On Wednesday, May 2, in Washington, Newt Gingrich will bury a campaign that has been dead so long it’s begun to smell. It’s tempting to view the narrative arc of Gingrich’s past 90 days as a tragedy: the wily antihero who rose from the ashes (twice!), only to fall victim to his own hubris. “Newt, there’s still time, man!” President Obama jeered at his erstwhile rival Saturday night. Obama isn’t the only one snickering.
The press corps is long gone. Many Republicans mock Gingrich’s campaign as a played-out publicity tour, except one that cost taxpayers $40,000 per day in Secret Service protection. Gingrich’s campaign is more than $4 million in debt. His relationship with Fox News, his former employer, is bullet riddled, and his influence-peddling empire is in tatters. Having hung around too long, the prevailing wisdom suggests, Gingrich may have burned all his bridges.
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But it’s worth remembering that Washington has written Newt’s political obituary many times before — and it’s always been premature. In 1999, a little more than four years after orchestrating a Republican revolution in the House, Gingrich slunk out of Congress as a cautionary tale. His legacy was scarred by ethics allegations, midterm-election losses and an imperious leadership style that prompted an abortive coup. His career in shambles, Gingrich went on to a successful second act. He became a highly paid speaker, wrote more than two dozen books, starred on Fox News and established a network of consultancies that netted him some $100 million over the ensuing decade. From his perch in posh McLean, Va., Gingrich forged a postpolitical career that was by some metrics as successful as his stint on Capitol Hill.
It won’t be easy, of course, to slip back into that same comfortable life. The hefty fees he raked in from the likes of Freddie Mac may not be coming again. His for-profit advocacy organization, the Gingrich Group, has filed for bankruptcy, while his nonprofit enterprise, American Solutions for Winning the Future, shut down last year. And he muddied his path back to a lucrative commentator position at Fox News by charging that the network had been carrying water for Mitt Romney. Fox executives bristled at the broadside. “This is nothing more than Newt auditioning for a windfall of a gig at CNN,” the network said. “That’s the kind of man he is. Not to mention he’s still bitter over the termination of his contributor contract.”
Maybe so. But close associates say Gingrich’s rhetorical gifts and star power will smooth his landing after a bumpy campaign. “Newt’s not like other people,” says his former press secretary Rich Galen, who predicts Gingrich will nab a TV slot and remain a sought-after speaker. “When he left the Congress in 1999, people said that was the last we’d ever hear of him … If nothing else, Newt is resilient. He’ll be just fine.”
“Newt has an inexplicable ability to catch the wave that nobody sees coming,” says Rick Tyler, a longtime Gingrich aide who left the campaign last summer when Gingrich blew off campaigning to gallivant in the Greek isles, then returned to help run his allied super PAC. “He was able to parlay his speakership into celebrity very adroitly … Other than former Presidents, I don’t know anyone who’s been able to stay in the news like Newt has.” As a bold-faced brand, Gingrich can go back to commanding top-dollar fees on the lecture circuit, Tyler says, and his knack for channeling the conservative id will coax Fox News into forgetting his slings. “He bit at Fox, and Roger [Ailes] bit back,” Tyler says of the tiff. “That’s just the way it goes. I don’t think it will have any effect on whether he gets a contract. Ultimately Roger is concerned with how you rate … [Gingrich] is a gifted communicator, people like to hear him, and he is a celebrity.”
As Gingrich announces the end of his presidential candidacy this week, his legacy is tarnished, even if his Q rating isn’t. Though he purported to run a campaign of ideas, his economic plan mostly mirrored Republican orthodoxy, his out-of-the-box schemes (lunar colonies, child janitors) were lampooned, and at times he resorted to fanning the unfounded fears of the electorate, such as when he darkly hinted Obama was to blame for the lingering misconception that the President is a closet Muslim. Such suggestions sparked condemnation from the “elite media.” But they epitomized why Gingrich found fervent support among the factions of the base who believe he is the party’s most articulate voice for conservative principles.
In some ways, the failed presidential bid — and the attention it commanded — has heightened Gingrich’s ability to trade on his name. “You can do very well by running for President,” Republican strategist Scott Reed told ABC News last year, by way of explaining Gingrich’s motivation. “You don’t always have to win.” Gingrich didn’t. But that’s no reason to count him out of the game.