In the mid-'90s, when I was reporting for the Marietta Daily Journal, I tagged along with a small group of Cobb County mayors as they gathered at a local restaurant for annual face time with their district congressman. Newt Gingrich was polite but hardly chummy as he made vague promises to have his staff check into their parochial concerns and follow up on the status of various federal grants. I remember thinking he seemed only superficially engaged in the conversation, as if there were other places he'd rather be.
Seeing as Gingrich also happened to be Speaker of the U.S. House, that was likely a good guess. But even as far back as the late '70s, when Gingrich was making the jump from Carrollton history professor to congressman, his interest and focus was on national policy, not local issues. And when he moved to Marietta in 1990, after being gerrymandered out of his 6th District by a Democratically controlled state Legislature, he warned local GOP officials that they should expect to see more of him on their TVs than around town.
Conservatives often cite Gingrich as a favorite son of his adopted state. A military brat born in Pennsylvania, he led an itinerant childhood, eventually attending high school in Columbus, but there's little about him that's uniquely Georgian. It's simply not possible to picture him, say, clearing brush in west Cobb, toting a shotgun on a quail-hunting excursion, or tending cows like ex-Gov. Roy Barnes.
That's one of the peculiarities about Gingrich's ascendance as the seeming GOP front-runner: He's a scholar and a self-described idea guy — someone who appears most at home in the corridors of power in Washington or arguing a point on a Sunday morning news show — in a party whose base tends to favor rustic, know-nothing authenticity of the kind represented by Rick Perry and Sarah Palin.
But perhaps GOP voters are willing to overlook his inside-the-Beltway elitism — that's Dr. Gingrich to you — his vast storage of wonkish knowledge, and even his palpable condescension toward the entire primary process because they like his pugnacity and much-vaunted conservative credentials. The two go hand-in-hand.
Beyond his formidable debating skills, Gingrich has always been seen as a fighter, or at least a warrior for partisan causes. Along with the late campaign hit man Lee Atwater, Gingrich is a father of wedge politics and arguably the most influential architect of the modern GOP. Back from when he was House Minority Whip in the late '80s, Gingrich the political tactician showed Republicans that they could energize the base and win elections by demonizing liberals and viciously tearing down Democratic opponents.
Therein lies another irony. When first running for Congress, he positioned himself as the progressive technocrat alternative to a conservative Democratic incumbent. And while his party has adopted a government-is-bad mantra, Gingrich clearly believes he has the experience and know-how to make the system work.
Gingrich has sometimes given lip service to his party's anti-gay marriage, xenophobic leanings, but his values are much closer to those of Mitt Romney than Michele Bachmann. On social issues such as abortion, he's more libertarian than right-wing ideologue. When then-Gov. Zell Miller first proposed removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, Gingrich initially voiced support for an idea long overdue. He has publicly favored a universal mandate for health insurance. He believes (believed?) global warming is a problem. And last month, he surprised debate listeners by arguing, reasonably, that illegal immigrant families who've lived productively in the U.S. for years shouldn't be turned out of their homes.
In fact, as a longtime advocate of intellectual capital, Gingrich has said the country should be actively recruiting talent from overseas. And yet, just this week, in hopes of winning the vital North Carolina primary, Gingrich signed a pledge to complete the wall along the Mexican border at a cost of untold billions. He's backtracked or reversed positions on dozens of issues over the years, fueling criticism that he's an especially cynical political opportunist, and giving lie to the notion that he has few core values beyond his own ambition.
But Gingrich's main strength is as a master strategist. (The notion that his poll surge is a happy accident, best exemplified by the very funny Salon piece painting Gingrich as a political Max Bialystock, is a convenient way to ignore that no political pundit saw this coming.) His campaign plan, shared with colleagues months ago, to hang back while his less-polished primary opponents imploded, has worked well. And he privately explains his political flip-flopping with the glib aphorism that "you can't lead from behind": Once you determine which way your constituents are headed, you make whatever course corrections are necessary to get out in front of the crowd.
Even fellow Republicans who take Gingrich's sincerity on many subjects with a grain of salt admire his intellect and ability to turn the issues of the day to his political advantage. They realize that his foremost achievement, 1994's Congress-winning Contract With America, was more the product of relentless polling and marketing strategy than of heartfelt conservative belief, but they appreciate his ability to win.
Will Gingrich win the GOP nomination? Barring more damaging revelations about dodgy business dealings along the lines of his Fannie Mae consulting gig, most pundits now seem to think he can outlast the field and outpoll Romney.
Whatever your feelings about the former House speaker, the prospect of a series of Obama/Gingrich debates should be pretty tantalizing. Against a brainy president who's disappointed many liberals with his compromises and middle-of-the-road policies would be a big-government centrist intellectual who's unconvincing touting his own party's conservative platform of God, guns, and family values.
And, strange as it sounds, it would probably be your best chance to see the "real Newt Gingrich": tactician, partisan bomb-thrower, historian, pragmatist, political triangulator, egotist, rhetorical loose cannon.
Are these the qualities you'd want in a president? That's another question altogether.