These days, it’s painful talking to longtime friends and admirers of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The overwhelming view is that they hate to see what is happening to the Georgia Republican, yet all knew that his campaign would end up a train wreck.
Whether one likes or agrees with Gingrich (I like him but don’t necessarily agree with him that much), he clearly is one of the brightest, most thoughtful and engaging political figures to come along in a generation or two.
He has a thousand ideas a month, some good, some not so good, but always thought-provoking. His brain is always working, and he is the living embodiment of thinking outside the box.
Gingrich has created a unique brand: a one-man think tank, concept promoter, and intellectual provocateur. Name anyone in either party or any part of the ideological spectrum that plays the role he plays.
Yet even many who like him the most knew from the beginning that this campaign wouldn’t end well. Creativity and discipline are pretty close to mutually exclusive.
Gingrich soars off the charts on the former but can frequently stray from the latter and sometimes roams off at the worst moments.
That’s one of the reasons he is always fun to listen to. He is not like the jukebox-style politician that we so often see, punch a pair of buttons and you know exactly what they will say and how they will say it.
He has developed a great life since stepping down as speaker in 1999. There is an array of entities that make up what has commonly become known as Newt Inc.: a staff, vehicle, and platform to promote his ideas and travel around the country supporting causes he believes in and allowing him to make a ton of money.
He’s debating policy wonks one minute and Fortune 500 CEOs the next. Let’s face it: He’s built a sweet life.
Watching him with his wife, Callista, by all appearances he has a great marriage and was quite happy with his new life.
I bumped into them a few years ago at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla. After a speaking engagement elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, they were spending a weekend at the Ritz, just having a nice weekend, sitting around the pool, reading, and relaxing.
He seemed to have it all and was happier and more content than I ever recall him being as speaker.
Another time sitting over drinks at another resort, I walked away with a cocktail napkin full of book recommendations from him and ideas for my website. I have seen few political figures with the zeal and enthusiasm for life and ideas he has. He seems happiest when he is holding court about ideas, issues, and alternatives.
But Gingrich has long had a burning desire to run for president, a desire that no amount of convincing from friends could persuade him otherwise. No matter how great his life was, it seemed it would be incomplete if he didn’t at least try to become president. It simply was an itch he had to scratch.
The challenge, of course, is that he tried to marry his great post-speaker lifestyle with running for president, two things that if either is done right are absolutely irreconcilable. You can’t have great vacations, sleep most nights in your own bed, have other people deal with raising money, or speak only on lofty subjects and in the long form.
You can’t take things at your own pace and seriously run for president, no matter how tempting it might be to try.
From a lifestyle point of view, campaigning for president sucks.
If you are running for president and your life doesn’t suck, you obviously are not making a serious bid for the White House (or didn’t have much of one before).
It means very few days off, very few nights at home, hundreds of hours of dialing for dollars and begging before groups large and small for money, and countless, mindless stump speeches, saying the same thing over and over again, trying to sound earnest and engaged every single time.
Spend a day with a top-run presidential candidate and it becomes clear: It is about as unglamorous and grinding as it can be. It’s about little sleep and bad food. It’s about mindless chatter with people you would rather not be talking to. It’s about flying commercial for as long as possible so that your campaign can afford to buy voter lists of previous Iowa caucus attendees.
It is about doing what you have to do, not cherry-picking the events that sound fun or intellectually challenging.
In short, Gingrich wanted to have his cake and eat it too—run for president while keeping his life interesting and maintaining a high quality of life. You can’t do that.
His senior staff tried an intervention and failed. They were committing themselves to working on a serious campaign and saw that he wasn’t.
Talking with those who know Gingrich well and care a great deal for him, it is clear they are not thinking about whether his campaign has any chance or not. Rather, they wonder to what extent will he damage the unique brand he has become, that once this campaign is over, will the brand be tarnished by an embarrassing run that doesn’t ever get past the starting gates?
It is about him coming to terms with reality and then developing an exit strategy—probably a self-effacing one—that gets him back as close as possible to where he was before this career detour took place.
Gingrich is a proud guy. Where this is going next, if he continues, won’t be pretty.
This article appears in the June 14, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.