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.
This is a story, and a principle—the benefits of localizing government, and of building accountability and incentives into it, and of dragging it, kicking and screaming if need be, into the Information Age—that Newt carries with him into nearly every encounter and address. Most politicians have a stump speech; Newt has a handout and a reading list (it includes Peter Drucker's Effective Executive and Michael Lewis's Moneyball). Most politicians talk about which programs they want to expand and which they want to cut; Newt talks about Wal-Mart and Travelocity, FedEx and self-service gas stations. And with every topic he takes up, he circles back to the idea that our government doesn't work anymore, that it can't work, that it's as outdated as a nineteenth-century clerk "dipping his pen into an inkwell."