In the end, the media all came out to see him one more time. It was the least we could do after everything he’d given us this past year. Say what you will about Newton Leroy Gingrich (and I’ve said plenty), the man gives great quote.
For more than a week, we had known it was happening--that it had to happen. Gingrich had in fact already issued a video farewell to his supporters on Tuesday, so Wednesday afternoon’s speech was a mere formality. Still, I’m not sure we were adequately prepared. Despite the sea of cameras on hand, it is hard to accurately convey the atmosphere of the live event.
Maybe this will help: Think back to when Hillary bowed out of the Democratic race in 2008: the soaring rhetoric, the throngs of fans, the weepy-eyed Chelsea, the raw emotion of the evening.
This was nothing like that.
Newt left this race much the way he ran it: playing to a pack of journalists who had a hard time believing he was ever serious about a presidential campaign, yet still could not bring themselves to look away.
In the hour leading up to the speaker’s scheduled appearance, people gradually trickled into the small event room on the mezzanine level of the Arlington, Va., Hilton. By the time the candidate showed up on the tiny makeshift stage shortly after 3 p.m., the 50 or so chairs, arranged in neat rows, had been filled, cameramen squatted in the aisles, and young staffers jostled for position around the room’s perimeter.
Feeling sentimental, I had brought along my commemorative reporter’s notebook from the January debate in Myrtle Beach, the one where Newt took out after moderator Juan Williams. Just a few days later, South Carolina conservatives had given Gingrich the win, boosting him to the height of his influence and popularity. That had been Newt’s moment.
In the wake of that golden victory, the former speaker promptly went on to lose every primary, bury his campaign in debt, and get himself bitten by a penguin.
No matter: the Newt who took the podium Wednesday, Callista by his side, children and grandchildren fanned out behind him, was a man neither bowed nor cowed. Oh sure, in deference to the occasion he dialed back the self-righteousness a bit. The self-aggrandizement, however, flowed as thick as ever.
After thanking the usual suspects, Newt, his tie a raging purple and his white mane lustrous, launched into a review of his achievements as an “active citizen” over the past several decades: conservative organizing, balanced budgets, welfare reform, Republican majorities, the invention of C-SPAN, two dozen books, seven documentaries, and on and on and on. And on.
Yet this list paled in comparison to the laundry list Newt laid out for his future. Working to defeat Obama will be part of it, of course. But, as he lectured the assembled audience, the presidential election “just starts the dance.”
Newt is thinking bigger, much bigger. Going forward, the speaker intends to tackle challenges ranging from brain research to energy independence, radical Islam to health care, deficit reduction to congressional reform. And of course, he’s sticking by that whole moon-colony plan. “Even though,” he joked, “my wife has pointed out to me approximately 219 times, give or take three, that the moon colony was not my most clever comment of this campaign.”
In other words, Newt will go right on being Newt.
Of course, how much people will listen to all his big ideas remains to be seen. Newt didn’t merely get his butt soundly kicked in this campaign. He overstayed both his usefulness and his welcome, and played with what many of his own team came to regard as unnecessary roughness. Before he can help restore American greatness, the speaker may first need to repair his own reputation and relationships.
Shortly before Newt took the podium, press secretary R.C. Hammond, popped out to bellow at the room, “Two minutes! Last warning!”
From the back of the cramped and crowded room, one journalistic wit fired back: “Ever!”