itself. Except he handed his first wife -- his high school geometry teacher -- her walking papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.
Two decades later, he said sayonara to his second wife not long after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. During that marriage, he carried on an affair with a junior House staffer even as he served as speaker while impeaching President Bill Clinton for lying about sex. The staffer is now his third wife.
In a profile in the latest issue of Esquire magazine, with which Gingrich cooperated, the second wife, Marianne, says, “He believes that what he says in public and how he lives don’t have to be connected.”
Gingrich has played the religious card before. Fifteen years ago, at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, he said the core of America’s travails was a lost “personal relationship with God.” In response to a question from a young Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter -- Mike Allen, now an influential Washington journalist -- he admitted he seldom attended services because redistricting by Democrats had placed his church outside his congressional district.
The man who assails Democrats’ ethics and the White House’s “corrupt, Chicago-style political machine” is the only speaker of the House to be officially sanctioned by his colleagues. He was ordered to pay a record $300,000 penalty after the House ethics committee determined he had deceived investigators and used tax-exempt funds he had raised for disadvantaged kids for political purposes.
He has long had a penchant for linking opponents with Hitler or Nazis. In the 1980s, he likened a proposal on Nicaragua by Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton of Indiana to the horrors of Auschwitz; he said the Democrats’ actions in a recount of an inconclusive Indiana House race reminded him of the dictum by the German Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller that the failure of his countrymen to speak out when Hitler went after the Jews and other groups meant that “when the Nazis came for me, there was no one left to speak up.”
New York Imam
Gingrich, usually interesting as well as provocative, reinvents facts and himself. The imam of the proposed New York mosque isn’t the radical he describes; Rauf is a harsh critic of Islamic extremists, an apostle of inter-faith dialogue and was a consultant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Gingrich regales party activists and younger journalists with tales of his critical role in the economic successes of the 1990s. The realities: the 1993 budget measure, with tax hikes, which he opposed, contributed more to deficit reduction than any deals he negotiated during his four years as speaker; the overhaul of welfare was about 80 percent the doing of President Clinton, who consistently rolled the hapless Gingrich, a major factor in the Republican move to oust their speaker after the 1998 elections.
Still, he is a remarkable survivor. Periodically, he eschews vitriol and embraces someone across the political aisle, as he did with Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, on school reform. He converted to Catholicism last year, petitioned to annul his marriage and several bishops showed up for his baptism. Shortly after, he lambasted the University of Notre Dame for giving the president of the United States an honorary degree.
He knows how to stay in the public limelight he passionately craves. His views, on subjects ranging from civil rights to the New York cultural center, are situational. He’d love to be president because he’d love the attention. He is unlikely to run. Over more than three decades, unlike any other national aspirant, Gingrich has never run for an office outside of a small congressional district: He cannot take a political frisk.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)