And there he was, shaking my hand. I looked him in the eye. He looked me back. I don’t think he was very impressed.
The man gripping my hand Wednesday was a legend. Some people hate him. Some people love him. But he was still Newt Gingrich, in the flesh, trademark white mop and all.
The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives carried himself with a confidence indifferent to my opinion. But he smiled, and in the smile I could see a solid half-century of handling — handling the economy, handling to his own party members, handling heads of state, dissenters, reporters like me.
I don’t agree with his politics, not since the Republican Party abandoned the ones that count in favor of fear-mongering and social discrimination. But before our handshake ended I realized I was no match for “Hi. I’m Newt.”
Here was a man who authored the Contract with America, was Time magazine’s Man of the Year, bullied Ronald Reagan’s campaign as a freshman Congressman, led the movement that end with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, browbeat the Republican machine into order, and stood third in order for presidential succession.
Here was a man I respected on so many fiscal issues: Limiting the size of government, eliminating waste, cutting taxes, implementing tort reform, fixing the welfare system, giving tax credits for children, repealing the marriage tax, instituting “loser pays” laws. These were good ideas — it’s just too bad that spending under the provisions of the Contract with America increased spending 13 percent.
Here was the man who ran roughshod over House rules, described as “reckless” by Ethics Committee investigators, who was sanctioned and eventually was forced to resign from one of the nation’s most powerful posts by a cabal of his own Republicans.
And here was a man who got down to business as he took a seat in front of some dozen reporters and photographers, stumping for Sen. John McCain while mocking President George W. Bush.
Gingrich’s agenda for the night was to lecture at Oberlin College — a liberal stronghold in a liberal county in the battleground state of Ohio. During a 20-minute press window before the lecture, he told me how glad he was that the Bush-backed Paulson plan for a $700 billion banking industry bail-out was on the rocks.
(I suppose he told all the reporters this, not just me. If you want to count those other guys, go ahead.)
He railed at Sen. Barack Obama for having the solid brass cajones — how dare he! — to want to move ahead with Friday’s presidential debate at the University of Mississippi. He suggested that the debate should play second chair to the banking crisis, which McCain had “rushed to Washington” to solve.
Except that McCain didn’t rush to Washington — he rushed to CBS News to talk to Katie Couric about it. Nothing like a little face time.
Gingrich praised Obama as being the”best political speaker since Ronald Reagan” and “tactically the best politician in the country today.” But coupled with the compliments was a bizarre accusation that I can’t fathom; the former speaker’s most incisive declaration against Obama was his summer trip to Germany, where Obama spoke to a crowd of 200,000.
The problem? Obama told the Germans he was a “citizen of the world.” Gingrich said Obama should know better — he’s a citizen of the United States, not the world.
With respect, I think Gingrich needs to learn about subsets. The U.S. is part of the world, and any responsible leader should consider the impact his actions have on the world stage. That’s something that Bush has not done in all his arrogance over the past eight years; it’s a subtlety that employed by Obama could restore America’s global credibility and reverse our image as a nation of cowboys.
“Do you really want someone as president who thinks he’s a citizen of the world?” Gingrich asked an audience of 1,200 later in the evening.
In the midst of that crowd, I lost my journalistic cool for a moment. Normally, I keep my mouth clamped shut and my pen scribbling while reporting. But this time an involuntary and slightly loud “yes” jumped past my lips.
But “Hi. I’m Newt” didn’t share that opinion. In his lecture later in the evening, he harped again at Obama’s “horrid” claim that the U.S. is part of a larger picture. The complaints didn’t end there, though. He said Obama should never have gone to Germany — that the presidential campaign should stay in America since it will be decided by Americans. He said it was presumptuous for Obama to tour as though he were already president and not simply a senator.
I disagree. I want a president who earns respect, who can build a real Coalition of the WIlling with words instead of weapons. Allies are only allies if you hold their hearts and minds — which is something lacking in the so-called Coalition in Iraq. The same Iraq where Gingrich’s candidate wants to stay as an occupying force for the next century.
I walked away from the lecture with certain phrases from the departing crowd ringing in my ears: They were talking about Gingrich’s succinct delivery, his obviously masterful analysis of the political scene. They were saying how here was a Republican whose mind was sharp and whose experience was to be lauded.
But they were saying he was still wrong. Dead wrong.