Brief Lives April 2006

Gingrich's Long Game

The former speaker of the House is looking for a second act. Will he get it?

At first you call him "Mr. Gingrich." But no one else does. The handlers and the well-wishers and the television hosts call him "the speaker" or "Mr. Speaker." As in, "Has the speaker had his makeup yet?" Or, "Mr. Speaker, you probably don't remember me, but ..." Or, "Mr. Speaker, welcome back to the show." It's like a judgeship, or the presidency: once seized, the title is good for life.

Everyone in Washington, though, calls him "Newt." His aide calls him Newt. His Web site is newt.org, his e-mail address is newt@newt.org, and his e-mails announce things like "Newt's on The O'Reilly Factor tonight!" When you follow him into the bowels of Fox News in New York, where there are six twentysomethings to a cubicle and all of the producers want him on their show, the first person to catch sight of him shouts gleefully, "Give 'em hell, Newt!"

So you call him Newt—and, like his old rival Hillary, he needs no other introduction, even though it's been nearly eight years since the coup that ended his Republican Revolution. Since then, Newt has been doing business, the people's and his own, in the way of many former politicians—in his own case, overseeing the Center for Health Transformation, a Washington-based health-care coalition for companies interested in Washington-style networking; joining other ex-pols like Gary Hart and George Mitchell to study national- security policy and United Nations reform; and finding time to co-author an alternative-history trilogy about a Southern victory at Gettysburg and its aftermath, while posting enough reviews on Amazon—139 at last count—to qualify as a "Top 1000 reviewer."

He's gone a little more to fat: never svelte, his body now is made for television, where the chest-up camera angles conceal the stomach that, like his reputation, precedes him into every room. And he's mellowed, if you believe the press he gets these days—making nice with Hillary, talking up bipartisanship, criticizing Republican excess.

But he's more an exile than a retiree: his Web site resembles an ideas lab for a shadow government, brimming with policy proposals and white papers, and he's ubiquitous on the talk-show circuit, where the Abramoff scandal has brought his theme of congressional corruption round again, this time with his own party (and his old GOP rival Tom DeLay) in the crosshairs. And he has a book out, Winning the Future, that reads like a campaign manifesto, complete with—did you ever doubt it?—a "21st Century Contract With America."

He gets around, too. When you catch up with him on a December morning in Manhattan, he's just flown in from Nashville, and he'll be leaving for Providence immediately after dinner, driving late into the night for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast on health-care policy with Rhode Island's governor, Donald Carcieri, and one of its representatives, Patrick Kennedy. In the intervening twelve hours, there will be a lunchtime meeting with The Wall Street Journals editorial board and a dinner with Pfizer executives—and between these events you'll interview him, and so will Face the Nation, and Fox's Neil Cavuto, and finally Charlie Rose. In each of these conversations, he will wave off questions about 2008, but with the Cheshire Cat coyness of someone who really wants to run.

He insists, of course, that he's content as a private citizen. "If I never achieve public office again," he tells you, "I will have had an amazing life." At the time, you believe him, up to a point. But you don't believe him later, when he tells Rose that he would prefer not to run for president, and that "you can't be both a carrier of big ideas and a carrier of personal ambition." Because surely if anyone has spent his life disproving that maxim, it's Newt Gingrich.

Before The WSJ and CBS and Fox and PBS, there is NYU, Newt's first stop in the city. Here he's the one doing the interviewing, talking with a professor of public administration named Dennis Smith about CompStat, the computerized system that helped revolutionize New York's crime fighting during the 1990s. This is Newt's ideal environment, perhaps: the PowerPoint presentation and the fast-talking professor, the mix of management-speak and detailed data. And CompStat provides a perfect Newt narrative: a triumph of good government over bad bureaucracy; a lesson that, with the right flowcharts and the right incentives and the right technology, anything is possible.

Before CompStat, few NYC precincts had computers. Crime data was sent to headquarters to be analyzed, and wasn't returned for months. The post of precinct commander, meanwhile, was either a stepping-stone or a sinecure. With CompStat, data was analyzed in real time; precincts could deploy personnel based on the most up-to-date information; commanders were called to account—and crime fell, and fell, and fell, until the ungovernable city was the safest big city in the nation.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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